What Are Essential Oils?

Field of lavender flowers where lavender essential oil comes from

By Mark Piatt

Updated on April 23, 2019

You have heard of these things called essential oils, but what are essential oils? Ever wonder why roses smell like roses or oranges smell like oranges?  Recently people have started to discover that we are living in a toxic environment.  It seems like every time we watch the news, we are hearing about how our food is contaminated with man-made chemicals.  Or we hear that something we have been using may be a source of cancer because of a chemical that was used in the manufacturing process.

What are essential oils?

These aromas are created by volatile aromatic compounds within the plant that give the plant its characteristic aromas and intrinsic benefits.  Plants use these compounds to help with bacterial and fungal control, humidity control, damage control, and hormonal effects.  They also use these compounds to attract or repel insects, birds, or other types of animals. 

Plants also use these compounds for allelopathy.  This is when a plant releases chemicals (aromas) that prevent other species from growing within the area.  For people, inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory.

These powerfully fragrant compounds (oils) are extracted through various means to become an essential oil.  Depending on the essential oil, the compounds are extracted from the flowers, leaves, needles, stems, roots, resin, seeds, peels, and bark.  These essential oils can be up to 75 times more powerful than the herb by itself. 

Essential oils have a variety of uses, some controversial, including aromatherapy, scenting, natural home remedies and medical treatments, bug repellents, food preservation, cleaning products, and personal beauty treatment.

Maybe you wish to seek an alternative form of treatment for something that is ailing you.  Perhaps you look at the ingredients of those scenting products you use and see how they are just a cocktail of crazy-sounding chemicals.  Maybe you just want to make your home smell wonderful without the use of all those sprays and plugins.

If you fall in any of these categories, then essential oils may be something you wish to explore.  You will discover that they have many benefits and uses, or you may find a whole new way of battling or preventing health issues you currently have or may encounter in the future. 

What are essential oils made of?

When you think of essential oils, you may just think they are simple oil.  But that could not be further from the truth.  A single essential oil is made up of many compounds, sometimes hundreds. 

To date, over 5,000 volatile aromatic compounds have been identified.  For many years, the health benefits of essential oils have been known, but science is just beginning to study the benefits of these individual compounds.

These compounds are made up of molecules that can rapidly change from a solid or liquid state to a gas state at room temperature.  The molecules are considered volatile because of this characteristic. 

If you open a bottle of essential oils, you can usually very quickly smell a powerful aroma.  This is thanks to the characteristics of the molecules changing from a liquid to a gas state very quickly.  The mix of compounds within the oil is what gives the essential oil its characteristic aroma and its unique benefits.  A single essential oil can be made up of over 200 compounds.

Even if an essential oil is considered pure, its molecular structure can vary between different batches.  This is because many outside influences can change the molecular structure of the plant.  These include changes in weather, soil, season, geographical location, the year the plant was grown, duration of the extraction process, and the production process.

Plus, there are different biological families and various species of each essential oil.  Right now, there are hundreds of essential oil variations that can be purchased.  Some are very inexpensive, and some are worth more than their weight in gold. 

Are essential oils safe?

Essential oils do in fact exhibit a level of toxicity, some more than others.  For this reason, some oils should not be used in aromatherapy or should only be used under the direction of a trained aromatherapist or other health professional.  But for aromatic purposes, most are safe to use if used properly. 

Unless directed by a health professional, essential oils should not be ingested despite what some companies tell you about their oils.  Just because an essential oil is pure, does not mean it is non-toxic.  Remember, some of these natural compounds are highly concentrated and can cause a variety of health issues, some short-term and some long-term. 

As an example, although not an essential oil, apple seeds are natural but contain a compound called amygdalin.  When digested, this compound degrades to hydrogen cyanide.  This is highly poisonous, even in small quantities, and can lead to death.

