Essential Oils: A Comprehensive Overview of What they are and How they Work

In essence, an essential oil is a strong hydrophobic liquid containing unstable aroma compounds from plants. These oils are usually also referred to as volatile oils,  ethereal oils, or the oil extracted from a specific plant, for example, carrot seed essential fragrant oil. What gives the oils essential oils for anxietythe “essential value” is their “personification” of the plant’s fragrance – this means the oil bears the scent of the plant it was extracted from. Essential  extracted oils have not been scientifically categorized to provide any pharmacological, medical, or culinary purpose; however, their use has proven them effective.

A Brief History of Oils Of Essentials

Plant oils have been used as far back as history dates. Biblical stories reveal how priests and prophets used them to anoint and heal the Lord’s followers. The wise men, for example, offered Jesus Myrrh and Frankincense upon visiting him when he was a child. Mary washed Christ’s feet with spikenard, which is oil derived from plant materials.

In addition, historical literature also reveals that Egyptians used essential wealthy oils for some of their rituals, for instance, to embalm the dead. Napoleon, the Hippocrates, the Arabs, and the European Crusaders also used volatile oils during their various missions. In the same light, the Ebers Papyrus, in 1817, found a medical scroll dating as far back as 1500 BC, which contained over 800 plant oil remedies.

Ethereal Oils made a comeback, after a period of disuse, in the early 21st century. Dr. Monsiere, a Frenchman, used essential power  oils to heal the wounds of soldiers during WWI. In 1937, Dr. Rene Maurice Gatterfosse, the Father of Aromatherapy, gave an account of how he found Lavender oil useful in treating severe burns. To finish, D. Gary Young, a researcher at the Weber University, proved that bacteria, fungi, and viruses died after being immersed in essential oil. `

How Essential Therapeutic Oil is Extracted

There are many ways of deriving oil from plants:


Essential  rich oils, for example, peppermint, tea tree oils, lavender, and eucalyptus are usually distilled. Before an alembic – a distillation apparatus – is placed over water, raw plant materials such as flowers, bark, leaves, wood, or seed are put into it. Afterward, heat is applied to the water surrounding the alembic to burn the plant materials so that the unstable elements in them produces vapor. The gasses flow via a coil where they liquefy to black liquid, which is then gathered in a receiving vessel.

The re-liquefied product is referred to as herbal distillate, hydrosol, or plant essence, which may be vended as a separate fragrance product. For example, lavender water, rose water, lemon balm, or Clary Sage.


Oils can also be mechanically extracted, or cold pressed. Citrus peel oils, for example, are usually cold pressed or expressed mechanically. Compared to other oils, citrus oils are relatively cheaper, because of their large quantities and the ease of growing and harvesting them. Sweet orange or lemon oils (byproducts of the citrus industry) are even cheaper.

Solvent Extraction

Some flowers are either too delicate to undergo the high heat process in distillation or have very little unstable oil to go through expression. In such cases, solvents such as supercritical carbon dioxide or hexane are used. Extracts from these solvents or other hydrophobic solvents are referred to as “concretes” – they are usually mixtures of waxes, essential oils, and other lipophilic plant substances.

Often, another solvent, ethyl alcohol (polar by nature), is used to extract the original fragrant oil from the concretes. The solution is usually cooled to 18C/0F for a period of more than 48 hours to cause the lipids and waxes to precipitate. The precipitates are then removed, and the ethanol extracted from the solution via evaporation, leaving behind a pure product.

The Safety Concerns of Essential Oil

Ethereal oils have minimal adverse effects if applied in proper quantities. According to Tony Burfield, an Aroma Industry Consultant, essential oils are potentially hazardous; however, with accurate application, risk can be adequately reduced. Occasionally, these oils may cause discomfort, but it’s rarely severe or persistent.

Issues that Affect the Safety of Ethereal Oils


Plant oils that have been manufactured in a substandard manner are likely to cause adverse reactions. It is prudent to use oils produced by reputable companies. Read more here.

Chemical Composition

Oils rich in Phenols (Eugenol and Cinnamic Aldehyde, for example) or Aldehydes (Citral and Citronellal) are more likely to set off skin reactions. The effects of such oils can be tempered by mixing them with other essential oils or diluting them in solutions that have much lower concentrations.

Technique of Application 

Plant oils can be applied topically, inhaled, or administered orally. Topical application can be completed with carrier oil such as coconut oil or as an ingredient in lotions, to produce a desired effect. They can also be vaporized to produce a positive psychological effect when inhaled. When breathed, the aroma sends a signal to the brain’s limbic system, which is the center for emotions and memories. Hence, triggering wonderful memories or elevating a person’s mood level. Finally, volatile oils can also be ingested like ordinary medicinal drugs to stimulate positive physiological processes.

Each of these methods have certain levels of risk. Research reveals, assuming 100% evaporation, essentially rich oils pose minimal adverse effects even when applied in a relatively small room. Prolonged exposure to high levels these elements, approximately 1 hour or more, could lead to lethargy, headaches, or nausea. Regarding oral administration, sufficient evidence has not been acquired to prove whether it is advisable. However, erring on the side of safety is always practical; it is better only to use these oils topically and through inhalation.


Most aroma-based solutions are between 1 to 5% dilutions. These concentration levels typically pose very little or no safety concerns. However, as the level of dosage is increased, dermal skin irritations may be noticed in the area the oil is applied. Excessive application leads to skin irritations or the development of undesirable effects due to their lipophilic nature.

How the Skin Absorbs Essentially Moisturizing Oils

Essential  fat oils have tiny molecules, which allow them to be absorbed into the skin. These oils either permeate the skin via the stratum corneum – the outer layer of the epidermis – or hair follicles and sweat glands. After topical application to the skin, the molecules filter through the epidermal cells along with the lipid medium that surrounds them. After penetrating into the epidermis, the oils permeate into the dermis, where the capillaries provide access to the blood and lymph fluids, which transport them throughout the body.





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