Essential oils support your body on a cellular level, so your body has extra supplementation that helps its ability to function as it’s designed to. But what are essential oils exactly? How are they made? And does brand matter or are they all the same?
What are essential oils?
The term “essential oil” was originally derived from the term “quintessential oil,” which stems from Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotelianism is a school of philosophy from the Socratic period of ancient Greece, that that focuses on inspiration from Aristotle. The teachings from this mindset of philosophy shows that matter is composed of four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. There is also a fifth element, quintessence, that was considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant (also why we refer to distilled alcohol like whiskey as “spirits”). Through modern science we know that essential oils are physical in nature and composed of complex mixtures of the individual constituents found in the plant matter they are derived from.
Essential oils are made from specific parts of plants, whether its berries, stems, leaves, roots, are a combination of the four. Plants are made up of lipids, triglycerides, and carbon. The word “lipid” encompasses both fats and oils. Both animals and plants need fat as a form of storable food, which also to allows various necessary survival functions to be performed and provide the ability to heal damaged cells. The solid form of the lipid is the fat, while the liquid form of a lipid is the oil. The liquid fats are called oils because they are not soluble in water like other energy sources, such as sugar (glucose), instead they are soluble in fats (specifically seed-based fats like coconut, sweet almond, avocado, sesame, jojoba, olive…etc). Most people do not think of plants as being fatty, but they do contain some fats that they need for their biological processes. Plant fats are mostly triglycerides, which are easily digestible. These are not only useful to the plants themselves, but also offer excellent supplementation for us and other animals as well.
In summary, essential oils serve as the blood of the plant. They are natural defense mechanisms that prevent damaged cells from going rogue and taking on forms they aren’t meant to, resulting in illness, pain, weakness, and other symptoms. When we eat plants, our bodies use the nutrients to support how our bodies function. This is no different with essential oils, although the oils are highly concentrated.
How are essential oils made?
Essential oils are either distilled, extracted using solvents, or cold pressed directly from the plant. Citrus oils are cold pressed, the rest are distilled.
Distillation is a process using steam, water, or a combination of both to extract the essential oils from the plant matter. This process basically ruptures the plant’s cell membranes to release the lipids that make up essential oils. To create therapeutic grade oils, this should be done using low heat and low pressure in order to not damage the volatile oils. High heat and/or high pressure change the chemical makeup of the plant oils that damage their ability to provide therapeutic benefits. So why would companies choose to use high heat and/or high pressure? Profits. Low steam and low pressure takes a lot longer to produce oils than cranking up the heat and pressure. This creates a huge gap in quality of the oils created. High pressure and high heat enable faster production, which means more product is able to be created in a shorter amount of time, which also equates to cheaper prices to go along with more product. This also means you get what you pay for and if you’re looking for a high quality product, you should know the process used by the brand you’re considering to buy.
** Please note: If you see something claiming to be created using fractional distillation, run the other way!! Fractional distillation is high heat and high pressure specifically for the distillation of petroleum products and is not suited for essential oils!!
Expression is also known as cold pressing, a unique feature for citrus peel oils. This method is cold and does not involve any solvents or heat of any kind. Most of the citrus oils are extracted in this manner including grapefruit, lemon, lime, and orange essential oils. These are not technically considered “essential oils” because they are cold-pressed, but do contain the same health and wellness benefits that essential oils offer. The most important thing to consider with cold pressed oils is the source of the fruit since citrus fruits are constantly sprayed with pesticides, which can be very concentrated in the oil. Also keep in mind when using citrus essential oils that they are photosensitive, which means if you have them on your skin and then go out into the sun, you can develop a sunburn-like rash.
Solvent extraction is a method of extracting essential oils that is dominated by the perfume industry, and does not produce therapeutic grade oils because chemicals such as hexane, acetone, di-methylene-chloride and others are used in the process. This process actually creates concrete, then the oil particles are released when the concrete substance is then mixed with alcohol. Once it is separated out, the chemicals remain in the oil, which typically is what we have in our personal care products, cleaning products, and air fresheners (we’ll get to that in a moment). These perfume-grade oils are often labeled as aromatherapy oils that are not to be used on the skin or internally. As you can see, this is process that is the fastest and cheapest because the oil is cut with solvents and can increase the oil production volume significantly.
