What are aromatics substances?

What is an essential oil?

A tall cylinder flask containing a liquid known as an essential oil is standing on a surface surrounded by small amber glass bottles. There is some plant foliage in the background.

Essential oils are distilled essences that are derived from a wide range of aromatic plants. Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic extracts obtained from various portions of plants such as the; citrus peel, root, stem, bark, seed, flower, leaf and from resinous substances that exude from a plant or tree when pierced.

Image Description: A tall cylinder flask containing a liquid known as an essential oil is standing on a surface surrounded by small amber glass bottles. There is some plant foliage in the background.

These essences contain upward of 50 to 200 different naturally occurring components that work synergistically within the botanical matrix of the plant rendering the plant with the ability to protect itself from invasive disease, repel predators and attract pollinators. The term ’essential’ does not indicate that these substances are essential to humans, rather the term ’essential’ is derived from the word essence.

While these substances are natural they are still considered volatile chemicals that require the most stringent respect. There are many references indicating that humans have used herbal and aromatic extracts and resins dating back to the Mesopotamia era. It is imperative to realize that herbal extracts and resinous plant materials are completely different from distilled Essential Oils.

Empirical research indicates that some Essential Oils contain constituents that are that are anti-microbial, some are anti-inflammatory and many possess insecticidal properties.  With respect to the volatilization of essential oils from an inhalation perspective some research points to the fact that various essential oils such as eucalyptus may have a positive effect on the respiratory system by causing a local reaction on the mucosa which may help to clear the pathways. Some essential oils possess anti-microbial properties when applied to surfaces and topically. However, most of the research has not made it past the petri-dish.

Some Essential Oils may provide topical relief related to musculoskeletal disorders, due to their cooling and/or warming properties, and some Essential Oils may benefit skin conditions. However, Essential Oils should never be used on the skin undiluted and it is imperative to know which Essential Oils should be used in lessor dilutions and realize that many can cause dermal irritation especially those that oxidize quickly.

There is also verifiable science indicating that from a psychological perspective that an odour, be it natural or synthetic, be it pleasant or obnoxious
will light-up various centres of the brain and elicit positive or negative mood states. 

What are resins and absolutes? Excerpt taken from Eden Botanicals

Absolutes are highly concentrated aromatic oils extracted from plants using a solvent method. The multi-step process includes first extracting the aromatic oil from the plant material with a chemical solvent such as hexane. After the solvent is removed what is left behind is a waxy substance called a concrete. The aromatic oils are then extracted from the concrete with ethyl alcohol, and after the ethyl alcohol is removed, the remaining substance is an absolute – an oil with an aroma close to the plant from which it came. An absolute is the most concentrated form of fragrance and highly regarded in natural perfumery.  

Absolutes differ from essential oils in that they contain not only essential oil, but also a higher density of coloring, waxes and other constituents from the plant. In addition, they usually contain a small percentage of alcohol remaining from the second phase of the extraction process (typically up to 2 or 3 percent).

What is the difference between an essential oil vs. natural isolate or synthetic fragrance?

Essential oils are predominately distilled from leaves, stems, flowers, roots, seeds, bark or resinous substances that exude from trees such as sap. Natural cold pressed essential oils are extracted from the peel of citrus fruits such as grapefruit, lemon, lime and orange.

Fragrant oils are industry approved aromatic materials that are used predominately in soaps, detergents, cleaning products, body care products, cosmetics and perfumes. Fragrant oils are relatively inexpensive and are created with petrochemicals. Advancements in the petrochemical industry over the last century have provided industries with the ability to create synthetic fragrance that mimic natural aromas such as lilac, watermelon or cucumber. These synthetic aromas are used extensively in the perfume industry and by manufacturers of body care products, detergents and soaps. Commercial brand products that are fragrant often contain synthetic fixatives which allows the scent to last for several hours or an entire day.

Pure essential oils are expensive and unstable constituents; for example a batch of fresh distilled lavender oil could contain between 25— 50% linalool (a monoterpene) or more generally referred to as an aromatic isolate that occurs in hundreds of aromatics plants and flowers. However, from season to season and depending upon the geographical growing location the resulting amount of linalool in a particular batch of lavender will vary. Varying amounts of linalool is not conducive to quality control standards when a manufacturer is trying to achieve a consistent scent. Chemists are capable of isolating or extracting linalool from naturally sourced aromatic solutions such as distilled essential oils. However, linalool can also be produced from petroleum and this latter form is often used extensively as an inexpensive filler and adulterator which relates to the fragrant oils discussed previously.

Can people be allergic to essential oils or synthetic fragrance oils?

Over the last one hundred years many folks have developed sensitivities to synthetic perfumes and to petrochemical derivatives in cosmetics. I know myself when I enter a department store where perfumes and fragrances are sold I immediately begin to get a tickle in my nose and throat.  Fragrances can elicit either topical allergic responses and can cause respiratory irritation, and instigate a headache.

Many people indicate that they can not bring fresh flowers into their home due to an allergic response, this is primarily due to pollens emitted from plants.

Some persons have similar reactions to essential oils, however in my experience it seems, to a lessor degree. Usually adverse reactions to essential oils result from over-use and from using essential oils undiluted.

If you know that you are sensitive to a particular plant, or have extremely sensitive skin then it is best that you avoid that particular essential oil, absolute or natural essence.

Best health practices indicate that adopting healthy lifestyle habits and reducing our exposure to toxic ingredients will benefit our planet and our bodies.

Read about my early years of training

-Sandra Topper
  Canadian Professional Aromatherapist since 1993

The information and statements on this site are intended for educational purposes only and not intended to prescribe, cure, prevent, treat or diagnose any disease or condition. None of the information herein has been evaluated by Health Canada or by the Federal Drug Administration.

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