What is an essential oil?
Essential oil is derived from aromatic plants, herbs,
flowers or trees using a process of water, steam or dry distillation.
An essential oil or essence is a highly concentrated substance: it
takes a large quantity of raw plant material to produce a single drop.
Like all commercially available items essential oils
vary dramatically in quality and content. Cheaper oils may be
adulterated or extended by the addition of synthetic substances or
other oils. Some oils are organically produced and some are not; some
are quality controlled by laboratory testing and some are never
checked. Always purchase essential oils from a reputable source.
Lavender is a particular problem as many essential oils called simply
Lavender are not extracted from Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Unlike ordinary vegetable
oils, such as olive oil, essential oils are non-oily and highly
volatile: they will evaporate if left in the open air. The chemistry of
essential oils is complex. Most consist of hundreds of components
including terpenes, alcohols, aldehydes and esters. The relative
quantities of constituent chemicals will vary between extraction
processes. Using an essential oil of the same botanical origin from two
different sources does not guarantee the same results.
As complex substances, they can have complex effects on
the human body. Lavender,
for instance, is thought to provide antiseptic, antibacterial,
antibiotic, antidepressant, analgesic, decongestant and sedative
effects. Moreover, due to their molecular structure, and lipophylic
nature they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the
skin. Once inside the body some of these compounds mimic the
effect of our hormones, so special care should be taken using essential
oils whilst pregnant, even in the very early stages of pregnancy.
Essential oils also reach the bloodstream as a result of
the aromatic molecules being inhaled. In the lungs, they pass through
the tiny air sacs to the surrounding blood capillaries by the process
of diffusion. Once in the bloodstream the aromatic molecules interact
with the body's chemistry. This effect is known as aromatherapy. Care
should be employed with any therapeutic agent as anything that can
affect the body may cause harm if used inappropriately or without due
understanding of the effects it may have. This article is intended to
provide a brief overview of the health and basic safety concerns for
anybody working regularly with essential oils.