It’s meant to be general and basic. We won’t dive too deep, but you may learn a thing or 2. Ready? “Essential” can mean many things in the world of health and wellness. In some instances, essential refers to something that is required for life, such as amino acids or medium/long chain fatty acids. These are essential in that the body does not make them on its own, but without them, body functions would suffer and ultimately die off. We don’t want that! So we make sure we get those essential nutrients in our body by consuming them in our diet (i.e. fish oil, flax seed oil, olive oil).
Essential in the context of essential oil means something different. When the raw materials of a plant are crushed or distilled or fractionated, the oils that are derived contain that plant’s “essence.” That’s what is “essential” about essential oils. More about that in a bit…
So let me guess. You’ve suddenly been hearing a lot of “buzz” about essential oils…
and it leaves you wondering. Why all this talk about oils all the sudden? Why are they appearing in everything from cosmetics to water to cereal?
Cereal? Ok, maybe not. You get the idea. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard or seen something about essential oils. Perhaps your first thought is “are they new?” That’s a fair question, since they’re getting so much attention it may appear its a new fad and it will go out with the next new health trend.
So it may surprise you to know that natural essential oils are not new. A celebrity featured in a tabloid or infomercial did not invent them between acting gigs. They were being used long before any essential oil companies, (Young Living or Doterra, to name a few), were selling them or even making them.
Essential oils have actually been around a long time. We know they at least go back to Biblical times. These natural oils were used for everything from skincare, medicines, to simply helping with massage and relaxation. Like spices and herbs, pure essential oils were once used as a currency from one trade port to another in ancient times. As you can now see, the uses of oil varied almost as much as the oils themselves. According Wikipedia, the earliest recorded use of essential oils was by Ibn al-Baitar in Spain. al-Baitar was a physical, pharmacist and chemist in his time. They continued to be popular in the middle ages and throughout the renaissance period. While essential oils aren’t new, the process of making them has evolved over time.
As I mentioned earlier, essential oils are derived from raw plant materials. In ancient times, they had one way of getting those plants converted into oils. They did that by taking the roots, the seeds, the leaves and crushing them. Can you imagine how long a process that must have been? Even with technology of today, it takes a lot of time and plant material to extract even a little bit of oil. Typically though, there are 2 main ways this process happens.
Most common essential oils are distilled. Those raw materials from the plant (flowers, leaves, bark, roots, seeds or peel) are put into this gigantic thing, as the water inside heats up, the steam zaps the volatile compounds.
Whoa, wait what? Volatile?
Don’t panic! Just like essential means something entirely different when it comes to oils, volatile does too. Volatile simply means “the tendency of a substance to vaporize.”
Ah, ok. That sounds a little better. Now that we have that cleared up I’ll go on. So these substances (plant materials) are vaporized in the distiller. (Poof!)
The vapor then makes its way through a huge coil and then everything is converted back into liquid and collected in a separate container. Distillation can have a few different processes too. Most oils just have a one step process, but others are purified with something called “fractional distillation.” Oh my. So what is that? In fractional distillation the recondensed plant water is yielded and that is what makes its way into many cosmetics today. That is the “essence of the plant.”
Another method of extraction and one we already touched on is “expression.” This is another way of saying that the peels are cold-pressed (mechanically) Back in the day, this was the only way it could be done. Distillers weren’t invented yet.
Solvent extraction is used when there isn’t enough material in the flower of the plant to vaporize (or for dramatic purposes) – there isn’t enough volatile oil! So when that’s the case, a compound is used to help extract the oil. It may be something called hexane or supercritical carbon dioxide (yes that sounds super important!). The extracts from hexane and other compounds are called concretes. The “concretes” are some blend of the essential oil, wax, resin., etc. They then add ethyl alcohol to extract the oils from the concrete and chill it for about 48 hours. What’s left once the ethanol is removed and compounds are filtered out is called the “absolute.” The supercritical carbon dioxide is used to extract the fluid and the lower temperatures prevent the plants from losing their nutrients and decomposing in the process of extraction. Absolutely fascinating, isn’t it? Sorry, couldn’t resist lol :p
Now banned in the European Union for its high global warming potential, Florasol is another type of solvent used to extract essential oils. This process happens at or below room temperature so the materials aren’t degrading by extreme temperatures.
So let’s tie this up in a neat little bow, shall we?
That’s all for now, friends! As always please feel free to comment below!
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