What are Essential Oils?

An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, or simply as the oil of the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived. The term essential used here does not mean indispensable as with the terms essential amino acid or essential fatty acid which are so called since they are nutritionally required by a given living organism.

Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, often by using steam. Other processes include expression, solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping, and cold pressing. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavoring food and drink, and for adding scents to incense and household cleaning products.

Essential oils have been used medicinally throughout history. The earliest recorded mention of the techniques and methods used to produce essential oils is believed to be that of Ibn al-Baitar (1188–1248), an Al-Andalusian (Muslim-controlled Spain) physician, pharmacist and chemist.

Rather than refer to essential oils themselves, modern works typically discuss specific chemical compounds of which the essential oils are composed. For example: methyl salicylate rather than “oil of wintergreen”.

Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and other aromatic compounds. Oils are volatilized, diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, diffused in the air by a nebulizer, heated over a candle flame, or burned as incense.

Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer and often are based solely on historical accounts of use of essential oils for these purposes. Claims for the efficacy of medical treatments, and treatment of cancers in particular, are now subject to regulation in most countries.



Most common essential oils such as lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil, patchouli, and eucalyptus are distilled. Raw plant material, consisting of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water. As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel.

Most oils are distilled in a single process. One exception is ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) which is purifed through a fractional distillation. The re condensed water is referred to as a hydrosol, hydrolat, herbal distillate, or plant water essence, which may be sold as another fragrant product. Popular hydrosols include rose water, lavender water, lemon balm, clary sage, and orange blossom water. The use of herbal distillates in cosmetics is increasing. Some plant hydrosols have unpleasant smells and are therefore not sold.


Most citrus peel oils are expressed mechanically or cold-pressed (similar to olive oil extraction). Due to the relatively large quantities of oil in citrus peel and low cost to grow and harvest the raw materials, citrus-fruit oils are cheaper than most other essential oils. Lemon or sweet orange oils are obtained as byproducts of the citrus industry.Before the discovery of distillation, all essential oils were extracted by pressing.

Solvent extraction

Most flowers contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression, but their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, a solvent such as hexane or super critical carbon dioxide is used to extract the oils. Extracts from hexane and other hydrophobic solvents are called concretes, which are a mixture of essential oil, waxes, resins, and other lipophilic (oil-soluble) plant material.

Although highly fragrant, concretes contain large quantities of non-fragrant waxes and resins. Often, another solvent, such as ethyl alcohol, which is more polar in nature, is used to extract the fragrant oil from the concrete. The alcohol solution is chilled to −18 °C (0 °F) for more than 48 hours which causes the waxes and lipids to precipitate out. The precipitates are then filtered out and the ethanol is removed from the remaining solution by evaporation, vacuum purge, or both, leaving behind the absolute.

Super critical carbon dioxide is used as a solvent in super critical fluid extraction. This method has many benefits, including avoiding petrochemical residues in the product and the loss of some “top notes” when steam distillation is used. It does not yield an absolute directly. The super critical carbon dioxide will extract both the waxes and the essential oils that make up the concrete. Subsequent processing with liquid carbon dioxide, achieved in the same extractor by merely lowering the extraction temperature, will separate the waxes from the essential oils. This lower temperature process prevents the decomposition and denaturing of compounds. When the extraction is complete, the pressure is reduced to ambient and the carbon dioxide reverts to a gas, leaving no residue.

Florasols extraction

Florasol is another solvent used to obtain essential oils. It was originally developed as a refrigerant to replace Freon. Although Florasol is an “ozone-friendly” product, it has a high global warming potential (GWP; 100-yr GWP = 1430). The European Union has banned its use, with a phase-out process that began in 2011, to be completed in 2017. One advantage of Florasol is that the extraction of essential oils occurs at or below room temperature so degradation through high temperature extremes does not occur. The essential oils are mostly pure and contain little to no foreign substances.

Pharmacology and medical uses

Carvacrol, a terpene found in oregano oil, inhibits the growth of several bacteria strains including Escherichia coli and Bacillus cereus.[medical citation needed] In Pseudomonas aeruginosa, it causes damages to the cell membrane of these bacteria and, unlike other terpenes, inhibits their proliferation. The cause of the antimicrobial properties is believed to be disruption of the bacteria membrane. Carvacrol is a potent activator of the human ion channels transient receptor potential V3 (TRPV3) and A1 (TRPA1).

Another example of the medicinal value of essential oils is thymol, isomeric with carvacrol and found in oil of the common spice thyme. Thymol is part of a naturally occurring class of compounds known as biocides, with strong antimicrobial attributes when used alone or with other biocides such as carvacrol. In addition, naturally occurring biocidal agents such as thymol can reduce bacterial resistance to common drugs such as penicillin. Numerous studies have demonstrated the antimicrobial effects of thymol, ranging from inducing antibiotic susceptibility in drug-resistant pathogens to powerful antioxidant properties.

Research demonstrates that thymol and carvacrol reduce bacterial resistance to antibiotics through a synergistic effect, and thymol has been shown to be an effective fungicide, particularly against fluconazole-resistant strains. Carvacrol and thymol have been demonstrated to have a strong antimutagenic effect. In addition, there is evidence that thymol has antitumor properties. Though the exact mechanism is unknown, some evidence suggests thymol effects at least some of its biocidal properties by membrane disruption. Thymol has been shown to act as a positive allosteric modulator of GABAA in vitro.

Taken by mouth, many essential oils can be dangerous in high concentrations. Typical effects begin with a burning feeling, followed by salivation. In the stomach, the effect is carminative, relaxing the gastric sphincter and encouraging eructation (belching). Further down the gut, the effect typically is antispasmodic. Typical ingredients for such applications include eucalyptus oils, menthol, capsaicin, anise and camphor.

Different essential oils may have drastically different pharmacology. Those that do work well for upper respiratory tract and bronchial problems act variously as mild expectorants and decongestants. Some act as locally anesthetic counterirritants and, thereby, exert an antitussive effect.

Some essential oils, such as those of juniper and agathosma, are valued for their diuretic effects. With relatively recent concerns about the overuse of antibacterial agents, many essential oils have seen a resurgence in off-label use for such properties and are being examined for this use clinically.

Many essential oils affect the skin and mucous membranes in ways that are valuable or harmful. Many essential oils, particularly tea tree oil, may cause contact dermatitis. They are used in antiseptics and liniments in particular. Typically, they produce rubefacient irritation at first and then counterirritant numbness. Turpentine oil and camphor are two typical examples of oils that cause such effects. Menthol and some others produce a feeling of cold followed by a sense of burning. This is caused by its effect on heat-sensing nerve endings. Some essential oils, such as clove oil or eugenol, were popular for many hundred years in dentistry as antiseptics and local anesthetics.

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