What are Essential Oils?


First, let’s look at some history of essential oils

If you look back in time to the ancient Egyptians, you will find essential oils were used. In fact, when King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923, archaeologists found 50 alabaster jars containing essential oils and a few were still completely full. King Tub died in 1323 BC.

The Egyptians used essential oils in their everyday lives from bathing, protection from the sun and personal beauty treatments.  Cleopatra, said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world, was known to use essential oils like frankincense, myrrh, rose and neroli in her skincare routine.

The Chinese, some think, were studying essential oils at the same time as the Egyptians. In fact, Shennong’s Herbal is the oldest medical text on record. It dates to about 2700 B.C.   Shennong is said to have consumed and tested hundreds of herbs to find out about their medicinal properties.

In the Bible, the three wise men brought Frankincense and Myrrh to the baby Jesus along with gold.  Mary Magdalene broke an alabaster jar of oil and washed Jesus’ feet in the act of humble love for her savior.  The Bible tells us it was worth a year’s wages. There are 188 references to essential oils in the Bible.  That gives us a sense of how vital and valuable those essential oils were over 2000 years ago.

Haven’t we all heard of the Hippocratic Oath?  Written in 400 BC, it set the ethical standard for a physician’s medical practice.  This text was written by Hippocrates, a Greek physician known as the “Father of Medicine.”  He documented over 200 herbs as he believed plant-based medicine could help people live longer, healthier lives.  Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”  He understood the power of that plants held.

Between 50 and 70 AD Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist authored the DeMateria Medica (“On Medical Material”) a 5-volume Greek encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances (a pharmacopeia). The book remained the primary source for information on herbal medicine until 1600.  He is just one of many Greek physicians who treated their patients with medicinal herbs. Greek medicine treated the whole person not the symptoms of a disease.

By the fifteenth century, books were being printed by physicians on the value of essential oils.

Pharmaceutical companies began appearing around the 1800’s and although many companies still used plant-based medicine at the time, synthetic drugs were starting to become popular. By the 20th century, most people had stopped using essential oils and plant remedies.  They were considered more folklore and old world.

In 1928, a French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé used lavender oil to heal a burn on his hand.  He decided to do further research on it’s healing properties and lavender was introduced to many hospitals in France.

Credited to the use of lavender oil, and others oils,  was the fact that there were no deaths of hospital personnel during the outbreak of the Spanish influenza.  René-Maurice Gattefossé is credited with coining the term aromatherapy.

Although it was popular throughout Europe, aromatherapy didn’t gain popularity in the United States until the 1980’s when manufacturers started to add essential oils to lotion, candles and beauty products. Many of these contained synthetic fragrances which do not have the same properties as pure essential oils.

Today we can use organic essential oils, which when properly used, are effective without side effects, unlike their synthetic drug counterparts.  You can create a healthier body and home by adding essential oils to your daily routines.

There are currently over 17,000 medical studies, with over 600 on Lavender essential oil alone, when you look in the NIH (National Institute of Health) PubMed database (I just looked as I was writing this). Many proving their therapeutic benefits.  They have used for healing the mind, body and spirit for thousands of years. They were highly valued, a prized and cherished possession.

Essential oils, as you can see, have thousands of years of history for treating everything from an infected wound to the plague. We need to unlock the power of essential oils for healthy lives for ourselves and our families.   I think we all deserve it.

So, just what are essential oils?

There are two types of oils. Fixed oils are non-volatile meaning they do not evaporate into the air. The most common fixed oils people know would be olive and coconut oils. If you put a little olive oil or coconut oil on the back of your hand, it will look a little oily (or greasy) 2 minutes or so later.  It will be absorbed into your skin,

Essential oils are volatile oils meaning they evaporate quickly and can pass through your skin and into the body more quickly and easily than fixed oils. If you put a drop of Lavender or Patchouli oil on the back of your hand, there will be nothing there in 2 minutes.  Some will have evaporated, but some will have passed through your skin into your tissues, bloodstream, cells, and organs.

Essential oils come from many parts of plants including the plant roots, leaves, stems, flowers, or bark. They are obtained from the plants through the process of distillation, either by steam distillation, cold pressing (expression) or CO2 extraction.

The word “essential” is used when talking about something that is necessary, very important, even crucial and can also be used to describe minerals or nutrients that our body needs.  In the case of essential oils, essential actually comes from the work “quintessential” means of the pure and essential essence of something.

This essence describes essential oils as they are the natural liquids drawn from the very essence of the plant.  This essence is made up of valuable compounds hat we need to support of health in any number of ways.

Essential oils are concentrated and very powerful.  You must remember that when using them. Proper care and application is so important.  

How do essential oils work and how are they used?

Without going into the study of plants, each has their own chemicals within them. Some plants have sweet smells that attract pollinators and some have colors and aromas that keep predators away.

With essential oils, the natural healing properties are harnessed and can then be used to support our own health.  The oil molecules are so tiny; they can penetrate the skin and go into our cells, bloodstream and organs.  There are even some oils, depending on their chemistry, that can cross the blood-brain barrier. 

Essential oils can be used in four ways: highlight and make link to ways to use page

  1. Direct inhalation
    • Open a bottle and breathe in the scent
    • Put a drop or so on a cotton ball or tissue and hold it close to your face while you inhale.
  2. Diffusing- this is the most popular.  
    • The Essential oil is evaporated into the air.
    • Depending on the oils used it can cleanse the air by killing airborne pathogens, and it can help boost your mood.
  3. Topically- applied to the skin
    • Many oils can be applied directly to the skin. This is called a “neat” application.
    • Essential oils can be mixed with a carrier oil to dilute it and help prevent the chances of skin irritation. There are many types of carrier oils  link to page  including coconut oil, almond oil and jojoba oil.
  4. Internally – there is quite a bit of controversy regarding the internal use of essential oils. This is what I have learned.
    • Essential oils are very potent.  There are certain oils that should never be taken internally.
    • There are many things to take into account before taking an oil internally such as the health of the person, any medical conditions like liver issues, medications and allergies, to name a few.
    • Following product usage directions is most important in all usage.
    • When in doubt, use topically.

But are essential oils safe?

With very few side effects or risks showing with safety testing on essential oils, and although, they seem like our friends because they smell nice and they help us, but we need to always remember they are highly concentrated, potent and powerful.  If not used correctly reactions can occur. Some minor like skin irritation but some much more serious.

We must respect their power.  Always read the labels and follow the guidelines for each oil.  Get to know the oil and its recommended use, dosage and any precautions you should take while using it.  

With no regulated standards, it is up to each of us to find out all we can about the essential oil before we use it.  You can always contact me if you have questions.