Founder of Aroma Foundry
Master Chinese Acupuncturist & Herbalist
Essential oils are actually a lot more interesting than we may know. Sure, they can help us deal with a plethora of issues, from headaches and stomach aches to fungal infections and pesky insects. However, there are several essential oil facts that may make you appreciate these oils even more than you probably already do.
Did you know that essential oils have been found to be able to penetrate the membrane of our cells? Or that essential oils have been in existence since ancient times? There’s a whole world of information about essential oils, and we may just be scratching the surface. So, let’s dig a little deeper.
Like anything that occurs naturally on this planet (or indeed, in the universe), essential oils are far more complicated than we may be aware of. Knowing more about essential oils can give you a deeper appreciation and understanding of aromatherapy and many other practices that involve the use of essential oils.
There are a lot of things that can strengthen our ties to people who lived thousands of years before us. We have things like artifacts, written works, and other remnants of ancient cultures. One thing that you may not have expected to be something that has been in existence for thousands of years is essential oils.
Ibn al-Baitar, a physician and chemist who lived in the late 12th to early 13th century, made the first known record of the processes that produce essential oils. There is also evidence that the ancient Egyptians used essential oils for medicinal and spiritual purposes as early as 2000 BC. King Tutankhamun, in particular, was found to have been buried with over 50 alabaster jars that contained essential oils.
Other ancient civilizations also recognized the efficacy of essential oils. The Greek physician Hippocrates, who is considered to be the father of medicine, recommended aromatic baths and massages as the way to good health. In Iran, meanwhile, the use of essential oils in traditional medicine stretches back 3,000 years. Documents from medieval Persia show that 51 oils can be extracted from 31 different plant species.
Other ancient civilizations, such as the Chinese, Romans, and Hindus also reportedly used the essential oils of plants for various purposes. Essential oils were used in sanitation, for aromatic purposes, for medicinal purposes, and as perfume for the hair and body. In fact, these same things are still practiced today.
What makes an oil, well, an oil? Well, there are two types of oils: organic and mineral. Organic oils come from animals and plants, while mineral oils -- like petroleum -- come from ancient fossilized organic materials.
Are essential oils actually oils, or is this a misnomer? Essential oils, while they’re called oils, are technically not oils -- at least according to the parameters above. They don’t have the lipids or fatty acids that organic oils like vegetable oil, coconut oil, and animal fats have.
However, the loose definition of an oil is a viscous liquid that doesn’t mix with water but can mix well with other oils. Essential oils fit this definition. They won’t incorporate all that well with water or other water-based liquids and will simply separate from them without an emulsifier. However, essential oils do incorporate well with other oils, especially with carrier oils like olive oil, grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, and more.
So is the term “essential oil” a misnomer or not? That depends on how you look at it, but essential oils are definitely different from other types of oils. For one thing, they’re not really greasy to the touch due to the absence of fatty acids. Instead of these fatty acids and other lipids, essential oils have phytochemicals like terpenes, esters, ketones, phenols, and others.
Either way, it’s unlikely that we’ll stop calling essential oils, “oils.” After all, the name has stuck. However, understanding how essential oils work in conjunction with other liquids, oil or not, can lead to a better understanding of how to effectively use them.
Speaking of phytochemicals -- what are they, anyway? Phytochemicals are a type of chemical that all plants produce. Humans don’t need nor use these phytochemicals to survive, but they can benefit us in ways that improve our health.
There are certain phytochemicals that can help protect our cells against oxidative activity, while other phytochemicals have antimicrobial properties. There are also phytochemicals that can improve dental health, reduce the risks of certain illnesses and diseases, and many other health benefits.
Plants that produce essential oils are rich in phytochemicals. These plants include medicinal plants, herbs, flowers, and fruits. Essential oils aren’t the only avenue through which we can benefit from phytochemicals, but they are definitely effective.
In general, essential oils have a lot of phytochemicals, often several kinds. Lavender essential oil, for example, may seem like a gentle essential oil. However, it has over 150 different active constituents, which include camphor, linalool, linalyl acetate, limonene, lavandulyl acetate, and geraniol. Lavender also has a lot of esters, which give the oil its aroma as well as its capability to induce calmness.
Other essential oils, like rosemary, are also rich in these phytochemical components. 92.8% of rosemary essential oil is made up of 30 constituents, most notably camphor, 1,8-cineole, and 2-ethyl-4,5-dimethylphenol.
