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Essential Oils

What Is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are aromatic volatile liquids distilled from shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, and seeds.

The chemistry of essential oils is very complex: each one may consist of hundreds of different and unique chemical compounds. Moreover, essential oils are highly concentrated and far more potent than dried herbs. The distillation process is what makes essential oils so concentrated. It often requires an entire plant or more to produce a single drop of distilled essential oil.

Essential oils are also different from vegetable oils such as corn oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. They are not greasy and do not clog the pores like many vegetable oils can.

Vegetable oils can become oxidized and rancid over time. Most essential oils, on the other hand, cannot go rancid and have powerful properties. Pressed oils and essential oils high in plant waxes such as patchouli, if not distilled properly, could go rancid after time, particularly if exposed to heat for extended periods of time.

Essential oils are substances that definitely deserve the respect of proper education. Users need to be fully versed in the chemistry and safety of the oils. However, this knowledge is not being taught at universities in the United States. There is a disturbing lack of institutional information, knowledge, and training on essential oils and the scientific approach to aromatherapy. Only in the Middle East, the Orient, and Europe, with their far longer history of using natural products and botanical extracts, can one obtain adequate instruction on the chemistry and therapy of essential oils.

The European communities have a tight framework of controls and standards concerning botanical extracts and who may administer them. Only practitioners with proper training and certification can practice aromatherapy. However, in the United States, the regulatory agencies have not recognized these disciplines or mandated the type and degree of training required to distribute and apply essential oils. This means that in the U.S. individuals can bill themselves as "aromatherapists" after a brief class in essential oils, and apply oils to people — even though they may not have the experience or training to properly understand and administer them. This may not only undermine and damage the credibility of the entire discipline of aromatherapy, but it can be dangerous to patients.

Limbic System: The processing center of reason, emotion, and smell.

Essential oils are not simple substances. They are mosaics of hundreds — or even thousands—of different chemicals. Any given essential oil may contain anywhere from 80 to 300 or more different chemical constituents. An essential oil like lavender is very complex with many of its constituents occurring in minute quantities—but all contributing to the oil's therapeutic effects to some degree. To understand these constituents and their functions requires years of study.

Additionally, essential oils can be distilled or extracted in different ways that have dramatic effects on their chemistry and medicinal action. Oils derived from a second or third distillation of the same plant material are obviously not going to be as potent as oils extracted during the first distillation. Also, oils that are subjected to high heat and pressure have a distinctly simpler (and inferior) profile of chemical constituents, since excessive heat and temperature fractures and breaks down many of the delicate aromatic compounds within the oil—some of which are responsible for its therapeutic action. In addition, oils that are steam distilled are far different from those that are solvent extracted.

Of greatest concern is the fact that some oils are adulterated, engineered, or "extended" with the use of synthetic chemicals. For example, pure frankincense is often extended with colorless, odorless solvents such as diethylphthalate or dipropylene glycol. The only way to distinguish the "authentic" from the "adulterated" is to subject the essential oil to rigorous analytical testing using state-of-the-art gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, and NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance).

However, even gas chromatography doesn't identify a natural chemical from a synthetic one. That is why it is very easy to engineer oils or extend poor quality oils to make them smell and look good.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of essential oils marketed in the United States fall in this adulterated category. When you understand the world of synthetic oils as well as low-grade oils cut with synthetic chemicals, you realize why unsuspecting people with their untrained noses don't know the difference.

It is not the intention of Living Balanced to provide specific medical advice, but rather to share research and experience.  Living Balanced hopes that one may better understand their health and or their diagnosed disorders.  Living Balanced encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.