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How Essential Oils Work?

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Introduction - what are essential oils

Essential oils are renowned for their healing properties and have been for centuries. Also referred to as “essences", they are the botanical extracts of various plant materials and not only flowers but also from herbs, trees and various other plant material. It was only in modern medical times – namely the 1800s – that their value was overlooked because of the strides made in developing new medications and drugs.

Now we have gone full circle and there has been this enlightened return to the power of essential oils, with all their healing properties, as part of the twenty first century trend to a more natural way of life. In fact we have this anomaly today of part of the Western world being hooked on junk fast foods and pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medications while the other sector of citizens celebrate all things healthy and wholesome and natural.

Hopefully, the latter can grow and overtake the former for the good of all. We know how essential oils have a pleasant aroma but they don't just smell good, their chemical make up is complex and their benefits vast. In fact you could spend your whole life studying the subject of essential oils.

History of essential oils

Historically, essential oils have played a prominent role in everyday life. There are over 200 different references to aromatics, incense and ointments in the Bible where essential oils were used for anointing and healing the sick.

It is thought that essential oils were first discovered and used in Egypt, particularly for embalming, though they also found them useful for cosmetics and for medicinal treatments. Most essential oils were produced using a type of method known as enfleurage extraction but at roughly the same time, China also started to use herbs and aromatic plants while India commenced their Ayurvedic medicinal system which is still relevant today.

The Greeks were the next to adopt essential oils and their famous physician Hippocrates firmly believed in aromatherapy massage as part of the treatment process for his patients. Then it was the Romans' turn who carried on the tradition of aromatherapy together with power of fragrances. When the ancient civilizations disappeared into the Dark Ages, it was the Arabian empire that emerged to continue the tradition of essential oils while learning both from the West and the East.

Those same Dark Ages meant that practising herbal medicine was frowned upon although aromatics became important for disguising unwashed bodies with the added advantage of their anti-bacterial and anti-pesticide properties. During the Renaissance, there was a small swing back to folk medicine.

There was a tremendous breakthrough in the early 1900s when the French chemist Gattefosse burnt his hand in his lab which he treated with lavender oil – the closest substance available. He found that it eased the pain and helped to heal the hand with no infection and no scarring so he began to experiment with essential oils. Others such as Dr Valet went on to treat injured soldiers in the second world war with essential oils. The 1950s saw the start of essential oils being used in massage treatments so that by the 1970s and 1980s, essential oils and the art of aromatherapy had a world wide following. Along with aromatherapy, today essential oils are used for massage therapy, emotional health, personal care, nutritional supplements, household solutions, healing treatments and much more.

Usage of essential oils

The purpose of essential oils in their natural state in their host plants is to defend these same plants against insects, environmental conditions and disease, while helping the plant to grow, live, evolve and generally adapt to its surroundings. And when you understand all the healing properties in such essential oils, it all makes sense. In recent times, producers have had to re-learn the age old distillation process to ensure that the complex chemical makeup of these essential oils is not destroyed so that more and more people can reap the vast benefits for themselves.

Different essential oils will have different properties – antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiseptic and more. They can rapidly penetrate cell membranes, travelling through the bloodstream and tissue to enhance cellular function and all in a natural, healthy way without the need to resort to the synthetic chemicals of drugs. Those magnificent benefits of essential oils can be derived in three main ways: the ingestion and topical application of therapeutic grade oils; the diluting of the oils in a carrier oil for massaging the body to relieve stress and induce relaxation; and the inhalation of the oils where the brain then receives the effects.

Essential oils are effective healing natural oils for a large variety of serious skin conditions including acne, psoriasis, rosacea, eczema, warts, moles, stretch marks, skin tags, wrinkles and more. They can also be used for sexual enhancement, to reduce stress and anxiety, to fight flu and manage pain, to detoxify the body, relax muscle spasms, to ensure a good night's sleep and for arthritis symptoms. Other uses include to clean the home, for natural fragrance, for personal bath and other personal products, as an insecticide and to treat mold. With hundreds of different essential oils, the list is really endless.

Time Frame

Essential oils if stored tightly closed, in a cool place and away from natural and/or artificial light will last for many years.