There are currently about 391,000 known plant species, and about 369,000 of these are flowering plants. We know that essential oils can come from a variety of plants, from flowers to tree bark to fruit. Does this mean, therefore, that there can be up to 391,000 types of essential oils, maybe even more?
The short answer is no. Currently, we know of about 450 plant species that have been found to be able to produce essential oils. However, not all of those essential oils can be used in aromatherapy. Of the 450 plant species, only about 125 to 150 are known to produce therapeutic grade essential oils.
Thus, essential oils come from a very small fraction of the plant kingdom. However, what does this mean? Does this mean that we just haven’t discovered essential oils in other plants?
Maybe. However, there are also a lot of plants that have been proven to be unable to produce usable essential oils. Some plants may be able to produce essential oils, but only after a long, time-consuming, and resource-heavy process. For many suppliers, essential oils that entail this amount of effort aren’t really worth it.
Some plants may also be able to produce essential oils, but only in very small amounts. Many suppliers would also not consider the essential oils of these plants to be worth extracting. Even the essential oils we use today are already extracted from humongous amounts of flowers, leaves, and the like.
Speaking of humongous amounts of plants...
When it comes to essential oils, a little can go long way. However, when it comes to the production of essential oils, a lot can produce just a little. For example, 500 to 1,000 kilograms of lavender flowers produce only about 8 to 36 kilograms of lavender essential oil. Remember, lavender essential oil comes from the petals of lavender flowers, which means that those 500 to 1,000 kilograms are referring just to flowers, not even the whole plant.
Meanwhile, about 1,000 bergamot peels are required to produce just about 0.86 kilograms of bergamot essential oil. These flowers and fruit peels undergo different extraction methods to produce essential oils. Lavender flowers in particular are steam-distilled, while the peel of citrus fruits like bergamot are cold-pressed.
Thus, this is why essential oils are quite a commodity. So much plant material is used to extract these oils, and not just any plant either. The best essential oils come from carefully-cultivated plants, which ensures that the oils possess the best chemical compounds.
You may be wondering: If essential oils can be used for therapeutic purposes, how quickly do they take effect? If you need immediate help with pain relief, for example, would you be better off popping meds rather than using essential oils topically?
Essential oils actually don’t need that much time to take effect. Let’s go back to the fact that essential oils cannot mix with water, but can mix easily with other types of oils that contain lipids. This means that essential oils aren’t water-soluble; instead, they’re lipid-soluble.
The surface membrane of all of our cells is made of two layers of lipids. This makes it very easy for the molecules of essential oils to penetrate through the membrane of our cells. As a result, essential oils can take 20 minutes or maybe even less to take effect.
What does it mean when essential oils are described as volatile? It may sound like something dramatic, but it’s actually something quite simple. When an oil is volatile, it simply means that it easily evaporates when exposed to air. This is why when you uncap an essential oil bottle, the smell quickly reaches your nostrils.
This is also part of the reason why it’s not a good idea to apply undiluted essential oils topically. Not only can these potent oils irritate your skin, they’ll also evaporate before the benefits take effect. Unlike oils with lipids, essential oils don’t leave a residue. This means that there’s less of a chance for your skin to absorb the oil.
Thus, it’s best to dilute essential oils in carrier oils to prevent them from evaporating and also irritating your skin. Carrier oils don’t evaporate as quickly as essential oils, and they also stay longer on your skin. This will give your skin more time to absorb nutrients.
There are some who recommend rubbing a drop or two of undiluted essential oils onto your skin. Hopefully, this will clear up why that’s not a good idea. It can irritate your skin, and you won’t even be able to absorb the nutrients and beneficial compounds in the essential oil.
This can also help you test if the essential oil you bought is in fact pure. Take a white sheet of paper and put a drop of your essential oil on it. If it evaporates and doesn’t leave a ring of residue, then it’s pure. If it does, there’s a chance that it may have some other oil mixed in, such as vegetable oil. You can also check the label on the bottle to see if the oil has already been pre-blended with a carrier oil.
You’ll never see essential oils in clear glass or plastic bottles -- and if you do, then what you have isn’t pure or genuine. Dark-colored glass bottles are vital in the proper storage of pure essential oils. Usually, essential oils are stored in amber-colored glass, blue-colored glass, or the very deep blue ultraviolet glass bottles.
Some people might store essential oils in dark-colored glass bottles as a matter of course or habit without really understanding why. However, it’s important to get a better handle on the significance of dark-colored glass to ensure that you’ll be able to care for your oils properly.
