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Essential oils have been used for centuries in one form or another; today, the use of essential oils (and restrictions on use) vary from country to country. France is the leader in the "true" use of essential oils and as such has more rigid guidelines on who is "qualified" to administer and sell essential oils. In the UK, essential oils have been popular for a number of years and they are seen in almost every health shopping outlet, in addition to beauty salons. In the United States, therapeutic essential oils are often confused with synthetic fragrance oils, although aromatherapists are seeking to educate the public on the difference between them.
Historical Use of Essential Oils
Ancient civilizations used plant oils in one form or another, before the emergence of essential oils as we know them today. The earliest recorded use of aromatherapy can be attributed to the use of plants and plant extracts for medicine and personal hygiene in places; records indicate that people in India, Egypt, Greece and the Romans used some form of "aromatherapy." However, it is likely that plant oils were in use long before even these early beginnings and record keeping.
Modern day usage of essential oil usage was defined in France in 1928 by the French Chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. Amazingly, it was by some accident that Gattefosse "re-discovered" the powerful and natural effects of what we today commonly call essential oils. Gattefosse severely burned his hand, whilst carrying out his work, and plunged it into the nearest container, thinking that it was water; in fact it was a vat of lavender(Lavandula angustifolia). To Gattefosse's surprise, his hand did not bear the burn scarring that he feared. Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy is accredited as being the first modern book written on the subject of essential oils and was first published in 1937.
Definition of Essential Oils
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse wrote in 1937:
"…essential oils play the same role in plants as hormones play in animals." (p10, Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy)
This statement has not been proven scientifically and little is known as to what use essential oils have in plants or how they work when extracted but what is known is that they do help in relieving a great number of ailments.
Essential oils are the life blood of the plant. The essential oils of the plant is found in a number of places including the glandular hairs, glands, veins or sacs of a plant, grass or tree. Essential oil is extracted from flowers, leaves, trees (including the bark), roots, and the fruit. The orange tree is perhaps one of the most versatile plants in producing essential oils because it produces a variety of essential oils from its fruit, leaves, twigs and flowers - all from the same plant!
Essential oils are volatile (from the Latin word volare, meaning to fly); this means that essential oils evaporate at or above room temperature. Heat releases the fragrance of the oils. The rate at which an essential oil evaporates defines whether it is a base, middle or top note oil (top notes evaporate quickly whereas base notes are heavier in their molecule make-up and evaporate more slowly).
Extraction of Essential Oils
Essential oils can only be extracted from aromatic plants. It is the "aroma" or "smell" of the plant that is essentially extracted. Non-aromatic plants do not produce essential oils.
A true essential oil is extracted from a plant and cannot be produced synthetically; synthetic oils are fragrance oils and are predominately used in the perfume industry. Synthetic fragrances are usually used to establish a brand name of a particular product and therefore the fragrance has to be identical. True essential oils are never identical by their very nature. Aromas of essential oils from the same plant may vary due to a number of factors including altitude grown at, soil conditions, temperature and the country grown in. In addition, synthetically produced essential oils/fragrances do not have the healing properties of plant-extracted essential oils.
The ease of which an essential oil can be extracted is usually reflected in its price. For example, lemon (Citrus limon) is fairly easy to extract and therefore is relatively cheap to buy. Rose (Rosa damascena), on the other hand, is extremely difficult to extract and this is reflected in the high price of true essential oil of rose.
Methods of extraction vary depending on where the essential oil is to be extracted from. For example, most citrus oils are extracted by expression, extracting the essential oil from the rind of the fruit. The majority of other essential oils are extracted by steam distillation. Steam distillation is a simple process that can easily be carried out by a basic homemade still as well as a bigger more professional still. Basically, the plant material is heated by steam or water, releasing the aromatic molecules and, once cooled, a mixture of water and oil remains. The essential oil is separated from the water. Flower waters are often produced from the water, as a by-product of this process.
Other methods of extraction such as solvent extraction, maceration, effleurage and percolation do not produce a true essential oil but may be used by the food and perfume industries.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
The nose is the quickest way in which an essential oil can enter our system and have effect. A smell travels through the nose to the limbic part of our brains (the part that governs our moods and emotions) and triggers a response and a reaction from us. Memories are re-created by a reaction to the smell. Freshly baked bread may bring back a memory from that small bakery you visited on your French trip, or the smell of wet grass may bring back summer days of childhood. Essential oils have the power to induce many different responses from us.
Essential oils are also commonly used in massage. As essential oils are made up of small molecules they are readily absorbed through the skin to the blood stream. They are then carried through the blood stream to where they are needed, and excreted by the body through perspiration or through the bowels or urinary tract.
Chemistry of Essential Oils
Essential oils are complex in their make up. Science is still trying to identify the actual components of some essential oils; for example, it is estimated that there are over 300 different constituents in rose. The chemical make-up of an essential oil is important to determine its uses and suitability for a particular ailment or client. Some essential oils are more toxic than others and thus are unsuitable for children, babies or in pregnancy.
