Often seen as an ambiguous term, aromatherapy is defined by practitioners as the holistic use of essential oils to attain balance, enhance mood and promote healing. A non-invasive modality, aromatherapy engages the senses and invokes the body’s natural ability to prevent the formation of disease, or to successfully combat an existing physical, mental or emotional illness.

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History of Aromatherapy

The use of aromatic oils in healing and spiritual rituals dates back to the first century. However, in modern times, it was René-Maurice Gattefossé, who coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1928. Rene studied and popularized essential oils when he successfully healed a wound on his hand with lavender oil, after an explosion in his laboratory. He envisioned using the potent fragrance oils to treat the mind, body and spirit in a unified and natural manner. Since that time, the use of essential oils and aromatherapy has proliferated and is administered in many spas and health clinics.

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Essential oils were initially extracted in the first century by a crude method of soaking the plants in oil, then heating to extract the plant essence. After straining the plant debris, a medicinal oil remained. Essential oil extraction was modernized in the eleventh century with the invention of the steam distillation by the scholar and scientist Ibn Sina, who was of Persian descent.  This paved the way for increased usage of essential oils in healing and other sciences of the mind, body and spirit.

As for the use of essential oils throughout history, there are some noteworthy examples. Essential oils were used by the royal families of ancient Egypt, as evidenced in the remains found in containers located in the tombs of many pharaohs. Believing heavily in the spiritual significance of nature and other elements, it is assumed that the Egyptians utilized essential oils in a ceremonial manner, as well as in healing.

Known for potent natural healing philosophies, aromatherapy was also practiced by healers in ancient China and India. The oil essence of various plants were thought to heal, increase vitality and promote spiritual awareness. Aromatic oils were applied topically and also burned and infused in healing balms.

The use of essential oils soon spread to the western hemisphere, with Roman soldiers using essential oils to heal battle wounds in the sixteenth century and becoming more widespread in the eighteenth century when they were used and spread by the crusaders as they cut a path across Europe.

As technology evolved, scientists discovered how to isolate and replicate the active compounds in essential oils and reproduce synthetic versions. These chemical variations of essential oils are now found in popular consumer products, such as aspirin. However, as the alternative health movement has gathered more steam, the use of pure, natural essential oils has increased and individuals are willing to pay a premium for the authentic product.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are the very concentrated, volatile and potent oils extracted from plants, including their leaves, stems and seeds. Depending on the plant of origin, each essential oil possesses a distinct healing or mood elevating property. The term essential oil refers to the scent associated with each oil that is its unique essence. Examples are rosemary, lavender and eucalyptus essential oils.

Mode of Extraction

There are three main means of extracting essential oils from plant material. They are distillation, Expression and Solvent Extraction. Each method contains sub-methods which produce oil with varying degrees of purity and effectiveness, as explained below.


Distillation is the process by which a liquid substance is heated to the point of producing vapor. The vapor is then captured and condensed. The resulting liquid contains the pure oil of the plant, as well as water. However, the oil is separated from the water and corked. The remaining water is usually fragrant and sold separately as flower water, such as the popular rosewater.

Distillation is an effective means of extracting plant oil. However, special care must be paid to the temperature. It the plant parts are brought to too high of a heat, the resulting oil becomes destabilized and looses its holistic properties. There are various types of distillation discussed below, each producing varying grades of oil.

Water Distillation: In this method, the leaves and stems of plants are immersed in water and brought to a boil. The boiling water allows the oil essence to leak from plant fibers. Once it reaches a certain temperature, the water turns into vapor which is siphoned into a tube and comes to rest in a beaker. Once captured, the vapor turns back to liquid and the oil is separated from the water.

This means is effective for some plants, but depending on the temperatures used in extraction, the resulting oil may be low grade. Also, some plants cannot tolerate exposure to extensive boiling, which would cause a breakdown in the plant material and denature the resulting oil. Lavender is an example of a plant that does not take well to this extraction method.

Steam Distillation: Steam distillation differs from water distillation in that the plant materials are placed in a still and steam is then introduced. The steam enters into the plant, expanding its fibers and allowing the leakage of its oils. The temperature of the steam must be monitored closely and just enough is introduced to allow the fragrance molecules to escape, without damaging the plant or oil. The steam is then cooled, causing it to resume liquid form and the oil is separated from any water. This process is best for sensitive plant, as the oil is extracted quicker and with less heat overall.

This method was perfected by the Persian chemist and physician, Ibn Sindi and was the leading extraction method for hundreds of years thereafter. When using steam distillation as opposed to water extraction, the temperature required to extract the oil is lower, preserving the restorative properties of the oil and inhibiting deterioration of the oil molecules. Oils that are extracted by means of steam distillation may be slightly more expensive, but are also superior in quality.

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Hydro Diffusion: Hydro diffusion is a method of steam distillation. The only variant in processing is the position from which the steam is introduced into the still. In this process, the steam enters from the top of the still and moves through the plant fibers, which are in the middle. The steam and eventual condensation is then collected at the bottom of the still. The benefits of this process is that it takes less steam than normal condensation to achieve the same results and in fact, often produces more oil per batch.

Other Distillation Methods

Rectification of Essential Oils: Occasionally a batch of distilled oil will still contain impurities and need to be processed again. This process is called “rectification”. It involves taking the oil back through the distillation process a second time to remove any remaining particles or impurities. Some oils, such as eucalyptus oil require this process more often than others. Essential oils that have been through the rectification process will often be labeled as “double distilled”.

