Learn About Aromatherapy, Essential Oils and Where They Come From

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the art and science of using vital essences from plants in ways that promote holistic healing of the body, the mind and the spirit. Aromatherapy is sometimes also called Essential Oil Therapy. 

Primarily, the vital essences from plants that are used in Aromatherapy are called essential oils. Vital essences are the essential molecules in plants that are responsible for the plants' vitality. In the plant they help to protect the plant from disease or predators and they are also a part of the plant's communication function. An example of this kind of communication would be the flowering lavender plant covered with bees who are attracted to the plant and then help to pollinate the plant.  

Essential oils are extracted from specialized cells or glands in plants by way of distillation or expression and are aromatic, volatile and highly concentrated. They are aromatic because they have a distinctive aroma and this aroma can be pleasing or not so pleasing. Essential oils are volatile because they quickly evaporate when they are exposed to air.

Every essential oil contains naturally occurring chemical components which work synergistically, to promote the health of the human body. Because of their concentrated nature, essential oils are usually diluted into other substances such as carrier oils before using or applying to the body. Also because they are highly concentrated, it is important to learn how to use them safely.

What is Distillation?

The distillation process which is most often used to extract essential oils out of the specialized cells of glands in plants is steam distillation. The plant material is packed into a distillation unit and then water, which has been heated to the point of being steam, passes through this plant material. The steam carries the aromatic and volatile aspects of the plant material (the essential oils) with it, along with the water soluble aspects (hydrosols). The steam then passes through a condenser, where it is cooled, and the collected distillate then separates into the essential oil and the hydrosol.

What is Expression?

Some oils, like citrus oils, can be extracted by cold-expressing the peel of the fruit. If you have ever cooked with lemon zest, you will have experienced the intense lemony aroma coming from the zest. This is the essential oil of lemon.

Some Exceptions

Some essential oils come from solvent extraction rather than steam distillation or expression. This is especially true of oils extracted from flowers because delicate flower petals would not survive steam distillation. The resulting products of solvent extraction are technically not essential oils, but are called "absolutes" and "concretes". However, you will often see them included with essential oils in stores.

CO2 Extraction is a method of extraction of plant oils using carbon dioxide under pressure.  Under pressure, carbon dioxide (CO2) becomes a liquid. Once the essential oil has been extracted from the plant material, the CO2 is allowed to become a gas again and it leaves behind the essential oil.

Other essences from plants that are used in Aromatherapy are "fixed oils" (also known as "carrier oils" and hydrosols. Fixed oils are vegetable, nut or seed oils and sometimes special plant waxes, which can be used undiluted on the body and which have their own therapeutic value due to the different fatty acid profiles of each oil. They are sometimes also called base oils, fixed oils or butters.  In the practice of Aromatherapy, essential oils are often diluted into these fixed oils.

What are Hydrosols?

Hydrosols are the water distillates that emerge from the distillation of plant material. Hydrosols contain the water soluble aromatic and therapeutic components of the plant. Hydrosols are not as concentrated as essential oils and can often be used undiluted. Sometimes, they are called hydrolats. Hydrosols are now a unique product with their own sepcial therapeutic properties.



Points to Remember From this Article: 


  1. Aromatherapy is the art and science of using plant essences for healing.
  2. Primarily the plant essences used in Aromatherapy are called essential oils.
  3. Essential oils are aromatic and they also have chemical components so they can be used to both have an emotional effect and a physiological effect on the body.
  4. Other plant essences used in Aromatherapy are absolutes, concretes and hydrosols.
  5. Essential oils are highly concentrated and therefore it is important to use them safely.
  6. The therapeutic value (for humans) of essential oils may come from the protective role they play for the plants themselves.
  7. Carrier oils are vegetable, nut and seed oils and waxes that have their own therapeutic value and which can be used undiluted on the body.
  8. Essential oils can be diluted into carrier oils and waxes.
  9. The most common method of extracting essential oils from plants is steam distillation.