Saturday, January 5, 2013

Essential Oils 101

I have had soooooooooo many questions about what constitutes a quality essential oil, I have decided to do a few blog posts on that topic.

Essential oils are made by plants. Plants do not make unnecessary things. The oils serve a purpose in a plant, and, quite often, they serve a similar purpose in people. The differences between a plant cell and a human cell are quite small. Plant cells have different cell walls and vary in a number of interior cell structures. However, the interior of the cells, and their working parts, are very similar. This explains why essential oils may have similar effects in human and plant cells.

Frankincense oozes out of a wound in the frankincense tree. This particular essential oil is actually a resin...not oil-like in consistency at all. The resin acts as a "band aid" for the tree wound. It disinfects it, and speeds healing. Not surprisingly, frankincense has great disinfectant skin rejuvenating properties in people, too. Frankincense was one of the ingredients used back in ancient Egypt to mummify the pharoahs. It has a myriad of other properties...but to keep this simple, we'll just leave the comparison at that.

There are so many factors that can influence the chemical makeup of an essential oil. They are very complex, and, on average, contain approximately 100 components. The components often work in synergy; meaning that they can be more potent and effective together than when isolated. Unlike pharmaceuticals, where one ingredient is purified and its effects are strong, essential oils are most effective when used as nature made them: as a complex blend.

Each plant is unique. Harvesting an essential oil has relied on millenia of research to determine when it is best to harvest the oil. For example, neroli oil is best harvested early in the morning, on a warm, sunny day. An overcast sky can affect what is in the oil. They must be picked at the right stage of maturity: too immature, and you get a lower oil yield, as well as a change in the chemical building blocks of the oil. Too ripe, and much of the oil will evaporate as it is transported to the distillery.

Other factors that affect the composition of the oil include: the weather endured by the plant the year of harvest (wet or dry? Hot or cold? ); how the plant material is transported; how the plant material is stored (proper temperature? too hot or too cold? too long?); the composition of the earth in which the plant grows; the temperature and length of time that the plant material is exposed to during distillation; whether the oil itself is properly packaged (clear bottles or dark?). The list is extensive. This provides you with some idea of how complicated harvesting an oil can be, and, why each harvest of the very same oil can be very, very different - even when you are harvesting the same plants in the same region.

Whew! Well, it's a start!! Next month, we'll talk more about essential oils and why some are "better quality" than others.

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