Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Introduction to the oils
Essential oils are the lipid soluble mixtures of volatile aromatic compounds found in plants. They are distilled from the plant and isolated in a pure yield using various collection methods (steam distillation, cold pressing, solvent extractions, etc). Each essential oil is made up of a wide variety of functional chemical constituents that give each oil its unique aroma and beneficial properties.
But what exactly is a volatile aromatic compound? In short, these compounds are small organic molecules with low vapor pressures—meaning they tend to change quickly from their solid or liquid phase to a gaseous phase at room temperature.
When you first open a bottle of essential oil, you will instantly notice that the aroma is potent and can be detected by your nose even from some distance. The physical and chemical properties of the volatile aromatic compounds that compose essential oils allow them to quickly move through the air and directly interact with the olfactory sensors in the nose.
Such unique properties make essential oils ideal for diffusion and revered for their potent aromas. The type of volatile aromatic compounds present in an essential oil determines both the oil’s aroma and the benefits it offers. Over 3,000 varieties of volatile aromatic compounds have been identified to date.
The nature of an essential oil varies from plant to plant, within botanical families, and from species to species. The delicate ratio of aromatic constituents found in any given essential oil can vary depending on the time of day, season, geographic location, method and duration of distillation, year grown, and the weather, making every step of the production process a critical determinant of the overall quality of the essential oil product.
The use of plant-based products has been recorded as far back as 3000 BCE with the Egyptians, who used plant extracts for a myriad of purposes. They used them for beauty treatments, food preparations, burial rituals, and in religious ceremonies. Precious plant compounds such as peppercorns, cinnamon bark, frankincense, and myrrh fed the thriving trade routes that snaked through the arid deserts of the region. The reverence that this ancient culture had for plants is evident in the botanical depictions found in hieroglyphics and other Egyptian art. Modern archaeological techniques have also allowed researchers to identify residues of aromatic gums and resins in mummified bodies and at burial sites. When analyzing the mummy of Ramses V, an ancient Egyptian ruler, the aromatic compounds of juniper, camphor, and myrrh were discovered, confirming their usage in these sacred burial rituals.
The modern view of aromatherapy is evolving at a rapid pace as more research is being done on essential oils and their constituents. As technology continues to advance, extraction methods are improving and the many benefits of plant derivatives are becoming better understood. Traditional methods have certainly provided an excellent historical framework; however, much research is still needed to fully understand the massive potential of essential oils in managing wellness.
What is your opinion on the use of essential oils for health?