Various studies have been done on essential oils.  They have found that when used properly, very few negative side effects are associated with the essential oil.  When used purely for their aroma through a diffuser, there have been very few side effects. 

When applied directly to the skin, you do have to be careful.  Some essential oils can cause severe irritation, sensitization, redness, burning, or other reactions if applied topically.  For these types of essential oils, carrier oils are used to dilute these oils before applying them to the skin. 

Not all essential oils are created equal. 

Extracting an essential oil can be an expensive process.  And for some, the source may be limited or difficult to grow, causing the cost to increase exponentially.  As an example, it takes over 60,000 rose blossoms to produce a 1-ounce bottle of rosebud essential oil. So the cost is going to be expensive. Some companies are selling their oils much cheaper than other companies.  How is this possible?

These companies are cheating.  Because of the huge popularity and profitability of selling essential oils, there is rampant tampering with essential oils.

These companies are labeling their bottles as pure, but they are not.  Many of them are mixing compounds made in a laboratory with the essential oil.  Many of these compounds smell similar but do not have the intrinsic benefits of the natural essential oil. Some companies even fool their customers into thinking they are purchasing an essential oil, when in fact, it is just a manufactured fragrance.

As an example, you can purchase a 1.86 oz bottle of Rose fragrance from a very popular department store for $4.95 a bottle. The item is sold in their diffuser / essential oil section. Looking at the tiny printed list of ingredients, you will see there is no essential oil. Only manufactured chemicals. Might as well just use a spray or plugin made of artificial chemicals.

You will find that the same type of essential oil can vary greatly between brands. The most expensive oils tend to be the most potent. You need to use less, therefore, they are more cost-effective. When you use a cheaper oil, you will need to use more.

Do cheap oils work? Yes and no. For some people, depending on what they are using the oil for, the cheap, inexpensive oil may work just fine. But for the vast majority of people, once you try a “premium” brand, you will find they just work better. Many people think they are saving money by purchasing an inexpensive oil. Unfortunately, many of these people are left disappointed.

Here is a challenge for you. Try to find a trained aromatherapist that uses inexpensive oils. Aromatherapists are trained to get results. Most aromatherapists have found through trial and error that inexpensive essential oils do not work as effectively as premium essential oils.

The bottom line is: If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Choose a company that has its essential oils tested by an independent lab.

We carry only premium brands, no cheap oils here. Artisan Aromatics has all their essential oils GCMS tested by ESV (Essential Validation Services). SpaRoom has their vigorously tested to make sure no contaminants, added chemicals, or added dilutions are not included in their essential oils.

How Are Essential Oils Extracted?

You may be wondering how the essential oil is extracted.  The extraction is done through a lengthy and precise process. The six main ways of extracting essential oils are.

  1. Steam distillation – The most common method of extraction.  Steam is passed through the plant material which causes the cell walls to rupture, releasing the oils.  It then passes to a condenser where it collects at the bottom.  The oil is then separated from the water.  The oil is called the essential oil and the water is called a hydrosol. 
  2. CO2 extraction – In this process, the plant material is treated with liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) at very high pressure.  This pressure causes the cell walls to rupture.  Once the essential oil is extracted, the CO2 is turned back into a gas and removed.  This process tends to be more expensive than steam distillation.
  3. Cold Pressing – this process is done for citrus oils.  The rind or fruit is pressed under high pressure while mixed with cold water.  The oil will float to the top and is then removed.  Many fruits are sprayed with pesticides, which means these pesticides will be included in the oil.  For this reason, try and make sure you only purchase citrus essential oils that are organically grown.
  4. Solvent extraction – This complex process is done by mixing chemical solvents or alcohols with the plant material.  After the extraction, the solvents are removed through another complex process.  Solvent extraction may leave residues of the solvents in the essential oil.  For this reason, this process is typically reserved for certain oils that are too difficult to extract in any other way, such as oils extracted from the petals of flowers.  If you see an essential oil with the word “absolute” in the description, then it was extracted with solvent extraction.
  5. Enfleurage extraction – An ancient process that uses odorless fats that are solid at room temperature to capture the essential oils.  Ethyl alcohol is then used to dissolve the fat, and then the alcohol is evaporated, leaving only the essential oil.  This process is used on certain essential oils that are too difficult to extract using traditional means.
  6. Phytonic extraction – This process uses non-chlorofluorocarbons in an efficient and non-toxic manner.  This process is expensive and hardly ever used.

