Aromatherapy is a modern take on the time-honored understanding that by using natural plant
essences we can promote health and well-being. Today’s aromatherapists follow the path of
the alchemists and healers from many traditions and use pure essential oils obtained from a
wide assortment of plants. With the benefit of modern equipment, these essential oils are
cleaner and may be more effective.
Marestheus, a Greek physician, wrote of the effects of wearing garlands of different leaves and
flowers in combinations designed to refresh and encourage. Today, we have soaps, bath oils,
body lotions, diffusers, and other ways to integrate these natural plant essences into our lives and experience the benefits they offer. And, remember that favorite perfume? Chances are it
was developed with the principles of aromatherapy!
How are these essential oils derived?
In today’s aromatherapy laboratory, the methods of extraction fall into several main categories:
Distillation is the main method used today. Within this category, there are different processes;
in all of them, water is heated to produce steam. This steam serves to release the most volatile
chemicals of the aromatic material, and carry them away. When chilled in a condenser, the
resulting liquid is collected, and the essential oil will float on top of the remaining fluid
(hydrosol, which is used in other ways). The different processes used are steam distillation,
which brings steam from an outside source to pass through the aromatic material;
hydrodistillation, which submerges the botanicals in water then heated; and water and steam
distillation, which holds the botanicals above the heated liquid. The method used is
determined by a number of factors, including which works best with the botanical.
Cold Pressing is another important method used today. In the way that the orange essential
oils can be released when you zest an orange, may citrus oils are cold pressed by machines
which score the rind and capture the oil. These cold pressed oils contain a vibrancy sometimes
lacking in distilled essential oils. They have also not been heated (beyond the heat that is
generated through friction).
Other methods include solvent extraction and florasols, which we’ll discuss in another blog