What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are pure aromatic substances that are extracted from plants. They are often referred to as the life force of the plant. Every plant will yeald a completely different essential oil with no two being identical. The essential oil differs according to the plant species, country of origin, altitude at which the plant is grown, soil and even the time of day at which it was picked! Essential oils are extremely delicate substances. They almost describe the plant they have come from with their fragrance. Having said that, not all essential oils smell nice which does not neccesserily mean that they come from an ugly plant! Oils come from different parts of the plant. Some plants may carry essential oil in many parts. The orange tree for instance has essential oil in its fruit (orange), flowers (neroli) and twigs (petitgrain).
How do we get them?
The essential oils are extracted from the plants in many ways. The three most common ways are steam distillation, expression and enfleurage.
Steam distillation is the most common method. The flowers or part of the plant containing the essential oil have high pressure steam pumped through them which when cooled results in water and essential oil. The essential oils are then separated from the water. An easy process as the oils do not mix with water.
Expression is used to extract citrus oils. This means that the oils are literally squeezed from the peel. If you push your nail along the peel of an orange those little balls of liquid that spring up are the essential oil. As this shows there is a lot of essential oil to be had from citrus fruits and these oils are consequently cheaper though no less therapeutic.
Enfleurage means to enflower. The petals from roses, jasmin and neroli are so delicate that this method is often employed so as not to subject them to high heat. It envolves coating the petals with wax which absorbs the essential oil. Solvents are then used to separate the oil from the wax. This oil is then referred to as an absolute.
Why so expensive?
Some plants will contain more essential oils than others. Fower oils are usually more expensive due to the small amount of oil which can be extracted from them.
Some rose oils can take as many as 30 roses to produce one drop! This is not the norm though and a more realistic illustration is 100kg eucalyptus produces 10kils essential oil; 100kilos lavender, 5 kilos essential oil and 100 kilos roses just half a kilo of oil. This explains the wide variation in the cost of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely precious. They are usually sold in tiny bottles made from dark glass and are sensitive to light which is why coloured glass is used to store them and they evaporate extremely easily so the lid must be put straight back on after use. They are so concentrated that we must respect how powerful they can be. With a little knowledge though we can use them safely and effectively throughout our lives. Essential oils are highly concentrated, so they must be treated with respect. Do not use them neat unless taking advice from a qualified aromatherapist. Do not take internally.