Steam distillation is the most popular form of essential oils extraction, being used for leaves, flowers, seeds, roots and stems. Other methods include expression, enfleurage, maceration and solvent extraction. Essential oils are extracted from many different parts of their plants such as rose from its petals, orange from the rind of its fruit, frankincense from the resin of its tree, cinnamon from its bark, pine from its needles and of course hundreds more. When extracted, the oils are highly concentrated and far more potent than dry herbs.

If you can imagine, it takes some 12 000 rose blossoms to produce one teaspoon of rose essential oil. Each oil will have its own unique aspect. Jasmine flowers must be picked by hand at dawn on the first day they open, while to get the best quality oil from a sandalwood tree, it must be at least thirty years old and thirty feet high. The price and quality of the oil are determined depending on the method of extraction and the quantity of the raw materials used. Soil quality, climatic, geographic conditions and whether they are grown organically all contribute to the overall quality of the essential oils.

Distillation is practised by using two large containers (or stills). The first has an inlet at the bottom, in which steamed water, heated at low pressure, is sent in. This container is loaded with the aromatic raw materials. The steam rises, gently simmering the contents. The heat causes the essential oils to be released from the plant by evaporation and to travel, as part of the steam, towards an outlet at the top of the container. This outlet carries on into another container and coils itself all the way down. This coil is called a serpentine. The second large container is filled with cold water and the serpentine is immersed into it. As the aromatic vapors rush through the coil, the water acts as a cooling agent and the essential oil begins to separate from the cooled steam. At the bottom of this second container is another tube connected to a vessel called an alembic, in which the essential oil and the water collect. Usually essential oils have a density lighter than water so they will float on top of the water so that the two can be separated.

The water by-product of the distillation process is called a floral water and so nothing goes to waste as these will be bottled as rose water, orange water, lavender water and others.

Supplementary Information

There is tremendous diversity in essential oils.

Bergamot is one of the ingredients in a formula to treat physical conditions such as acne, psoriasis or cold sores but it can also be used for its healing properties for the emotional ailments of anger, anxiety or stress. Yet another use is as a natural insecticide to protect the body against lice and other parasites. During radiation treatment, bergamot oil can be inhaled (in aromatherapy) to reduce anxiety during radiation treatment.

Geranium essential oil has wonderful healing benefits particularly with regard to the skin because it will soothe dry skin, reduce cellulite through massage and help clear blemishes in the complexion. On the other hand, it also has a calming and restoring influence on mind, body and the emotions.

Each and every essential oil will have its own unique healing properties.


Although the medical profession long ago realized the healing powers of herbs and plants, and used at least one natural component in most of their medicines, they made the mistake of extracting what they considered to be the active ingredient (from plants and herbs), isolating this and then mixing it with their synthetic substances (chemicals). The result? An unnatural product and all that that entails – powerful, unbalanced and unwanted side effects.

Fortunately, there are many alternative health practitioners who take advantage of and recognize these healing powers of essential oils in their natural state.

Effectiveness and Citations

A study by the University of Heidelberg found that peppermint essential oil was able to penetrate the skin and have a direct virucidal effect against the herpes simplex virus. Peppermint oil was also found to be active against an acyclovir-resistant strain of the herpes simpex virus. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13678235

Research conducted at Weber State University and Brigham Young University by D. Gary Young indicated that most viruses, fungi, and bacteria cannot live in the presence of most essential oils, especially those high in phenols, carvacrol, thymol, and terpenes. This is especially important in view of the fact that studies have concluded that 50% of buildings, both old and new, have mold while 1 in 7 Americans suffers from acute fungal sinustis, resulting from exposure to mold. http://aromatherapy4u.wordpress.com/got-mold-essential-oils-kill-mold/

There are countless other studies attesting to the effectiveness of essential oils.

Reference Material

Apart from the internet, there are several books on the subject of essential oils available, giving interested people a permanent reference tool, and these include:

The Complete Book of Essential Oils by Valerie Ann Worwood

The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple by David Stewart

The Essential Oils Book by Colleen K Dodt

and Reference Guide for Essential Oils by Connie & Alan Higley



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