An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils or 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 carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant. Essential oils do not form a distinctive category for any medical, pharmacological, or culinary purpose.
Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation. Steam distillation is often used. Other processes include expression or solvent extraction. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavouring food and drink, and for adding scents to incense and household cleaning products.
Various essential oils have been used medicinally at different periods in history. 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.
As the use of essential oils has declined in evidence-based medicine, one must consult older textbooks for much information on their use. Modern works are less inclined to generalize; rather than refer to “essential oils” as a class at all, they prefer to discuss specific compounds, such as 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 claims that essential oils and other aromatic compounds have curative effects. Oils are volatilized or 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.
Today, most common essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, 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 vapours 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 takes 22 hours to complete through a fractional distillation.
The recondensed 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 that are obtained as byproducts of the citrus industry are even cheaper.
Prior to the discovery of distillation, all essential oils were extracted by pressing.
Most flowers contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression and their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, a solvent such as hexane or supercritical carbon dioxide is used to extract the oils. Extracts from hexane and other hydrophobic solvent 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 is removed by evaporation, leaving behind the absolute.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is used as a solvent in supercritical 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 supercritical 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. An animated presentation describing the process is available for viewing.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is also used for making decaffeinated coffee. Although it uses the same basic principles, it is a different process because of the difference in scale.
The potential danger of an essential oil is generally relative to its level or grade of purity. Many essential oils are designed exclusively for their aroma-therapeutic quality; these essential oils generally should not be applied directly to the skin in their undiluted or “neat” form. Some can cause severe irritation, provoke an allergic reaction and, over time, prove hepatotoxic. Non-therapeutic grade essential oils are never recommended for topical or internal use. Essential oils should not be used with animals, as they possess extreme hepatotoxicity and dermal toxicity for animals, especially for cats. Instead, essential oils should be blended with a vegetable-based carrier oil (as a base, or “fixed” oil) before being applied. Common carrier oils include olive, almond, hazelnut and grapeseed. Only neutral oils should be used. A common ratio of essential oil disbursed in a carrier oil is 0.5–3% (most under 10%), depending on its purpose. Some essential oils, including many of the citrus peel oils, are photosensitizers, increasing the skin’s vulnerability to sunlight. Industrial users of essential oils should consult the material safety data sheets (MSDS) to determine the hazards and handling requirements of particular oils. Even certain therapeutic grade oils can pose potential threats to individuals with epilepsy, or pregnant women.
Essential oils can be aggressive toward rubbers and plastics, so care must be taken in choosing the correct handling equipment. Glass syringes are often used, but have coarse volumetric graduations. Chemistry syringes are ideal, as they resist essential oils, are long enough to enter deep vessels, and have fine graduations, facilitating quality control. Unlike traditional pipettes, which have difficulty handling viscous fluids, the chemistry syringe has a seal and piston arrangement which slides inside the pipette, wiping the essential oil off the pipette wall. This improves accuracy, and the inside of the pipette is easy to clean and reuse immediately. Chemistry pipetting syringes are equal in accuracy to the best laboratory equipment and are available in sizes from 1 mL through 25 mL.
Apart from essential oils used mainly in foods, the best-known essential oil world-wide might be eucalyptus oil, produced from the leaves of Eucalyptus globulus. Steam-distilled eucalyptus oil is used throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and South America as a primary cleaning/disinfecting agent added to soaped mop and countertop cleaning solutions; it also possesses insect and limited vermin control properties. Note, however, there are hundreds of species of eucalyptus, and perhaps some dozens are used to various extents as sources of essential oils. Not only do the products of different species differ greatly in characteristics and effects, but also the products of the very same tree can vary grossly.
The second most well-known essential oil is probably rose oil, produced from the petals of Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia. Steam-distilled rose oil is known as “rose otto”, while the solvent extracted product is known as “rose absolute”.
Lavender essential oil
One of the most popular essential oils in the world, lavender essential oil has a reputation of being mild, relaxing and appropriate for all ages and genders. Lavender essential oil is also an insect repellent.
Shipment / Storage
These oils are of plant origin and are extremely odorous. Should not be stowed in same compartment as edible goods. Subject to being shipped in suitable and sufficiently strong containers, there is little reason to fear loss or damage.
Certain essential oils, such as Cinnamon Oil and Clove Oil may suffer discolouration if shipped in an unsuitable container. Such oils should not, for instance, be shipped in tinplate containers, as this may cause discolouration. Proper treatment may restore the commodity. Such oils are not affected when shipped in aluminium containers, but such containers may affect other oils by discolouration.
The flash point of each essential oil is different. Many of the common essential oils, such as tea tree, lavender, and citrus oils, are classed as a Class 3 Flammable Liquid, as they have a flash point of 50–60 °C.
Consult the applicable MSDS sheet for further particulars.