Odds are, you won’t be burning through your essential oils in a short period of time. Pure essential oils are potent, and you won’t need much of them each time you need to use them. Thus, a single bottle can last a few years. This means that you need to store your essential oils property so they won’t go to waste.
All essential oils lose quality over time. They also oxidize, especially citrus oils, which can begin to oxidize after about half a year. However, if you store your essential oils properly, you can preserve their quality and potency for longer.
Sunlight can be damaging to essential oils, and clear glass won’t be able to protect the oils from the effects of sunlight. However, dark-colored glass can. Thus, make sure to store your oils in suitable glass bottles. Don’t store your oils in the refrigerator; instead, store them in a cool and dark place away from sunlight. Avoid storing them in the bathroom, since the steam from the shower can also adversely affect the oils.
It’s not always easy to be able to tell right away if an essential oil is pure and high-quality. If you’re trying out a brand that’s new to you, you’re taking a risk with your money. Luckily, there is something you can do to improve your chances of getting the right bang for your buck.
Checking if an essential oil is good can be as simple as looking at the label. If the label includes the scientific name of the plant that produced the oil, then it’s more likely that the oil is of good quality. So, for example, a bottle of lavender oil should include the common name “lavender” as well as the scientific name “Lavandula angustifolia.” You can also look for the oil’s country of origin, as well as the method of distillation used to extract the oil.
Why are these details important? There are synthetic essential oils on the market that you might mistake for the real thing. These synthetic oils may be effective to some degree, but they likely won’t be as effective as genuine essential oils. Thus, checking the label for the scientific name, place of origin, and distillation method of the essential oil makes it more likely that you’re buying something that did indeed come from an actual plant.
Unfortunately, there is no regulatory body that ensures the quality of essential oils that hit the market in the US. Thus, it’s up to you as the consumer to be discerning and to make the right choices about which essential oil brands to support.
If they can be, it won’t be all that easy. Why, then, can’t essential oils be patented? Essential oils are natural products that come from things in nature. Things in nature belong to the public domain, and no person or entity can lay claim on naturally-occurring things in such a way that only they can profit.
So, for example, pharmaceutical companies can patent a particular drug formulation they’ve come up with. This means that they can do whatever research is necessary to improve the drug and prove that it can do what it’s supposed to. The company can and will also profit from the drug once it’s ready to hit the market. Pharmaceutical research can take years, as well as a lot of money, but companies are willing to invest in the research because it often leads to massive profits.
This is part of the reason why to this day, there hasn’t been much scientific research on essential oils. Because essential oils cannot be patented, the research is unlikely to lead to something massively profitable. Of course, anyone who decides to sell essential oils can profit from the sale. However, they will not be the only ones doing so, and they will not be turning a huge profit from selling essential oils alone.
You should be careful in using even natural and high-quality essential oils. Remember to avoid applying undiluted essential oils directly on your skin, and it’s also best to avoid ingesting theses oils.
It’s also best to be careful with using essential oils around very young children. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to keep essential oils away from children under the age of 6 or 7. When you do expose your children to essential oils, pay close attention to how they react to the oils. If they show allergy symptoms, discontinue the use of essential oils and see if the symptoms go away. If they do, it’s possible that they’re allergic to essential oils. It’s also best to consult with your children’s pediatrician in these cases.
Yes, it is possible to be allergic to or irritated by essential oils. There are those who think that since essential oils are natural substances, they can’t cause allergies. However, let’s remember that there are so many naturally-occurring allergens, like pollen or nuts or animal dander.
Also, it’s not a good idea to use essential oils on pets, especially undiluted essential oils. Even aromatherapy might not be good for pets, since many animals have stronger olfactory senses. There are also compounds in essential oils that animals may not be able to metabolize properly, so it’s best to not take risks when it comes to the lives of pets.
Essential oils can be incredibly beneficial to your health, especially when you use it properly and understand how they work.
Essential oils are far more interesting than we may think. Sure, they smell nice and they can help you improve your skin and even your gut health, but there’s more to them than a lot of people know. There is a plethora of essential oil facts that aren’t just interesting, but actually explain certain practices in the use of essential oils.
Essential oils have also been around for a very long time, and there’s a reason why they’re still in use today. Actually, make that several reasons, since essential oils can feature prominently in many applications.
Interested in high-quality, all-natural, and guaranteed 100% pure essential oils? They’re just a couple of clicks away. See our essential oils shop, each distilled from the best sources and hand-bottled in small batches in California.