Many people have heard the words ‘essential oil’ but often do not know what an essential oil actually is. I know I didn’t when I first started getting involved with aromatherapy.

In the simplest terms, an essential oil is the life force of a plant. It is a liquid that is derived from the chemical composition of the plant. All plants are made up of chemicals. Essential oils can contain terpenes, alcohols, ketones, phenols, aldehydes, acids, esters, oxides and lactones. The exact chemical composition differs from plant to plant and often within the plant itself. And each combination has different effects on the body – a topic for a future posting otherwise this post would go on for a while!

Some plants can produce different essential oils depending on which part of the plant you use to obtain the essential oil. Essential oils can be derived from leaves, berries, flowers, peels, and the list goes on. There are several ways to extract essential oils. The most common is through steam distillation. The required parts of the plant are place in a distillation unit, steam is passed through the plant material, the steam rises though a series of tubes and is cooled. The essential oil rises to the top and the water below is called floral water, also used in various cosmetics.

While they are called essential oils they are not really oil in the way that you typically think of oil. The consistency is often more like water and they do not have a greasy feel to them. And while they can look and feel more like water, they are not soluble in water. Most essential oils will mix with alcohols or fixed oils (often called carrier oils – like sweet almond oil or olive oil). Many essential oils are clear but some do have a colour to them. I have recently done some work with Yarrow essential oil and it is a lovely bright blue!

Essential oils, as a general group, are biotic – they strengthen living tissue. They can be absorbed into your body through the skin and by inhalation. In Europe, you can also take some essential oils orally and ingest them. Unfortunately this is not yet a sanctioned treatment method here in North America. I have tried it though and the effects can be amazing. I look forward to a time when it will be accepted here. On average an essential oil can stay in your body for up to 7 hours and it is excreted from your body through perspiration, urine, feces and exhalation.

There is much more about essential oils that we can talk about but hopefully all of the above gives you a bit more knowledge than you previously had. I hope to explore individual essential oils in future posts. Let me know if there are specific ones that you would like to learn about!