An essential oil is made up of a combination chemical componentssuch as esters, aldehydes, ketones, sesquiterpenes, oxides, acids, monoterpenes, alcohols, phenols or coumarins. Each chemical family has a different effect on the body's systems.
Adulteration of Essential Oils
Due to the high cost of extracting some essential oils, there is always the temptation by some companies to adulterate essential oils. Adulteration of essential oils involves the addition of a less expensive oil, such as geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) or palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini) to substitute rose, a dilution of an essential oil, the addition of a synthetic substitute, or a fractionation of an essential oil (i.e. remove some of the chemical components).
To try to substantiate the authenticity of a true essential oil, the industry has introduced a number of tests to identify any substitution. Quality testing includes gas-liquid chromatography (GLC), mass spectrometry, optical rotation, infrared testing and refractive indexing. Essential oils are also tested for additional factors such as color, solubility in alcohol and specific gravity.
An adulterated essential oil does not hold the therapeutic properties of its true origin and therefore is unsuitable for use in aromatherapy. Not only that, but an adulterated essential oil may cause skin irritations, such as redness and irritation. As mentioned above, the chemical components of an essential oil are extremely complicated and a synthetic copy does not produce the same results in aromatherapy as a true essential oil.
Use of Essential Oils
Do not use essential oils undiluted, unless you are directed to do so by an experienced aromatherapist. Use some form of carrier oil or lotion, such as white lotion, sunflower oil, water, milk or honey.
Essential oils can be used in a number of ways including:
- in the bath, either in bubble bath, bath oil, milk, honey
or bath salts
- in the shower, for example in a shower gel base
- in a foot or hand bath
- as a hot or cold compress for inflammation, pain or
- inhalation for coughs, colds and breathing problems, as
well as for relaxation and meditation. Use on a
handkerchief, in a bowl of water, or on your pillow at
- in a mist spray for freshening up rooms or yourself
- in a diffuser to fragrance a room
- in massage, usually with a carrier oil
- in a hand or foot lotion
- in shampoo
- in skin care with lotions and oils
- as a natural perfume
- household cleaning
- beauty treatments.
Essential oils can be used in the treatment of the conditions such as:
Stress, back problems, asthma, arthritis, depression, burns, pregnancy related problems, childhood ailments, menstrual and menopausal problems, coughs and colds, circulation problems, headaches, skin problems, digestive complaints, as an insect repellent and for insect bites.
Research on Essential Oils
Research into essential oils has grown in recent years; however, there is still much more to learn about these powerful tools of nature.
France is traditionally the world leader in the research field of essential oils. The French medical profession use essential oils alongside conventional medicine and prescriptions can be made out for a formula of essential oils for a specific treatment. In the UK, the National Health Service is slowly beginning to accept the use of essential oils into mainstream medicine for some conditions. Research carried out by the University of Exeter in the UK found that 46% of doctors thought complementary therapies to be effective, more noticeably among younger doctors (Ernst, Resch & White, 1995).
However, in some countries, the use of essential oils is still viewed as more of a cosmetic item used in beauty rather than the medical field. In fact some research is being carried out by the cosmetic and food industries, more interested in the flavor and mood alteration of essential oils than the therapeutic qualities. This is slowly changing and clinical studies are now being conducted throughout Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States of America. Research studies have shown that essential oils do have a positive effect on a number of health issues including anxiety and depression, pain and premenstrual disorders.
Research studies on essential oils include:
- Dale A, Cornwell, S (1994) where a blind randomized trial using lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil showed a lower discomfort level between the 3rd and 5th days following childbirth by mothers who used it in the bath, when it is expected to have the highest discomfort
- Pittler M. H., Ernst, E. (1998) where the results of a research trial indicated that peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oil improved significantly the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome for patients
- Rose J.E. & Behm F.M (1994) where three random groups of smokers were deprived from smoking overnight. One group inhaled vapor from black pepper (Piper nigrum) essential oil; another research group inhaled mint/menthol and another group inhaled on an empty cartridge. Members of the group that inhaled black pepper essential oil reported a significant reduction in cigarette cravings, less negativity and less somatic symptoms of anxiety.
Copyright © 2007 Sharon Falsetto BA (Hons) All rights reserved
Brown, Denise Whichello (2003) A Beginner’s Guide to Aromatherapy D&S Books Ltd Devon, England
Caddy, Rosemary (1997), Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Colour Amberwood Publishing Ltd
Gattefosse, Rene-Maurice (1937) Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy Girardot & Cie, Paris (English language version 1993 edited by Robert B Tisserand C.W. Daniel Company Ltd, Essex, England)
Lawless, Julia (1995) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils Thorsons London
McGuinness, Helen (1997) Aromatherapy Therapy Basics 2nd Edition Hodder & Stoughton London
Price, Shirley, Price, Len, (2002) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals Churchill Livingstone Edinburgh
Taking charge of your health articles (www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu) (www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/therapies/aromatherapy/research)
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