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Aromatherapy and essential oils have become an important part of my life.

What is aromatherapy? The therapeutic use of essential oils—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

What are essential oils? Essential oils (EOs) are intensely fragrant molecules found in some plants. Generally, they provide the fragrance in aromatic plants. When you pull a branch of rosemary through your fingers and find the fragrance lingering on your skin, that is the essential oil of the rosemary. Of all the varieties of plants, only a few are truly aromatic. And some aromatic plants contain so little EO that it is uneconomically feasible to extract it. There are about 100 EOs in use today.

How are EOs extracted? EOs are made by plants using specialized cells. The oils are stored in those cells, which are located in different locations in different species of plants: flowers, leaves, stems, fruits, fruit peel, seeds, roots, wood, bark, or resin. There are a few different methods of extraction: Citrus oils are pressed from the peel. Some oils are extracted with volatile solvents, usually because that is the only effective technique. Fine blossom oils were traditionally absorbed by animal fat in a process called enfluerage. Most oils today are distilled from the plant material; this is the oldest, most gentle, and least expensive technique, and yields the purest oils.

EOs are usually liquid with a consistency that ranges from watery to firm. Their color ranges from clear to dark brown, red, green, blue. They dye fabrics readily, so avoid direct contact between the two. They evaporate in the air with varying speeds and intensities. They are highly sensitive to UV light and heat. They may have chemical reactions with plastic. They are best stored in a cool dark place in glass; dark brown bottles are typically used.

How are EOs used? There are three steps to using EOs: (1) determine the desired effect(s), (2) select EOs known to achieve those effects, and (3) apply the EOs to your body. EOs are generally selected on the basis of personal knowledge, advice of others, and reference books; a library of aromatherapy reference books can be invaluable even after your own knowledge has been well developed. It is often helpful to select several EOs and blend them. EOs can be applied in several ways: inhaled, topically, and internally. Some methods are more appropriate than others depending on the conditions and EOs. Here again, experience and reference books can guide you.

What about quality? The authenticity, purity, and freshness of an EO is key to its ability to deliver therapeutic benefits. Quality is essential!! While the integrity of the supplier is indicative of the quality of the EOs they sell, quality can also be determined by testing. I have come to the conclusion that most store-bought EOs are not authentic or pure. As a consequence, I mail-order my EOs from suppliers I have come to trust. This does make impulse buying difficult as well as buying only one EO at a time. I just use it as an opportunity to try new EOs!

To ensure high therapeutic quality in the EOs you buy, choose a brand that provides important information:

What are hydrosols? Hydrosols are a secondary product of the distillation of essential oils, although the finest hydrosols are distilled just for themselves. I prefer the phrase "floral water", but it is both technically incorrect and many hydrosols are made from plant parts other than flowers. Orange flower water and rosewater are well known examples of hydrosols. Hydrosols contain the water-soluble molecules of the plants and a small amount of the essential oil. Their properties are often unique, or a cross between that of the herb and the essential oil. They are milder and easier to use than the EO.

A comprehensive list of hydrosols and their therapeutic uses. This was transcribed from a poster by Suzanne Catty. The poster is copyright by her. I do not have her permission to publish this here. If you use this material, please purchase the poster from her: www.acqua-vita.com.

Revision: 1-14-2006.