What Are Essential Oils?
There is more to essential oils than their aroma. Derived from herbs, flowers, shrubs, trees, grasses or fruits, these concentrated liquids are incredibly powerful and versatile. Each oil has multiple uses and benefits, and often you need only a drop or two to get results. No wonder essential oils are used widely in food and beverages, cosmetics, perfumes, body care products and medications.
But why are essential oils so potent? What are they made of? And how are they produced?
Let’s take a look.
First, a quick background on why they are called essential oils. “Essential” here is short for “quintessential.” Quintessence refers to a thing’s purest essence—its spirit or life force. In the case of essential oils, the early belief was that the extraction process takes away the plant’s spirit. Today, essential oils are often described as the pure, concentrated essences of plants.
As for “oils,” the use of the term stems from the fact that the chemical foundation of these substances is similar to that of vegetable oils such as olive, sesame, sunflower, grape seed and hazelnut oils. But unlike vegetable oils, essential oils do not feel greasy. Most are actually watery, like lavender and lemon. Plus, they evaporate easily and completely, without leaving any oily marks.
Now you might be wondering where essential oils are extracted exactly. While vegetable oils are expressed from plant nuts or seeds, essential oils come from either the external or internal structures of a plant. With peppermint, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, lavender and basil, for instance, structures found on the surface of the plant are used. Internal ducts and cavities are common sources for citrus oils (e.g., bergamot, orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit), resin trees (e.g., copaiba, myrrh and frankincense) and eucalyptus species.
The oils are extracted from plant material via physical means. Distillation is the most common technique, which uses steam or water to isolate essential oil molecules. Expression or cold pressing is employed to obtain oils from sacs in the rinds of citrus fruits. Other methods include enfleurage, maceration, and solvent extraction with oils such as Jasmine.
Roles and Uses
When you are wondering what are essential oils, it is important to know that before they’re extracted they play a key role in helping plants adapt. They draw in pollinators and dispersal agents. They discourage competing vegetation from taking root in the same area. And they provide protection against predators, insects and organisms that pose a threat to their survival.
Once they’re extracted, essential oils become even more powerful and versatile. In fact, their benefits have been examined and proven in numerous research studies and tests. For instance, peppermint has been found to improve alertness, energy levels and performance. It can also soothe occasional headaches and minimize post-workout muscle cramps.
There are many scientific studies that show lemon essential oil helps with positive moods and that lavender makes it easier for a person to relax and fall asleep. In addition, lavender has been shown to help occasional menstrual cramps.
To feel the effects of essential oils, their tiny molecules must enter the body, usually via diffusion, external application or dietary consumption. Essential oils can help with normal cellular function which supports the immune system and the detoxification pathways.
Essentials oils have been around for ages, and their aromatic and therapeutic properties have made them a valuable resource in your natural personal care and wellness routine. They are practical and convenient to use, so you can easily incorporate them in your lifestyle.
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