Recently there’s been a lot of talk about essential oils. Have you been wondering whether it is just hype or whether you are missing out on something important?

Both are true.

“Essential Oil” is a term used to describe the oil created by a particular plant. Each one is specific to the type of plant that makes it. No two plants make exactly the same essential oil.

Why Are Essential Oils Produced by the Plant?

Essential oils are usually produced to either attract pollinators or deter insects. An example of a pollinator attracting oil would be rose fragrance or the fragrance of jasmine. These oils are usually released by the flowers and attract bees and other pollinating insects.

Some plants keep insects from chewing their leaves and stems by producing essential oils that beetles and other chewing insects don’t like. An example would be the essential oils of the Lavender plant. Many of our favorite herbs create essential oils that keep insects from chewing on them. For instance, rosemary, basil and cinnamon all have distinctive essential oils that we use when we cook with their dried leaves and bark. We like their taste, but most insects find them distasteful or even toxic.

How are essential oils removed from the plant?

They may be distilled, cold pressed or, for delicate flowers like rose, a process of enfleurage is used. To get essential oils out of a plant without the green stuff of the leaves and stems, plants are usually distilled. Huge quantities of a specific plant are placed in a still with water. When the water boils, the essential oils are combined with the evaporating water and are transported to the cool area of the condenser. Here the
water and essential oils are cooled and collected together. The tiny quantity of essential oils float to the top and can be captured and separated from the water.

This is why pure essential oils are expensive. Because it takes about ten bales of lavender plants to produce small bottle of essential oil. Citrus plants are usually cold-pressed to create essential oils. Orange, Grapefruit, lime and Lemon rinds are pressed to express their oils. Citrus fruits are phototoxic, or will burn your skin if you are exposed to sun. Chemicals that are phototoxic may be removed and an essential oil called “five fold” is then produced.

Essential oils of fragile flowers such as roses, jasmine, violets and others are produced by a process called enfleurage. Petals are laid onto a flat bed of wax, where in a few days the fragrance is absorbed by the wax. The first flowers are removed, and new ones are added. This continues for several days or weeks until the wax has absorbed a lot of the essential oils. This wax is then processed to create rose or jasmine or violet absolute.

These processes are all very labor intensive and have been used for hundreds of years in some parts of the world to create essential oils for medicines and for perfumes.

How Should Essential Oils Be Used?

Because they are so intense they should not be used straight on the skin. Essential oils should be diluted with oil, witch hazel, or a diffusing solution before they are applied to the skin. A drop of lavender essential oil in a tablespoon of unscented lotion or oil is enough to rub onto the skin for a lovely fragrance to calm your nerves or quiet a restless nighttime.

The labor costs and huge quantities of plants required to make essential oils keep the prices high. But you need only a few drops to create a big affect. This is one reason that essential oils may be diluted before they are sold, or mixed with artificial oils to lower the cost. Choose a reputable source to get a pure product.

Essential oils are complex compounds that may have multiple affects for people. Lavender may calm your nerves, deter insects or help stop the pain of a burn. (I always keep some lavender lotion in the kitchen for the times my hand hits a hot oven rack.) That is because essential oils are not one chemical, but a combination of
chemicals that the plant produces. Often we are not even sure of all the chemicals in an essential oil. But most essential oils have a long history of use and there are resources for finding how to use them.

When combined in lotions and other body care products essential oils may solve more than one problem. For instance, they may be antibacterial and also have a lovely fragrance that raises your spirits.

Since essential oils are designed by plants to evaporate, they do not last a long time in soap and perfumes. Usually, they evaporate quickly and have a short shelf life. That is why big box stores do not usually choose products that have natural essential oils. They do not tolerate hot warehouses, or long storage times, or bright lights.

If you purchase a few quality essential oils for your personal use, keep them out of direct sunlight and in cool conditions (but not freezing). Enjoy the benefits of fragrance, and other attributes with just a few drops added to an oil such as olive oil.

Humans have developed alongside their garden plants over thousands of years, so essential oils are much less likely to create allergic reactions than artificial fragrances. Try them to discover which ones are good for you. Enjoy them as a way to enrich your life without artificial chemicals.

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