Quantcast
Health
Kerdkanno / Shutterstock

Essential Oils: 7 Common Questions Answered

By Brian Barth

Synthetic fragrances are out, aromatherapy is in. From beauty products to insect repellent to room diffusers, folks are gravitating toward fragrances made by nature—not the lab. But what exactly are these quasi-mystical substances called essential oils? Are they farmed or foraged? What part of the plant do they come from? Can I produce my own? Here, we answer the seven most common questions we get about essential oils.


1. What are essential oils?

Essential oils are aromatic compounds found in many plants. In chemistry jargon, they're considered "volatile organic compounds." Volatility, in this case, meaning that they readily convert from a liquid to a vapor form at room temperature. In other words, what we're smelling are tiny molecules of vaporized oil that are lighter than air, which allows them to drift into our nose and lodge in our olfactory receptors.

It's been found that the smell of different essential oils can alter brain chemistry in ways that impacts our emotional and mental state, hence their therapeutic potential. Essential oils are also readily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin or stomach, creating a physiological effect with potential medical applications.

NOTE: It is generally unsafe to ingest pure essential oils or apply them directly to the skin. They must first be highly diluted. Never use pure essential oils in any way other than that which is indicated on the product label. If you have any questions or concerns, it's best to discuss with your doctor prior to use.

2. What is the purpose of an essential oil in nature?

Plants produce essential oils for a variety of reason: to attract pollinators, make themselves unpalatable to insects and animals, ward off disease or even make the soil around them toxic to other plants with which they would compete for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. Depending on their biological purpose, essential oils may be concentrated in flowers, leaves, roots or bark.

3. How are essential oils extracted from plants?

There are several methods. One of the oldest, and still the most common, is steam distillation. In this method, hot steam is forced through the plant material and then collected in a condensation device that causes the vapor to return to a liquid. In ancient times, a technique called enfleurage was also used, particularly for delicate floral oils like rose: the petals were covered in animal fat, which absorbed the essential oil; alcohol was then used to as a solvent to extract the essential oils from the fat. In modern times, essential oils are often extracted in a high-pressure system using liquid carbon dioxide, or with chemical solvents, such as hexane and acetone.

4. Where are they produced?

The U.S., India, China, France and Brazil are the world's top five essential oil producers. However, there are some individual oils that are typically produced in only a handful of countries, depending on where the species grows best and other factors, such as local labor costs.

For example, frankincense and myrrh oil, which both come from the bark of desert trees, are produced in the Middle Eastern and North African countries where the trees grow wild. Ylang ylang comes from the flowers of a tropical tree found in the islands of the South Pacific. Southern France traditionally produced much of the world's rose oil, but the high cost of land and labor in this region has shifted the majority of rose oil production to Turkey and Bulgaria. Essential oils produced on a commercial scale in the U.S. include peppermint (Pacific Northwest), cedar (Texas) and various citrus oils (Florida).

5. Should I consider growing crops for essential oil production?

Probably not, unless you're willing to do it on an industrial scale or live in a country with cheap labor—it takes enormous quantities of plant material, often picked by hand, to make a small quantity of oil and profit margins are notoriously thin. One exception is if you are going to produce value-added products using essential oils, such as soaps and beauty products. In that case, only small quantities of oil are needed, requiring perhaps just a few acres of land. A number of lavender farms in North America have found success with this model.

6. Can I make my own essential oils at home?

Yes, but you will need an essential oil "still" for distillation—similar, but not quite the same, as a still for alcohol—which are not widely available. A few manufacturers offer them online, starting at about $400, or you should try watching eBay for a deal. Many of the essential oils found in stores come from common garden plants, including lavender, oregano, peppermint, basil, clary sage, lemon balm, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, thyme, yarrow and chamomile. Depending on the species, you may need anywhere from a single plant to a quarter-acre planting in order to produce a small vial of oil. Plant material for some oils may also be foraged from nearby forests, including Eucalyptus, spruce, cedar, cypress, fir and pine.

7. As a consumer, how do I identify good quality essential oils?

Unfortunately, quality claims on essential oil products are not well-regulated and should be treated largely as marketing material. If a pleasant fragrance is all you are after, simply use your own nose as a guide. Therapeutic grade essential oils, however (those used by aromatherapists), are virtually impossible to assess without special training and scientific equipment.

