I get many questions asking about the basics of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. This week I’d like to start a new series called Fragrant Fridays™ where I take many of the commonly asked questions and provide answers which are simple and easy to understand by a lay person. There are misconceptions to be debunked and skeptics to be converted. Mostly though I hope to help educate you on the incredible power of essential oils that can be of benefit to humans and animals.
What exactly is an essential oil?Essential oils (also called volatile oils) are the most important group of chemical molecules of plants that make smells what they are. Essential comes from the word “essence” because the fragrances are the essence of many plants, contained within the cells of the plant.
What makes an essential oil different from say almond oil or olive oil?Almond, olive and flax seed are called fixed oils. They don’t vaporize the way essential or volatile oils do. Volatile refers to the fact that many aromatic compounds of plants quickly dissipate into the air. The volatile oils from the rind, flower, leaf, bark, root or resin of aromatic plants are released via steam distillation, cold expression or solvent extraction.
What is the difference between an essential oil and a fragrance?Essential oils are natural products extracted in a number of ways from plants; however, all plants do not contain essential oils. Essential oils extracted from plants contain aromatic properties used as remedies for a number of problems. Essential oils are used in aromatherapy practice to help ease muscle pain, emotional problems, menstrual issues, skin problems, arthritis and more, according to author Julia Lawless in her book "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.”
Fragrance oils are synthetic products and therefore do not possess the natural healing properties of essential oils. Fragrance oils are essentially a "pleasant" aroma, and many modern perfumes are created using fragrance oils. It is possible to create almost any aroma in a fragrance oil, unlike an essential oil, which is extracted from a plant.
Do essential oils have to be inhaled to be effective?Aromatherapy, also referred to as Essential Oil therapy, can be defined as the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. It really is about using the extracted aromas of plants which contain medicinal and nutritional components that are healing to the body. Many essential oils are most effective being inhaled. Through stimulation of the olfactory nerves, there is a direct connection to the limbic center of the brain which controls emotion, memory and learning.
Scent stimulates nerves to fire in the emotional center of the brain, but it also stimulates the master gland to release hormones. Hormones affect the fight or flight response, as well as digestion and heart rate. In this way, essential oils can affect us in many ways all at once, just through their fragrance.
Many essential oils can also be applied topically. With the use of a carrier the essential oil enters through the circulatory system. The individual components of the essential oil penetrate the skin and the blood vessels, relieving pain and stimulating circulation which can help relieve swelling, boost your immune system, and protect against infectious organisms. Thyme oil for instance contains thymol that fights bacteria and fungus and is often included in commercial soaps and antiseptics.
What are the precautions when using essential oils?The essential oils used in aromatherapy are highly concentrated. Most essential oils need to be diluted to avoid problems such as irritation or sensitization. Don’t ingest essential oils unless you are working with a qualified practitioner. Only use 100% pure and natural essential oils. Some companies claim they carry a “therapeutic grade” or “medical grade” of essential oils – this is simply a marketing ploy because there isn’t a regulatory agency that provides a grading scale for essential oils. There are two categories: pure essential oils and synthetic (fragrance, compounded or perfume) oils.
· Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils; Julia Lawless; 1995
· Aromatherapy Workbook; Shirley Price; 2000
· Understanding Essential Oils by Christopher Hobbs
· The Complete Aromatherapy & Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Wellness; Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantele; 2014