What are Essential Oils?Essential oils are chemically very complicated. The substance is not really an oil at all. It is a volatile extraction from organic matter. If you spill some sweet almond oil onto your best blouse, you are going to have an oil stain... and it could be difficult to get it out in the wash. If you spill essential oil, it evaporates into the air leaving no sign that it was there. Mind you some of them are very dark coloured and I haven't actually tested those, in theory it should be the same, but certainly a lavender or a rose simply evaporates into the air leaving no stain whatsoever.
Essential oils contain within them the 'essence' of the plant from which they were extracted. Mother Nature has so cleverly provided us with, not only the illness, but the cure too, and sometimes both are combined in the same plant. The skill of the aromatherapist, as with the herbalist, is in understanding which plants and flowers do what.
Many of our modern day medicines were originally synthesised from plants, aspirin for example is found in the bark of the willow tree, nowadays of course aspirin is synthesised in the laboratory... but in it's natural form, it is much more complex and it's effects upon the body perhaps more subtle. Plants are a very complex concoction of chemicals which in their entirety we are unable to reproduce synthetically, so we tend to isolate the chemicals that we believe hold the cures... and concentrate on making our modern drugs from these. Where aromatherapy wins out over modern medicine is in harnessing the therapeutic value of the WHOLE plant. However... the extent of the therapeutic value is still not fully understood - and little in the way of serious research is done into this field - apart from studies by aromatherapists themselves, science and modern medicine is so hung up on the synthetic that almost no serious scientific study has been done. Exceptions to the rule are evident in the form Mme Tisserand but I speak in relative terms when you compare with the amount of research done on conventional medicines.
The most important thing to remember, if you are not an aromatherapist, is that not all natural things are GOOD for you. You would not wish to play fast and loose with a Belladonna tea. You should therefore not be Gung Ho with the essential oils of plants and flowers.
If we are still a little in the dark about the full extent of these oils therapeutic values then how do we know...
How (and if) Essential Oils Work?At first thought how essential oils work is a bit of a mystery. But then if you think back to your own experiences involving smell you will very soon see how it is possible. Have you ever smelled something that instantly took you away to a time in the past or a place you have visited and forgotten all about? The memory becomes very powerful when evoked by a smell. Or perhaps you have comforting feelings when you smell the perfume your granny wore... or home baked bread. Equally smells that you dislike can make you feel anxious or nervous... the smell of the dentists perhaps, or hospitals.
Smells work in this way by stimulating the olfactory nerves at the back of the nose which send messages to the olfactory centre of your brain. This particular area of the brain is responsible for our basic drives such as sex, hunger and thirst. It is also where the pituitary gland and hypothalmus are sited. These two regulate hormone release - which is connected with the control of many bodily functions along with emotions and memories. This is the short and simple guide to how aromatherapy (the inhalation of organic essences) can have a direct affect on our physical well being. When massaging with essential oils they are absorbed directly into the body and into the bloodstream. Likewise if you have used them in a homemade beauty recipe, a moisturiser for example, you are introducing small quantities of essential plant extract into your body - perhaps on a daily basis. It is important therefore to get it right... or at least...not to get it wrong.
Aromatherapy Soap?I have certainly used this term myself when selling natural soap which included essential oils. I was however always quick to point out that there was no proof that essential oils in soap will have any therapeutic value at all. Why? Well firstly, soap is a wash off product. We are basically waterproof anyway and the whole function of the soap is that it will latch onto the dirt and oil on our bodies and whip it away down the drain.
Secondly, the soap making process is very harsh. We are using Sodium Hydroxide and quite high temperatures - over which we may not have any control... especially if your soap gels in the mould.
If the essential oil does not burn off during the initial soap making process (and this is why we use such large quantities in soap making - sometimes up to 3%), sometimes the finished smell is not quite what you expected. It has been altered by the process. If it is going to have any therapy value it will be in the smell - but I can't be sure that it the end result is what an aromatherapist would expect from that particular oil.
So, for soap making I always choose cheaper essential oils. This does not mean that my soap is a lesser product. It's a question of raw ingredients fit for purpose rather than of quality. Similarly if I am making a night cream for my mother-in-law I will always use an organic essential oil from a reputable supplier.
And this brings me to the essential oils suppliers. It is very easy for us to be fobbed off by poor quality oils sold at premium prices and not to know the difference. How would we know the difference? I have known aromatherapists rave about a particular oil until they smelled the same oil from another supplier... and even then... plants are natural things... what they do one year, they may not the next. Each batch of oil will be subtly different from the last. And the difference between lavender from different suppliers can be astounding! You need to find an essential oil supplier whom you trust and be guided by his/her advice as to purchasing the correct product... i.e. tell them that you are making soap, or that you are wanting to use it in a massage bar (Oooh yes, massage bars - recipes coming soon!) and they will be better placed to advise you which grade of oil to buy. Hint If you are unsure, order a very small quantity, the smallest you can and then be guided by your nose, if you like it... ask for a bigger quantity from the same batch.