What are essential oils?


Essential oils are strongly scented oils which are extracted from plants found all over the world. The plants that oils are derived from can either be found in the wild or grown in orchards or plantations. Not all plants produce essential oils though. There are more than 250,000 plants around the world but only around 450 plant species produce useable essential oils. Among these, most are used for perfumery. Only about 150 are generally used in therapeutic aromatherapy. Other plants produce such small amounts that it would be incredibly costly to create essential oils from them. Lilacs are one such example. Although they smell beautifully and would no doubt make for a wonderfully smelling oil, no usable essential oil can be produced from them.

The part of the plant that the oils are extracted from vary depending on the oil. The oil may be extracted from the root, the leaf, the root, the berry or the flower or sometimes from various parts of the plant. Some examples of oils that come from different parts of the plan are as follows:

Bark – cassia, cinammon

Berries/fruit – allspice, black pepper, juniper berry

Citrus rinds – grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandaring, orange, tangerine

Flowering Herbs (taken from flowers and leaves) – Basil, lavender, oregano, peppermint, rosemary

Flowers/Petals/Buds – Chamomile, helichrysum, jasmine, linden blossom, rose, ylang ylang

Grass – citronella, lemongrass, palmarosa

Leaf – Bergamot, eucalyptus, geranium, patchouli, violet

Needles – cyrpus, fir, scotch pine, spruce

Resin/balsam/gum – peru balsam, frankincense, myrrh

Roots – angelica, ginger, spikenard

Seeds – cardamom, anise, carrot, coffee bean, cumin, parsley, dill, fennel

Wood – Cedarwood, palo santo, rosewood, sandalwood

Most often, essential oil is obtained by the method of steam distillation. A still is filled with plant material and water is heated so that steam passes through it. The combination of heated steam and gentle pressure causes the essential oil to be released from microscopic protective sacs. Parts of the plant turn to vapor. As the vapor mixture flows through a condenser and cools, it turns back into liquid. The oil is separated from the water and is called essential oil. These oils are highly concentrated. Different plants yield varying amounts of essential oil and the price range of oils reflects this.

The temperature for steam distilling is usually between 140–212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 60-100 degrees celsius). Since different plants require different pressures, times, and temperatures, using this particular distillation method makes it possible to adjust the temperature based on the plant type, making it a very effective and precise way to obtain the purest compounds.

Fruits peels such as lemon, orange, lime and grapefruit are not distilled but rather cold pressed. This process does not involve heat. Rather, the oil is extracted from the product under mechanical pressure. These ‘expressed’ fruit peels are plentiful and the quantity of oil that results from the pressing is more abundant than from steam distillation. This makes the price of fruit peel oils more affordable.

There are other flowering plants that do not produce essential oils by steam distillation but only through a time and labor intensive procedure called enfleurage. Enfleurage is one of the oldest methods of extracting essential oils and is rarely used these days because of its high cost. It involves placing the flower petals on a specially prepared fat base, since fat possesses a high power of absorption and readily absorbs the perfume emitted from fragrant flowers. Fresh flowers are added as needed until the fat is saturated with flower oil. The oil is then extracted from the fat with alcohol. Enfleurage is one of the oldest methods of extracting essential oils.It is rarely used these days because of its high cost. This process is used mainly for flowers.

If you want to experience some of our essential oils please visit our Essential Oil Kits section