What are Essential Oils?


We’ve talked about Aromatherapy being the holistic practice of using aromatic plant extracts like essential oils to influence conditions of the body, mind, and spirit. So, you might be wondering… what are essential oils?

Essential Oils are substances that are extracted from aromatic plants. At the chemical level, they are comprised primarily of Carbon and Hydrogen atoms, and are characterized by high volatility (meaning that they evaporate easily, and we can smell them).

Essential oils are extracted from aromatic and medicinal plants through a number of processes, with the most common being steam distillation. Some essential oils are obtained through expression (such as citrus oils), and some through solvent extraction (referred to as absolutes). There is a newer process of CO2 extraction, which produces an extract with a wider range of chemicals. While these absolutes and CO2 extracts are not true essential oils, we often call them this for the sake of simplicity.

Essential oils are technically not oils, but are referred to this way because they are lipophilic (do mix with oil) and hydrophobic (don’t mix with water), and this varies by degrees depending on the chemical makeup of each different essential oil. This is important for us to know as it guides us in how to work with the essential oils.

Regardless of their plant of origin and their resulting chemical makeup, essential oils have many things in common:

  • they are highly concentrated

  • they are completely natural as they are obtained from plants

  • they can be obtained from different parts of the plant such as flower, leaf, wood, seed, root

  • they work through a combination of their scent-memory associations and physical reactions to their chemical constituents

  • they can affect all levels of the body; physical, mental, emotional, spiritual

It is important to clarify that essential oils do not actually exist as essential oils within plants, but are products of the extraction process. Essential oils are comprised of the volatile chemicals that do exist in the living plant, however these volatile chemicals in the plant are not the ‘essence’ or ‘blood’ of the plant, as some might suggest, but rather are secondary metabolites and serve the plant for communication and protection purposes. While some of these volatile chemicals remain intact throughout the extraction process, others are altered with the presence of heat and water in the distillation process, and some are changed by reactions with oxygen. This means that the chemicals that we see within the essential oil can vary significantly from those we find in the living plant. This chemical variation as well as the higher concentration of the essential oil explains why we need to be respectful of the power of these essential oils, and have an understanding of what they are so that we can work with them safely.

Essential oils can tell us much about the plant itself, as well as its environment and climate… we can learn much about our natural world through studying their composition and working with them. There are many, particularly among Professional Aromatherapists, who believe that essential oils are a means of communication, not only between humans and plants, but with the Earth as well.