Frequently asked question about essential oils and aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy based on holistic principles.
Aromatherapy uses the application of essential oils, which are derived from plant matter, to improve mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
This is a practice that has been evident in human culture throughout time. Our ancient ancestors used plants that produced perfumed aromas to improve their health and wellbeing; there are plenty of written accounts and evidence from ancient civilisations to show that this was the case.
Aromatherapy as we know it today can be in part attributed to Rene Maurice Gattefosse who was the author of a book called ‘Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales’ which was first published in 1937.
Gattefosse owned a cosmetic company. He was working in his laboratory when he accidentally burnt his hands in an explosion. He plunged his hands into the first container of liquid that he saw without realising the liquid was Lavender essential oil. He was so impressed by how the Lavender essential oil helped to soothe his burns and how it improved his healing process that he dedicated the rest of his life to learning as much as he could about essential oils, and how they could be used to improve health and wellbeing.
Modern day aromatherapy works on the same principles of harnessing the natural power of plants in essential oil and absolute forms. Nowadays you can visit a qualified aromatherapist who will have a wealth of knowledge on essential oils and absolutes and can administer the oils to help your specific health concerns.
Alternatively, you can purchase your own essential oils, and by adhering to the specific safety guidelines for each essential oil, you can use them at home to reap positive aromatherapy benefits.
In simple terms essential oils are the oils from the plant matter from which they are extracted. The ‘essential’ pertains to the essence or aroma of the oils. Essential oils are extracted from the fragrant parts of a plant; this could be the flowers, the seeds, the bark, the roots or even the skin of a fruit. The part of the plant the essential oil is extracted from will determine what type of extraction process is used.
Essential oils are most commonly extracted by steam distillation, Co2 extraction, expression or by using solvents.
Essential oils are not just used in aromatherapy. They are used in the production of many everyday items, such as perfumes, shower gels, soaps, shampoos and cleaning products.
Aromatherapy using essential oils can change your mood and outlook in much the same way as a bottle of Tea Tree shower gel might invigorate you when you take your morning shower, or in the same way that you may feel more alluring by having sprayed yourself with your favourite perfume or aftershave.
Absolutes are essential oils that derive from delicate plants that often yield a low amount of essential oil. Steam distillation or expression methods are too harsh to extract oils from these types of plants and so solvent extraction is used instead.
To extract the oil for an absolute, the plant matter is dissolved in a suitable solvent such as hexane or ethanol which helps to isolate the oil so it can be extracted. The result is a compound which is called a concrete. The concrete is mixed with alcohol to release the oil particles. This is then distilled and condensed to produce the absolute.
100% pure absolutes are generally more expensive than their essential oil counterparts because delicate flowers that yield less essential oils take a lot of time to harvest.
As an example, it reportedly takes over 240,000 roses to make 5mls of Rose Absolute. Combine this with having to harvest the roses at the right time so that the flowers are giving off their finest fragrance and you can start to understand just how much work goes into creating a good quality bottle of absolute.
Aromatherapy can help us to manage many of our day to day problems whether these be issues to do with our mental health, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, or for treating physical discomforts.
You can use aromatherapy to:
Reduce stress and anxiety
Improve sleep quality
Enhance spiritual pursuits such as meditation, journalling and manifesting.
Manage and soothe aches and pains
Relieve symptoms of PMT
Help fight bacteria and germs
Improve general wellbeing
Essential oils can be applied to the skin topically or inhaled to reap the aromatherapy benefits.
Essential oils range in strength and potency so caution is needed before applying them topically to the skin. Essential oils should be diluted in a carrier or base oil before they are applied to the skin to avoid irritation.
Once diluted you can use the oil for:
To create a compress
In the bath
For inhalation of essential oils either add essential oils to:
An aromatherapy diffuser
Add to a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam
Use dry Inhalation by adding essential oils to cotton balls which are kept close to you
Make a solution of essential oils and water and add to a spray bottle to freshen the air
How to get the most out of your essential oils
Some essential oils will have a best before date on the label or an indication of how long the oil will last past the purchase date, and others won’t. As a general rule of thumb, oils with a higher viscosity (or thickness) will last longer than lighter oils, such as citrus oils. You can keep using your essential oils for as long as you would like to, however lighter oils may lose their potency if you keep them for a long time, or past their best before date. On the plus side, the thicker oils, such as Patchouli, can last years and almost improve with age, just like a fine wine, if stored correctly.
