What are Essential Oils?

There’s no denying that essential oils are quickly becoming “on trend,” but what are they and what’s all the hype about?

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What are Essential Oils? with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

To be perfectly honest, I started dabbling in essential oils before I knew what they were. I knew they came from plants. I figured they were kind of like an extract. And, perhaps most interestingly, I never thought they could interact with my body on a chemical level to help restore balance. I just figured eucalyptus and peppermint made me feel better when I had a runny nose because that’s just kind of how it works. And it really never occurred to me that there are dozens and dozens of plants that yield essential oils. I wasn’t asking the right questions, and I was missing out on all kinds of interesting information.

What are essential oils, and where do they come from?

Essential Oils are natural, volatile, aromatic compounds that occur in plants (leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, bark, etc). They give plants their distinctive scents and play roles in protecting the plant and in plant pollination. If you’ve ever peeled an orange and seen the fine mist that comes out of the peel as you pull it back and smelled that fresh, bright orange aroma, then you’ve experienced essential oils.

“Volatile Aromatic Compound” means that essential oils are made up of chemical constituents that are unique to the plant of origin, and that move quickly from a liquid to a gas in the open air. This is why you can immediately smell essential oils when you open the bottle. They are extremely concentrated, so they have powerful aromas. The plants used to make essential oils are extremely diverse. Ideally, the plants should be sourced from their native habitat for the best chemical make up and effectiveness.

How are Essential Oils Extracted?

There are two primary ways to extract high quality essential oils (like doTERRAs) from the plants— steam distillation and cold pressing. When done properly, the result is a totally pure, therapeutic grade oil. Lower grade essential oils use other methods of extraction that include chemical processes. Chemical extraction makes “more” oil, but it is polluted with solvents and the oils are at best less effective and at worst toxic.

How do Essential Oils Work?

I saw this post on Instagram recently comparing people to houseplants. My first reaction was, “Yep, sounds about right” (especially as someone who craves sunshine and water constantly). My second thought was, “Hey now, that’s oversimplifying the value of humanity a bit.” While this is, of course, an oversimplification in many ways, it is also true and is a great way to understand how essential oils work.

Both plants and humans are carbon based organisms, and essential oils are part of the plant’s immune system. This means that essential oils are molecularly compatible with our bodies. In plainer terms, our bodies recognize essential oils as natural compounds that are “friend” rather than “foe,” so the oils are able to come alongside our immune system and other bodily systems to provide support. Essential oil molecules are also very, very small which means our body can easily absorb them so they work very fast to help us feel our best. So, circling back to the house plant analogy, drinking water, getting some sunlight, and using essential oils is a great way to deal with those “more complicated emotions” and a whole host of other things, too.