Essential Oils – definition and uses

Webster’s Dictionary describes essential oils as:

any class of volatile oils obtained from plants, possessing the odor and other characteristic properties of the plant, used chiefly in the manufacture of perfumes, flavors and pharmaceuticals.

Wow! What a mouthful!! Lets pick that definition apart and see if we can figure out exactly what it is saying, and how that fits into what we see as essential oils on the market.

Any class of volatile oils obtained from plants:

What the heck is volatile? It means able to rapidly evaporate. Think of opening a container of pepper compared to a container of baking soda. You can smell the pepper right away, a recognizable spicy scent. The baking soda? It really doesn’t have a smell. The pepper has volatile compounds that evaporate into the air – that is what you smell. No, or very little, volatile compounds in baking soda.

Got it? Great, but did you notice the “obtained from plants” in this section? That is where our market differs a little from this definition. ALMOST all the oils we have available ARE plant derivatives, however some are not necessarily plant extracts. For instance, oils such as frankincense are extracted from resin, or pitch from trees. Some oils are marketed and advertised as essential oils inappropriately. For instance, some markets will list amber or civet essence as essential oils. Neither one is true, amber comes from amber fossils and civet comes from animals. That does not mean they aren’t useful for adding scent, it means they aren’t truly essential oils.


Possessing the odor and other characteristic properties of the plant:

The first part of this sentence can be a bit misleading. It should be read more along the lines of “possessing the odor of THE PART of the plant”. For instance, petitgrain, orange oil, and neroli essential oils all come from the same tree, however they each have their own distinct scent and physical properties. They may have a few characteristics in common, but they are not completely interchangeable.

The second part makes a little more sense. Have you ever had a cup of chamomile tea to help relax after a long day? Has any one recommended ginger or mint for an upset stomach? How about clove for a toothache? Essential oils are a more concentrated version of the compounds found within these plants, therefore hold the same properties.

Used chiefly in the manufacture of perfumes, flavors and pharmaceuticals.

Perfumes and flavors are pretty self explanatory – vanilla scents and flavors, candy oils and more contain essential oils. But pharmaceuticals? Heck yeah! Plants are some of the first medicines ever used. Essential oils are concentrations of those plants. Herbal remedies are time tested and highly beneficial ways to help maintain health but much of that knowledge was lost over time. Historically those who knew how to use plants to heal were ostracized and accused of witchcraft. As they were persecuted and killed this information was lost. Only recently have we realized as a society just how beneficial these healing plants are. I like to think of them as God’s medicine for us.

Now, here is where we get into some tricky territory. The FDA regulates any medicine that is sold to the public here in the United States. If something is used to diagnose, treat, modify or alter a disease process it is considered a medicine. I have done tons of research on essential oils, their compounds and their properties. I have found peer reviewed scientific studies published in reputable periodicals that demonstrate the effect these oils have on processes within the body and on bacteria, viruses, fungi and more. (Here is just one example of the University led, published research on the benefits of essential oils.)  Unfortunately, according to the FDA, even though there is compelling evidence supporting the effectiveness of these oils they can not be marketed as medications without these compounds being tested and approved – a very expensive and time consuming prospect.

In addition to the federal regulations that affect the promotion of essential oils as medicines, there is a safety consideration as well. Because these essential oils are highly concentrated they are much more powerful than their herbal counterparts. For instance, it takes a pound of peppermint leaves to make 1 tablespoon of peppermint essential oil. Having that high of a concentration, if used improperly, peppermint oil can cause skin irritation.

Phew… we finally made it through the definition of essential oils. I guess Webster is a bit more concise than I am! Now on the important part – why do I use essential oils in my soaps?

First off, they smell GREAT! They are a great selling point for people who are looking for an alternative to all of the synthetic fragrances on the market today, and sometimes are actually more affordable than fragrance oils.

Secondly, they WORK! I realize that I can’t tell you how to use essential oils to treat conditions like acne, or athlete’s foot, or prevent illness from viral or bacterial pathogens. What I can tell you is there is laboratory evidence that they are effective in inhibiting bacterial, fungal growth. They have been shown to reduce the ability of viruses to cause infection, and contain compounds that have been shown to be effective against inflammation and promote healing.

For these reasons, in the soaps I am making at this time I have chosen to use essential oils to scent my soaps. They smell great, and if they can help promote healthy skin and hair that is just gravy on top!