Are essential oils and aromatherapy the same thing?

For the most part, the two are interchangeable.  But aromatherapy implies that all essential oils smell wonderful, and that is not always the case.  Smells are very subjective.  As an example, many people do not find the aroma of chamomile very pleasant when used by itself.  But when mixed with other essential oils, it can smell pretty good. 

Do essential oils go bad over time?

Pure essential oils do not go rancid, but they do oxidize, which causes them to deteriorate. As they deteriorate, they will begin to lose their therapeutic and aromatic qualities. The aromatic qualities can last much longer than the therapeutic qualities.

All essential oils will deteriorate over time, but they all have different shelf lives ranging from a few months to many years. Most can be kept at room temperature but there are a few that should be kept refrigerated. Many factors determine the shelf lives of essential oils including:

  1. The actual composition.
  2. The conditions in which the essential oil was distilled, vary between distillers.
  3. The quality of the original source.
  4. The care taken when bottling and handling the essential oil at the time it was created.
  5. The storage conditions both at the supplier and at your home.

Generally, keeping your essential oils in a cool place and away from direct sunlight will extend their shelf life greatly. Be sure to keep them in their dark bottles with their caps tightly closed. Store them in a cool dry location away from sunlight.

The following is a quick guideline for the therapeutic life spans of certain essential oils. Their aromatic qualities will last much longer than these guidelines.

Essential oils that contain monoterpenes have the shortest shelf life between 1-2 years. These include citrus-based oils, frankincense, lemongrass, tea tree, pine, spruce, and neroli.

Essential oils that contain a high percentage of sesquiterpenes have shelf lives between 4-8 years. These include sandalwood, patchouli, and vetiver.

Most all other essential oils have a shelf life of between 2-3 years.

The popularity of essential oils today.

The world of essential oils is vast and intriguing.  Numerous studies have been and are being conducted on the properties of these compounds.  Remember, because they are highly concentrated, a few drops can go a long way.  Also keep in mind that even though they are all-natural, they are highly concentrated and extremely potent. 

Aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years and is safe to use with most essential oils.  As far as ingested essential oils, it is highly debatable whether they should be ingested.  There are not enough studies to conclude they are safe so you should be very cautious when ingesting essential oils.

Today the growing interest in essential oils coincides with the public’s growing interest in using alternative and natural products.  There are no government regulations for essential oils, so watch out for the wild claims made by some companies.  Also, there are no standards for quality or purity.  Approach the use of essential oils as an alternative medicine with caution. 

Some companies claim their oils can be ingested or used on the skin because they are pure.  They do not inform people of the potential risks and dangers involved.  Just because they are pure, does not necessarily make them safe.  Be wary of such claims and do your research.

The compounds in essential oils can break down in the liver forming phytochemicals.  As these phytochemicals accumulate in the body, they can become toxic.  Many essential oils can be applied topically. Some can be applied topically if mixed with a carrier oil. But for making the home smell good, essential oils are a great alternative to those sprays and plugins being sold everywhere with very few health concerns.

So now that you know the basics of what essential oils are, use them sensibly and most of all, have fun experimenting. 


Information provided in this description is for educational purposes only.  For possible treatments of physical or mental diseases, please seek a trained and licensed health professional.  Enchanted Aromatics is not responsible for any adverse affects resulting from the use of any suggestions, products, preparations, or procedures mentioned or from following historical uses of essential oils.

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