What exactly is an essential oil?
An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile organic compounds from plants. Volatility, in this case, means that they readily convert from a liquid to a vapor form at room temperature.
Different essential oils can alter brain chemistry in ways that impact our emotional and mental state, hence their therapeutic potential. Essential oils are also readily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin or stomach, creating a physiological effect with potential medical applications.
These botanical sources are made up of genus and species (e.g. frankincense, boswellia). This name tells us exactly which plant the oil comes from and its origin.
Essential oils are composed of dozens of naturally-occurring chemical constituents. Each oil has a unique mix of constituents, although some constituents occur in many essential oils. Depending on their biological purpose, essential oils may be concentrated in flowers, seeds, sap, leaves, roots or bark.
Are essential oils similar to oils used for cooking and body products?
They’re very different. Oils used in cooking—such as olive, coconut and avocado oil—are vegetable/fatty oils and they tend to “flash” (burn before full evaporation). Although they may come from the same plants, essential oils are volatile oils, meaning they evaporate very quickly, are not fatty and shouldn’t leave a residue.
The small molecular size of essential oils also make them unique, because the tiny oil molecules still penetrate the skin, olfactory sensors, gastrointestinal system and blood/brain barrier even when mixed with a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil.
What are the most important qualities to look for when purchasing essential oils?
There are three factors that determine essential oil quality. First, find out if the brand is being used clinically in hospitals and medical offices. Doctors are using medical-grade essential oils all around the country, from orthopedic surgeons to gynecologists, dentists, family practitioners and others. Hospitals represent the ultimate “quality filter” of an oil due to the amount of due diligence and red tape involved with being accepted into a into a medical institution, so this is a great place to start.
Secondly, mechanical and organoleptic testing should be performed by both an independent third party lab and the manufacturer of the oils. The results should be readily available to you. The minimum acceptable mechanicaltests are gas chromatographyandmass spectrometry (also known as GC/MS testing). If you can’t see those tests for yourself from the company, don’t expose your family to those oils.
Other advanced testing that you should look for are the FTIR Scan (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) and microbial testing.
The second stage of expert testing is an organoleptic test, also known as a “sniff” test. There are only a handful of people who have been doing this long enough and really know how to do this. The right companies will have an expert on staff as well as evidence of third party review.
Thirdly,look on the bottle for the botanical name of the oil and where it’s harvested. This is important information.
Before you purchase an essential oil, look at the botanical name. If you cannot find the botanical name on the front of the bottle, don’t buy that oil. How can you do the proper due diligence for your family if you don’t even know what strain of plant they used, where it came from or the source of the therapeutic benefits?
Plants grow best—give the most therapeutic benefit—in their country of origin. For example, the best frankincense in the world comes from Somalia and Oman, two small African countries. This means that frankincense grown other than in those countries (or worse in a greenhouse) will not have the medical benefits you’re looking for.
If the temperature, altitude, rainfall amounts, soil composition, air quality, water mineral content, solar intensity and other variables change, the plant’s chemistry and thus its medical potency changes
How are essential oils extracted from plants?
The most common method of extracting essential oils is a low-heat steam distillation process. In this process, pressurized steam is circulated through plant material. The essential oils are liberated from the plant and carried away by the steam. When the steam cools, the water and oils naturally separate and the oil is collected.
To ensure the highest quality oil extract with the correct chemical composition, the temperature and pressure must be closely monitored. Too little heat or pressure and the oil will not release; too much, and the oil’s composition and potency will be affected.
During the steam distillation process, steam passes through the plant material. The combination of heated steam and gentle pressure causes the essential oil to be released from microscopic protective sacs. As the vapor mixture flows through a condenser and cools, it yields a layer of oil and a layer of water. The essential oil rises to the top, is separated from the hydrosol (floral water) and collected.
Using this particular distillation method makes it possible to adjust the temperature based on the plant type, making it an effective and precise way to obtain the purest compounds.
Unlike steam distillation, expression, sometimes referred to as “cold pressed,” does not involve heat. In this process, oil is extracted from the product under mechanical pressure. Expression is most often used for citrus essential oils.
Proper distillation requires a consideration for the uniqueness of pressure, temperature, time and harvesting practices, each of which may be as diverse as the plants themselves. A poor distillation process can alter or destroy the necessary aromatic compounds that comprise the essential oil, leaving a substance far different from the intended goal; this is something that would not be used to support health and wellness.
What is the best way to use essential oils: aromatically, topically or ingested?
As long as the essential oils you’re using follow “the 3 factors that determine essential oil quality” mentioned above, all application methods are safe when used appropriately, including aromatic, topical and internal methods.
The sense of smell is a tool that can elicit powerful physiologic, mental and emotional responses. Essential oils are quickly absorbed by the smell receptors, which have a direct link to the limbic system by way of the olfactory nerve. The limbic system is part of the brain that supports a variety of functions including smell, emotions, behavior and memory. For this reason, essential oils have an especially powerful effect via aromatic application.
This is one of the simplest methods for using essential oils aromatically. Diffusers that use cold air or water are ideal. However, you can achieve the same health benefits by simply placing a few drops of essential oil in the palm of your hand that is then cupped around the nose as you breathe deeply.
Topical application is a very effective method for applying essential oils. Because essential oils have low molecular weights and are lipid-soluble, they easily penetrate the skin. Using a light massage will increase the blood flow to the area of application, in turn improving distribution throughout the body.
It’s always advisable to use several small doses throughout the day rather than a single large dose. Start with the lowest possible dose (1-2 drops). A topical dose can be repeated every 4-6 hours as needed. Because every individual is unique, the dose will vary for each individual based on size, age and overall health status.
Essential oil contributes many health benefits when used internally as well as flavoring foods. Essential oils can be used as dietary supplements for more targeted and potent therapeutic health benefits.
Internal use is a very safe and effective method of application because of the sophisticated physiologic processes of our bodies. When ingested, essential oils directly enter the blood stream via the gastrointestinal tract, where they are transported throughout the rest of the body. Essential oils are lipid soluble so they are readily transported to all organs of the body, including the brain.
Are there any safe practices/precautionary measures to consider when using essential oils with children? Are there any special dilution requirements?
Essential oils have been used since before recorded history to help support healthy family lifestyles. When using essential oils, proper usage models are key, especially with children. Oils are potent and only a very small amount is needed for efficacy. Children need less oil than adults because of their lower body mass. Also, the skin of children is thinner and more sensitive because their bodies are still developing.
It’s important to always dilute oils when first applying them to a child. The feet are a good place to start applying oils on children because that’s where skin is the thickest, yet this is where their biggest pores are. The oil penetrates easily and will be throughout the entire body in less than a minute thanks to the circulatory system.
Emotional health is an important component to your children’s overall health because emotions can influence how they feel physically. Kids have a lot of pressure on them, which can manifest as stress, attention difficulties, anger control issues, illness, self-doubt, fear, lack of energy, sleeplessness and more. It may not necessarily be beneficial to add behavioral modification drugs with potential side effects to the mix.These complex chemical reactions in your child’s body and brain can be balanced with the right essential oils applied properly.