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Welcome to my essential oils guide with profiles of more than 100 essential oils. If you want to skip the preliminary information, click here for the list of essential oil profiles.
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from plants. For the plants, the oils serve purposes such as helping the plant thrive and protecting it from the environment.
The word "essential" doesn't mean necessary or required for humans. "Essential" comes from the poetic way of thinking about the "essence" or "life force" of a plant.
Don't confuse essential oils with infused or macerated oils. These oils are vegetable oils with the fragrance of a plant infused by soaking the plant material in the oil. Infused oils can make good aromatherapy carrier oils.
The most common way to produce essential oils is by steam distilling plant material. A steam distiller has a chamber that holds raw plant material. When steam flows into the chamber, small sacs on the plant open and release the plant oils. The steam and oil move from the chamber into a chilled condenser, which turns the steam into water. The essential oil and water are separated. The water, called a hydrosol, contains some of the plant essence and also has uses in aromatherapy.
Another process less often used to make essential oils used in aromatherapy is hydrodistillation — the plant material is boiled in water, the resulting steam is cooled, and then the water and essential oil are separated.
The other process for making essential oils is expression (also called cold pressing, though that's a technically inaccurate term — it should be cold expressing). It is used primarily to produce citrus oils, where oil is squeezed from the peel.
Solvent Extraction – Absolutes
Some oils, such as jasmine and benzoin, used in aromatherapy aren't technically essential oils but are absolutes. These oils are extracted from plant material using a solvent in a process that produces what is called a concrete. The concrete is then further processed to make an absolute oil.
Another way to make absolutes is enfleurage, which involves placing plant material into solid, odorless fats at room temperature to capture the fragrant compounds. The fat is separated from the plant oils using alcohol. Enfleurage is rare today but was the standard method of producing oils in ancient times.
Carbon Dioxide Extraction
Carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is a newer process that involves using liquid CO2 as a solvent to extract oils from plants. These products differ in chemistry from distilled essential oils.
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