Perhaps you’ve seen the little bottles that essential oils typically come in that are labeled 100% oil. These are not essential oils. For an essential oil to be a true essential oil, it must be isolated through distillation or expression.
Does quality matter?
Absolutely!! Essential oils have been highly demanded in the market place over the past few years as people learn more about them and how to incorporate them into their wellness routines. This demand has opened up a huge flood in our stores with a plethora of brands to sift through provided by companies just wanting to cash in on the opportunity. Now, answering such high demand for essential oils, quality of those oils have taken on a wide variety.
There are different levels of essential oil quality: perfume, natural/food, and therapeutic.
Perfume grade oils are synthetic or derived from other natural sources that aren’t necessarily from the plant it indicates its from (such as natural vanilla flavoring coming from the anal gland of beavers), though many are made using cheap, low quality essential oils that are further altered in a lab. These often are used in hair care products, skin care products, cosmetics, perfumes, cleaning supplies, air fresheners/sprays… pretty much everything that has a fragrance to it. Its often listed as “fragrance” on product labels and can comprise of 300+ different chemical combinations, many of which are suspected or known toxins to the human body. Legally, they can be labeled as “fragrance” through the protection of proprietary laws. They almost always contain chemical solvents and/or chemical additives that may cause negative health effects. These are the oils we talked about earlier that are often created using solvents or high heat/pressure. Basically, if it has a scent to it and isn’t labeled otherwise, this is what you’re paying for. Perfume grade oils make up 98% of the oils sold in health food stores, retail outlets and aromatherapy suppliers!
Natural/Food grade essential oils are often certified as organic. They are actually essential oils that typically do not contain added chemicals. They can, however, still contain unwanted chemicals that you may want to avoid putting on your body. These oils are most often found in our prepackaged food and cooking/baking extracts. If you look at the label on your peppermint or lemon extract, it contains essential oil and alcohol. Personally, I like to make my own using therapeutic grade oils because I know exactly what is going into the food I make.
Therapeutic grade is designed to label essential oils that are pure and of the highest quality. They do not contain any fillers, additives, or synthetics. They do provide health benefits that supplement our bodies to help keep healthy. This is the best quality you can (and should) buy. However, there is surprisingly little government oversight to the essential oil market and many companies are labeling their oils as “therapeutic grade” as a deceptive marketing ploy, so unless you know who and where you’re buying from, you may or may not actually be purchasing what is labeled. In fact, for an oil to be labeled as “pure essential oil,” it only has to contain 5% essential oil. This is why knowing who you’re buying from and where they source their oils is so important.
Which essential oil brand do you use?
I began my essential oil use by using Oshandi’s oils. I grew up with them and liked that they are organic. After I started researching oils more thoroughly, I found that many brands cut their oils with man-made synthetic chemicals to make the oils more affordable and plentiful (some companies even fully develop their oils synthetically). Interestingly enough, there are far less oils produced than there are actually sold. If you’re sensitive to synthetics, like I am, its easy to tell which ones are contaminated or synthetically created (I get nauseous and headaches from oils containing synthetic compounds).
After much research and contemplating, I settled on Young Living’s essential oils. Here are a few reasons why:
- They’ve been in business since 1993.
- I really like the ethics of the company, and their Seed to Seal guarantee.
- They own many of their own farms.
- They distill their own oils.
- They use the plant matter left over from distillation to compost and use as fertilizer for their farms.
- The farms they don’t own, they manage carefully to ensure farming and distilling standards are met every step of the way.
- They would rather allow a seasonal item go out of stock than to compromise the integrity of their oils.
- I like the way they take organic to the next level by using their own essential oils for pest control (yes! You can do that!).
- I also like that they encourage distributors to visit the farms and help with the process.
- They encourage their distributors to be positive and share through their love of oils and the ethics used to produce them.
- They have the most excellent and polite customer service I have ever encountered.
- Distributers are encouraged to study aromatherapy, scientific studies, and wellness benefits of essential oils to coach new members in how to use them.
- The Young Living team I chose to buy from (and now work with) specifically focuses on helping coach people new to essential oils so they will understand how to use them safely, which will increase their confidence using them, increase their love of incorporating essential oils into their wellness routine, and decrease improper use that could lead to injury.
If you haven’t started out on your essential oils journey with Young Living yet, we would love to help you! Head over to our “where to buy” page to learn how to get started with your own oils kit containing 11 high quality essential oils and a diffuser.