Mankind has used herbal oils throughout history in various cultures for medicinal and health purposes. Medical applications of therapeutic oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer and often are based solely on historical accounts of use. Herbal oils 101 is a mini overview on how to use and these oils.
Herbal oil benefits come from their antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Though you can make your own herbal oils, it would most certainly be easier to buy them from your local health food store, or online. Herbal oils have many benefits and many ways to use them:
- as an ingredient in cooking,
- as a topical application,
- for household cleaning tasks, or
- for aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine.
The most commonly used herbal oil is essential, though they can also be infused. Essential oils use most of the plant’s material. Thus, they are highly concentrated and must be diluted before use. Infused oils, however, contain a small amount of the plant’s material and can be used immediately.
I use herbal oils in many of my beauty recipes like lotion bars and herbal face oil but in diluted amounts.
- Essential oils must be diluted (3 to 5 drops) in a carrier oil (like coconut or almond oil) for topical applications such as a massage oil, beard oils, and hair applications.
- Concentrated essential oils can be used in aromatherapy, in bath water, as a diffuser, or in a compress.
Before purchasing herbal oils, it’s vital to ensure that you are purchasing high-quality products. To achieve the maximum healing effects from your oils, you must carefully check what you’re buying.
Methods of Extraction
Essential oils are generally extracted by mixing them with alcohol, oils, fats, and other solvents. There are varying methods, depending on the type of plant and its chemical makeup.
Today pure essential oils are usually extracted via steam distillation from plants. The advantage of distillation:
- The volatile components can be distilled at temperatures lower than the boiling points of their constituents and
- The essential oils are easily separated from the condensed water.
The plants are picked and all parts of plants, including the flowers, leaves, bark, roots, resin, and peels, are used. The entire plant is suspended over boiling water in a closed container. This allows the steam to draw out the oils.
The steam rises and is captured and pushed along tubing into a condensation chamber. Both the aromatic vapors and the water vapor turn into liquid here. But when the steam is rapidly cooled, it condenses back into water.
As essential oils and water do not mix, they separate allowing the essential oils to be collected. Most essential oils are lighter than water, so they form the upper layer and get siphoned off. Occasionally, however, an essential oil (clove, for example) is heavier than water and is found on the bottom rather than the top.
Steam-distilled essential oils are considered the next best thing to cold-pressed essential oils.
Some plants easily release their aromatic components, so the essential oils are extracted using a cold-pressed method.
In the past, this age-old method was commonly used for extracting citrus oils (tangerine, lemon, bergamot, sweet orange, and lime) from their fruit skin. Called “sponge pressing,” it was done by hand. A sponge was used to press the rind and absorb the essential oil.
Today, cold pressing is done using centrifugal force. A spinning centrifuge separates the essential oil from the fruit juice. The oil is separated from the oil-juice mixture, and an essential oil is obtained.
Cold-pressed essential oils smell fresh and have a light color. Since the raw materials are not subjected to heat, they retain the exact aromatic content of the original plant parts. They are considered superior among essential oils for this reason, but this process is not suitable for the extraction of many essential oils.
This is a chemical process where a suitable solvent is used to bind with the volatile oils in the plant. The solvent is then separated from the mixture to get the end product, which is called “absolute.”
Alcohol has been the traditional solvent in many essential oil extraction processes because of its easy availability. It evaporates quickly, leaving behind the absolute oil.
Modern solvent extraction processes now use several other volatile organic compounds like acetone, propane, and hexane. Because these chemicals can leave behind toxic residues, their safety is doubtful. So they shouldn’t be used therapeutically.
Solvent extraction produces different grades of absolutes. The top grade is uncut. It is a thick or semisolid substance that is difficult to work with. Lower and less expensive grades are diluted with alcohol to make them more user-friendly. The strength of aroma, however, may be slightly diminished.
Today, manufacturers use solvent-extracted oils in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, and other products, for flavoring in food and drink, and for adding aromas to household cleaning products.