You may have noticed that essential oils and absolutes are often packaged in dark coloured glass bottles. Brown bottles are a very popular choice, but essential oils may also come in dark green or blue bottles. Aromatherapy suppliers don’t just chose these coloured bottles because they look nice! Quite the contrary.
The dark glass actually protects the oils from sunlight and UV rays so that the oil does not deteriorate too quickly. This in turn helps to protect the therapeutic and aromatic properties of the oil. Essential oils and absolutes should always be kept in glass bottles. The oils will literally eat through plastic, so don’t be tempted to decant them into old plastic bottles.
If you would like to get a longer usage time out of your essential oils and absolutes, you can prolong their lives by keeping them in a cool dark place and by making sure to keep the lids tightly sealed. Some essential oils are more volatile than others so keeping the lids tightly in place will help combat evaporation. A designated drawer, a box or old tin, kept in a place with a constant temperature are ideal places to keep your collection of oils.
You should treat the storage of essential oils in the same way as you would a medicine, especially if you have small children with prying fingers. Oils can be highly potent and cause irritation if not used correctly, so make sure that they are stored out of the way of children and pets, and that the lids are always securely in place.
If you love the light fresh scents and therapeutic qualities of citrus oils, a cool dark place with a constant temperature will work to keep them fresh, but if you wanted to extend their shelf life even further, consider keeping these oils in the fridge. This is an especially good tip if you live in a warm climate. Citrus oils are prone to oxidation, which basically means they have been exposed to too much oxygen. When an oil has oxidized it loses the freshness of its scent and can also lose its therapeutic qualities.
You can keep all your essential oils and absolute oils in the fridge if you want to extend their shelf lives, particularly if you live in a hot climate. The thicker oils can become harder to work with when you take them out of the fridge and it may require that you warm the bottle in your hands to loosen the liquid up. If you live in a cooler climate and use your oils regularly it is worth weighing up if it is worthwhile keeping thicker oils (such as Cedarwood, Clove Leaf and Rose Absolute etc) in the fridge. If you are going to use them all up before the use by date it may be as effective to keep them in a cool, dry and dark place.
If you are going to keep your essential oils in the fridge, it is best to keep them away from food and in their own sealed container. This will stop the potency of the scents of the oils from tainting your food and help to make sure there is no contamination from the oils to your food.
If you have a lot of essential oils and you want to keep them refrigerated, you may end up with no space for your food. In this case it may be worthwhile investing in a small drinks fridge so that you can keep your oils separately.
Oxidation will affect the smell of your oils, but as mentioned above, this may be unnoticeable to the untrained nose. You could check the scent of the oil you think has oxidised against a newly opened bottle of the same essential oil to see if there are any differences in the freshness of the aroma, however this is not a steadfast approach unless you know that the oils are form exactly the same batch. This is because the aroma of an essential oil will change depending on the harvest of the plant that has been made to produce the oil.
Citrus oils, which are the most prone to oxidation may go cloudy. This is one of the more obvious signs of oxidation, but would require some time to experiment, as you probably won’t be able to see the cloudiness by looking through a dark coloured essential oil bottle. Decant the offending oil into a clean glass container and allow a few hours for it to settle. If oxidation has taken place sediment will fall to the bottom of the container. You can discard the sediment and continue to use the clear oil that is leftover.
Over time all oils that are in use will become oxidised. Taking the lids on and off your essential oils is going to introduce oxygen into the bottle and allow for oxidation to take place. The best way to reduce the amount of oxygen that gets into the bottle is to replace the lid as soon as you can after decanting the essential oil you want to use.
The combination of getting oxygen into the bottle, combined with bad storage will make the essential oils deteriorate even more quickly. For example, an essential oil that has been exposed to oxygen, then stored in a sunny spot before being moved into a cool dark place will lose its potency and scent more quickly than an oil that is always kept in a cool dark place with a constant temperature.
If you have the nose of a perfumier, you may recognise that you won’t get the best interpretation of the scent of an essential oil if you smell it from a tester bottle in a shop. Tester oils are forever being exposed to oxygen as customers remove and replace the lids to smell the aroma. A tester bottle will give the untrained nose a good indication of what to expect from the oils scent, but there will be nuances in the scent between a tester and a newly bought oil that has been stored correctly and has its seal intact.
If your essential oils are old or have oxidised, it’s not the end of the world. If you still enjoy the fragrance that they are giving off you can use them to for diffusing, cleaning or crafting, just be aware that they will most likely have lost their therapeutic qualities.
If they are way past having any life in them in terms of their scent, it may be better to throw them away and buy some new essential oils.