What are essential oils made of and how are they produced?

A real 101 post to dive into the plant kingdom

For this first article in the aromatherapy 101 series, I am sharing with you some simple yet crucial information for you to own, if you are interested in wisely incorporating the use of essential oils into your life. While I will share more in-depth resources in future blogs, here is mostly to get the party started and lift some common doubts on what essential oils are.

Our dear Mother Nature

Where it all starts. In the plant kingdom, Nature’s magic operates in such a way that a variety of species produce – within their different organs (root, bark, leaves, flowery buds, etc.) – a precious essence. This substance is charged in aromatic molecules. We call essential oil the concentrated result we obtain from extracting the aromatic essence from the plants. And in aromatherapy, we use it in view of improving one’s health and well-being.
In its new form, the plant has now a second life (that is how I like to see it). From its dense, resistant, opaque state found in nature, it has now become a compact, most of the times liquid, concentrated, and super potent version of itself.

Joëlle’s aromatherapy photo series by Ploy Phutpheng

Why are they called “oils”?

Essential oils are not actually oily as they do not have an oily texture. The fluidity of an essential oil varies: liquid, sticky to almost solid, but never oily.
Some say they are called that way to emphasize the fact that they are not water-soluble: meaning they don’t dissolve / mix in water, just like the oils you use in your kitchen.
So let’s differentiate the essential oils to the vegetable oils such as sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, olive oil, etc.

How do the plants become essential oils?

There are different ways of turning a plant into an essential oil. The most common and ancient technique is through distillation. This technique has been improved over the years, and today, we commonly use water vapor distillation. This process uses hot water to create vapor which will drag and carry the aromatic substance out of the plant. Once cooled down, the residual liquid obtained will be collected and separated into hydrosol and essential oil.

Another common method is the expression. Simple and effective, and used for the citrus family. Its name is quite explicit, as it involves a mechanic expression (best and most cases: using cold-pressed expression) of the essences contained on the citrus peel / zest.

There are a few more methods which I’ll make sure to give more details about in an upcoming posts, but to get familiar with their names already: keep in mind: C02 supercritical extraction, enfleurage, maceration, solvent extraction, and percolation.

How much essential oil does a plant produce?

Really not much! The yield is going to vary from a plant to another and here I’d like to share a few examples.

Lemons (Citrus limon). We use their peel, to extract its essence (cold-pressed extraction). Lemons come from Southern Europe: Spain and Italy, as from the United States and Argentina. It takes about 3000 fresh lemons to produce 1kg of essential oil.

Fine Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). We extract its essential oil by distillation. The best quality of lavenders come from South of France. You can also find some of inferior quality in Eastern Europe. It takes about 1000 kg of lavender to produce 1kg of essential oil.

Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum). With 100 kg of cinnamom bark, we obtain about 11kg of essential oil. The cinnamon used for bark distillation in aromatherapy comes from Sri Lanka.

I believe that knowing that helps in being mindful and not over-use.

Is an “essence” and an “essential oil” the same?

Depends. But in many cases, it ain’t! The essential oils obtained by expression for instance don’t go through any structural modification. So in that case, the essence (what is already present in the plant in its primary state) remains unchanged.
However, with a method such as a distillation: as it involves some changes of temperatures and some molecular separation in the process, this will affect the biochemical structure of the essence. So in that case, the essence and the essentials oils are going to be different.

What do we find in an essential oil?

A legit first question to address before starting using something on yourself, isn’t it! As just seen, essential oils are made of diverse aromatic molecules. From a scientific perspective, we will confer certain properties and health benefits to an essential oil, according to the variety and quantity of the molecules contained in it.
That is why, it is so relevant to be aware of an essential oil composition before using it. For your safety, as well as for addressing your wellness goals most efficiently.

So, what molecules are we talking about?

We can classify the molecules commonly contained in essential oils into 10 main families and each of these “families” are attributed main specific properties.
Have you ever wondered why Fine Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil is said to be calming? And how is Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) also recommended in case of anxiety, or nervous breakdowns?

The answers are in their biochemical compositions! Well, to start with.
Both these two essential oils are rich in esters (one of the 10 essential oil chemical families) and esters are known for their calming and regulating effects on the central nervous system (SNC).

That is one example. Do you want to know more?
Then, let’s dive into another article about the 10 most common essential oils molecules families (coming soon).

The main concepts I’d love you to remember from this article is that
essential oils are made from extracting the aromatic molecules naturally present in certain plants. And as much as all plants have their particularities when found in nature, all essential oils are not made equal either, that is why it is important to have some understanding on how each essential oil is structured, in order to use aromatherapy, mindfully.
Also, let’s use essential oils, wisely and sparingly, that is also how we protect our environment.

In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.

John Muir (author, environmental philosopher, botanist)

Article by Joëlle Smaniotto