As a product of nature the quality of the essential oils can be affected by the species of plant, growing conditions, the technique used to extract the oil, storage, and additional factors. In some cases, the temperature, cloud cover, and even the soil type can have an effect on the oils.
All herbal oils should be 100% pure, free of additives, adulterants, and dilutions. You should try to decide if the essential oil meets three characteristics: grade, purity, and integrity. This may be difficult so you may want to rely on brands with a reputation for high quality (Young Living, Essential Vitality, Mountain Rose Herbs, Aura Cacia, and doTERRA).
Essential oils also come in a variety of blends. Don’t assume, however, that a mix of oils that works for one person may work for you. We are all unique. Thus, each of us can react to the same substance differently. Further, there’s no way you can verify the various ingredients and their proportions in blended oils.
It’s best to buy a pure essential oil (no blends), even if you can afford only the smallest quantity. Being highly concentrated, a little goes a long way. Also, it’s easier for you to check out whether a particular oil works for you.
Organic Herbal Oils
Buying organic is paramount if you plan to use an essential oil therapeutically. Because these oils (such as mint or orange) are highly concentrated, the pesticide residue in the oil can be magnified.
Look for essential oils extracted from organically grown crops, with proper certifications attached. Also, check to see if it meets the government standards based on an analysis of its pesticide content.
Some essential oils are extracted from wild plants and not from cultivated crops. Thus, you may be unable to get an organic certification for such products, even though they may be purer than organic-certified products. But, be careful! Buy them only from a trusted source.
Beware of Synthetic Fragrance Oils
There are synthetic versions of many essential oils. They are artificially synthesized in chemical plants by combining various substances, usually aromatic derivatives of coal-tar. Their chemical composition could be nearly identical to the natural components of the essential oils. Some may even smell exactly the same. However, they may not have the same therapeutic properties.
It might sound like a difficult task, but it only takes a bit of practice to learn which oils are of good quality. Until that day comes, you will need to rely on the brand. The company decides on what quality of oils they produce, and some companies only sell cheaper grades. Beware of bargains that are too good to be true!
Don’t be fooled by labels stating therapeutic grade or pure. Anyone can say this! It doesn’t indicate the quality of the oil. Additionally, if the label says fragrance oil, it is merely an artificial scent as opposed to an essential oil. Instead, keep your eyes peeled for oils labeled organic or wild-crafted.
As the consumer, you don’t generally get a choice about what products are stocked, but using price alone as a guide is not the way to proceed.
The most important thing is the reliability of the company producing the essential oil. Because you can’t verify the purity or quality of the essential oil – other than experimentally – the best way is to find a reliable source.
Brands such as Young Living, Essential Vitality, Mountain Rose Herbs, Aura Cacia, and doTERRA all have excellent reputations in producing essential oils of the highest quality.
How you store your herbal oils is just as important as the rest of the process it has gone through to end up in your cabinet. Always store them in glass containers, as many essential oils can dissolve plastic. Thus, your oils could become contaminated by the plastic, even if it’s only a temporary storage solution.
Additionally, do not store essential oils in dropper bottles. This is because the squeeze bulbs and rubber seals can melt.
The color of glass bottle you choose for storage isn’t important, but you should keep them away from heat sources, and away from direct sunlight. Heat can affect the potency of essential oils, if you have room in your refrigerator, it is an ideal storage option.
I leave you with a final cautionary word. Although essential oils give you many benefits, they are potentially dangerous. Why? Sometimes it’s the level or grade of purity, and sometimes it’s related to the toxicity of specific chemical components of the oil.
- Essential oils designed exclusively for their aroma-therapeutic quality usually should NOT be applied directly to your skin when undiluted. They can cause severe irritation. Occupational contact dermatitis due to essential oils.
- Some essential oils, including many of the citrus peel oils, can increase your skin’s vulnerability to sunlight.
- Many of the common essential oils, such as tea tree, lavender, and citrus oils, may be flammable. So use caution around heat.
- Essential oils can be aggressive toward rubbers and plastics, so care must be taken in choosing the correct handling and storage equipment.