Why is it so complicated? The same species grown in different soils, at different altitudes, harvested in different ways, and extracted with different methods will produce oils with significantly different chemical compositions, some of which are much more desirable than others for therapeutic use. Reputable essential oil purveyors only sell oils that have been analyzed for optimum chemistry. Many of these companies are listed on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website.

Testing also assures that the product is not contaminated with pesticide residue or other adulterants, whether from chemical solvents used in the extraction process or low-grade oil that has been used to "cut" an expensive oil to make it cheaper. For example, 10 milliliters of steam-distilled rose oil should cost about $500—because of the enormous number of rose petals required to produce it—but 10 milliliters of rose-scented geranium oil, produced in copious quantities from the leaves of an easily grown plant, retails for around $25. Both smell nice, but have very different aromatherapy applications.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
Colorful, fresh organic vegetables. fcafotodigital / Getty Images

A New Diet for the Planet

By Tim Radford

An international panel of health scientists and climate researchers has prescribed a new diet for the planet: more vegetables, less meat, fresh fruit, whole grains and pulses, give up sugar, waste less and keep counting the calories.

And if 200 nations accept the diagnosis and follow doctor's orders, tomorrow's farmers may be able to feed 10 billion people comfortably by 2050, help contain climate change, and prevent 11 million premature deaths per year.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Children's books about the environment. U.S. Air Force photo / Karen Abeyasekere

This State Might Require Public Schools to Teach Climate Change

Reading, writing, arithmetic ... and climate science. That doesn't have the same ring as the "three Rs" of education, but Connecticut could one day require the subject to be on the curriculum, The Associated Press reported.

A Connecticut state lawmaker is pushing a bill to mandate the teaching of climate change in public schools throughout the state, starting in elementary school.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
NASA's ICESCAPE mission investigates the changing conditions in the Arctic. NASA / Kathryn Hansen

These Eye-Opening Memes Show the Real 10-Year Challenge

Before-and-after photos of your friends have probably taken over your Facebook and Instagram feeds, but environmentalists are using the #10YearChallenge to insert a dose of truth.

Memes of shrinking glaciers, emaciated polar bears and coral bleaching certainly subvert the feel-good viral sensation, but these jarring images really show our planet in a worrying state of flux.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Vial containing swab from a deceased duck, collected for testing during the 2014-2015 avian influenza outbreak. © 2015 Erica Cirino, used with permission.

Could Trump’s Government Shutdown Cause Outbreaks of Wildlife Disease?

By Erica Cirino

The current U.S. government shutdown could worsen ongoing wildlife disease outbreaks or even delay responses to new epidemics, according to federal insiders and outside experts who work with federal wildlife employees.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Vegan raw cheese from cashew nuts. byheaven/ iStock / Getty Images

Vegan Cheese: What’s the Best Dairy-Free Option?

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Cheese is one of the most beloved dairy products across the globe. In the U.S. alone, each person consumes more than 38 pounds (17 kg) of cheese per year, on average (1).

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Sun setting behind the Fawley Oil Refinery in Fawley, England. Clive G' / CC BY-ND 2.0

Even Davos Elite Warns Humanity Is 'Sleepwalking Into Catastrophe'

By Jessica Corbett

Ahead of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland next week—which convenes the world's wealthiest and most powerful for a summit that's been called both the "money Oscars" and a "threat to democracy"—the group published a report declaring, "Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Robusta coffee beans growing on a tree. Dag Sundberg / Getty Images

60% of Wild Coffee Species at Risk for Extinction

If humans don't wake up now to the threats posed by climate change and habitat loss, we may be in for a permanently sleepy future. A study led by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew found that 60 percent of wild coffee species are at risk for extinction.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Andrew Wheeler testifies Wednesday at a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to officially head the EPA. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Acting EPA Head Wheeler Downplays Climate Crisis at Confirmation Hearing

Acting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler downplayed the threat of climate change and defended his deregulatory record at the first Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to officially run the agency Wednesday. It was a hearing that some activists and Democrats did not even think should take place, given that business as usual at the EPA has been hampered by the ongoing government shutdown.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!