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What are they?

Essential oils are highly aromatic substances and are found in very small amounts in various parts of plants and are what give the plant its aroma. They are made in specialised cells in the plants and are known as essences.

Lavender essence for example is found in the flowering tops of the plants, and eucalyptus in the leaves and young twigs, rose from the petals of the flowers, citrus oils from the rind of the fruit its self; frankincense comes from the resin and sandalwood from the heartwood of the tree. Coriander comes from the seeds and vertivert from the plant root.

 We use the term essential oil loosely to describe all the oils we use, but strictly speaking only oils obtained by distillation are truly essential oils. The majority of essential oils are obtained by steam distillation, but there are a few which are obtained using other methods, and therefore are not really essential oils. Citrus oils which are  extracted by simple pressure (cold pressed) are still essences, and rose, jasmine and neroli are obtained by enfleurage or solvent extraction and are classified as absolutes.

Unlike other oils essential oils are volatile - that is they evaporate very quickly when exposed to air. They do not feel greasy to the touch and generally will not leave a stain like vegetable oils do. They are insoluble in water but soluble in alcohol, ether and vegetable oils. They are very complex chemically, some having as many as 200 constituents. This is what gives the  essential oils their healing properties. Different oils have different properties but all essential oils are antiseptic, some  like tea tree and eucalyptus very strongly so. Other  properties, to mention but a few are analgesic, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, fungicidal, decongestant, anti-inflammatory and all oils have combinations of these properties. Lavender is special in that it has an extremely complex chemistry and has all the above mentioned properties and more besides. It really is the aromatherapist’s cure all, and most people also love its familiar aroma.

 Most true essential oils are watery in consistency and colourless or range from to pale yellow to pale green. There are exceptions of course, one of which is German camomile which is a beautiful bright blue; essential oils extracted from resins and roots like myrrh and vertivert are often thick and dark brown in colour.  Rose absolute, as you might expect, is deep rich reddish brown.

Some essential oils are extracted more easily than others, and some are present in the plants in greater quantities. For example 100 kl of lavender produces 3 kl of essential oil, but 100 kl of rose petals produce only 0.3kl of absolute. This explains why there can be such a difference in price from one oil to another. One thing is certain,  if you see rose absolute for sale at the same price as the lavender oil beside it on the shelf you can be certain that the rose  is not the genuine product.

You will need to consult a reputable aromatherapy guide to find out all about the oils properties as they are way to numerous to list here.

Most essential oils available commercially for use in aromatherapy, food flavourings and cosmetics have been analysed and their constituent parts identified but there are still some substances in some essential oils that defy the scientists’ attempt to identify them.

Are Essential Oils Safe?

 Just because an essential oil is a natural substance doesn't mean that all essential oils are safe or that the careless use of the oils  won't have negative consequences.

CAUTION : Some plants like cinnamon bark produce oils that have properties that are hazardous and are never used by aromatherapists on the skin, but some of them have delightful aromas that can still be enjoyed using vaporisers and air sprays.  See How  to use essential oils at home

Essential oils are concentrated. Often an effect is achieved by using less rather than using more.

If it says to use 2 drops, do not use more.  Some of the restrictions placed on essential oils are because people have  tried taking  an essential oil as medicine - this may kill you - if not quickly, then certainly slowly from liver damage. Just because a product is natural it does not mean that it should not be treated with respect and care.

Essential oils must never be taken internally, although  there are aromatherapists’, mainly  in France who do prescribe oils for internal consumption, they are usually also medical Doctors and are specially trained to prescribe  essential oils internally.

Almost all Essential oils must be diluted in carrier oils for application to the skin. There are a few exceptions, Lavender and Tea Tree can however be applied neat to very small areas, for example for burns,  small wounds or spots. I  would absolutely advise consulting a suitable guide for detailed information on the use of oils.

Suggested books:

 “The Encyclopedia  of Essential Oils” by Julia Lawless

“Aromatherapy An A - Z”  by Patricia Davis  (this one is my personal favourite)

“Aromatherapy” by Chrissie Wildwood

Some other Aromatherapists’ who are also respected authors;

 Valerie Ann Worwood,  Shirley Price, Robert Tisserand


Essential oils should be purchased in dark  glass bottles, blue cobalt bottles are the best and preserve the oils for longest. Always remember to put the lid back on the bottle - otherwise the oil will oxidise and be of no use.

Store the essential oil out of the light - in a cupboard or box out of reach of children.

Oils should always be kept cool and Citrus oils are best kept in a fridge as they deteriorate more quickly than other oils. They probably only have a 6 month shelf life once opened, and if the bottles are opened frequently perhaps less. You can in fact keep all oils In a fridge at about 5 ­°c although some will solidify at this temperature and they need to come to room temperature before you can use them.

Be wary of purchasing essential oils that are placed out on display in shops. Many shops display products on shelves under lighting, but the heat and light destroy the essential oils therapeutic value. They may still smell nice, and can be used in vaporisers but they are of no use for aromatherapy.

There is a great many essential oils on the market, but for various reasons not all of them are suitable for use in Aromatherapy .