Cohobation: Some plant material, when processed by means of water distillation loses its scent molecules to the water portion of the condensed steam. Once the oil is separated from the water, it has no scent. The water has to then be redistilled to extract the phenyl ethyl alcohol, which gives the oil its scent.

Fractional Distillation: As its name implies, fractional distillation is the process of collecting and separating the essential oil from water in small batches, as it is produced.

Extraction Methods

In addition to distillation, there are other common methods of extracting essential oils from plants and the skin of aromatic fruits. Below are the most widely used.

Solvent Extraction

Enfleurage- Fixed Oil Extraction: In this process, the essential oil is extracted by way of drawing it from the plant into solid oil, then separating it from there. To achieve this, the plant pieces are placed on a glass rack, on top of which is the solid oil-a vegetable or animal fat. It is placed under the sun’s rays, which allows the oils to seep out and mix with the fixed oil.  The last step is to introduce alcohol, which dissolves the mixture, after which the alcohol is removed.  This is an expensive process and is normally reserved for more sought after oils, such as Jasmine and Rose oils.

Maceration: This method follows the same process of fixed oil extraction, with the only addition being that the fixed oil is heated. This allows for the oils found in the plant parts to be released quickly and in greater quantity.

Alcohol/Solvent Extraction: Another expensive method of extracting essential oils, this process involves spraying the plant pieces with a solvent, such as petroleum ether. The solvent causes a reaction in which the plant releases its fluid components, including oil. By adding alcohol, the oil is then removed and bottled. The resulting essential oil is often labeled as “absolute”.

Expression Methods

Cold Expression: Also known as cold pressed, no heat is used in this method of extracting essential plant oils. The extraction is achieved by using a machine to apply an extremely high level of pressure to the plants, thus pressing out the oil. This is commonly used to extract citrus oils, such as orange, lemon and lime oils. There are three additional means of expression, which are explained below.

Sponge Expression: Sponge expression is a relatively simple process. It is mainly used with citrus fruit and is a means to produce the popular Orange essential oil. The oil of citrus fruit is contained in the skin. After removing the fruit from the skin, it is submerged in water in order to make the skin easier to manipulate. Afterwards, it is turned inside out, which causes the oil molecules to break open. Placing a sponge over the skin absorbs the oil, which is then squeezed into a decanter and sealed.

Écuelle á Piquer: Also used with citrus oil, but less involved than using the sponge, this method fixes the fruit on rod in a basin. The inside of the basin has prickers that penetrate the skin of the fruit, releasing oil and other liquid components. When collected, the oil is removed from the fluid and bottled on its own.

Machine Abrasion: Producing a more unreliable oil, machine abrasion removes the fruit peel, which is placed into a centrifugal separator. This machine spins the fluid at a high rate of speed, which causes the oil to separate from any water. The oil becomes isolated in the middle of the funnel and is pulled away from the water components and bottled.

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Grades of Essential Oils

Based on the materials used and method of extraction, there are varying grades of essential oils available to consumers, which include:

Grade A Essential oil- this is the purest, and most expensive essential oil grade. Most often extracted by steam distillation, the oil is of a high quality.  Choice organic plant material is usually the base for grad A oils, which are considered “therapeutic quality”.

Grade B Essential oil- or food grade oil as it is also called, is not as pure as Grade A oils. They may contain additional carrier oils or even chemical pesticide or fertilizer residue. Despite possibly containing these harmful ingredients, they are still used in many personal and professional therapeutic and healing modalities, including ingestion.

Grade C Essential oil- or perfume grade oils are handled more harshly and are usually extracted by solvents. This is the least expensive and highest yield process for harvesting essential oils, and one used most frequently by the mainstream cosmetic and perfume industry. Individuals with a low tolerance for toxins and chemicals may experience a reaction to Grade C essential oils.

Flower Water- or hydrosol is the lightly scented water that is left over after the distillation process. It is often sold separately as a light perfume mist, such as rose water, or added to other bath and body products. The quality of floral water depends on the quality of the ingredients used in the distillation process.

Aromatherapy and Health

Essential oils have been used as a holistic health aid for centuries. Many doctors, healers and village wise women have harnessed the therapeutic and mood enhancing properties contained in essential oils and their use in aromatherapy. Below we will review the various modalities by which aromatherapy is most commonly delivered.

Aromatherapy Modalities

Aromatherapy is an expansive holistic health concept, with literally hundreds of ways to apply it. However, all of these fall under three specific modes of administration.

Topical Application

As inferred, the essential oils are applied to the outside of the skin in the hopes of providing a restorative or healing benefit. But be aware, that essential oils are extremely potent and should never be applied directly to the skin. The oil is diluted by carrier oils, creams or other stable substance. Examples of means of topical application include:

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Essential Oils are naturally antibacterial and are used as a preservative in many natural and hand made skin care items. Essential oils have many skin benefits, for example Angelica Root helps to brighten dull skin and sooths psoriasis, while Bergamot oil sooths itching, and helps to heal cold sores and acne.

Ariel Diffusion

A very popular modality for using essential oils is diffusion. In this process, the oil is converted into micro-particles and propelled into the air, where they mix with the room’s atmosphere and are inhaled. Diffusion is a popular use of essential oils and depending on the oil used can calm, invigorate or heal.

There are many ways to diffuse essential oils, with the most popular being:

Candle diffusers: With the rise in popularity of scented candles, this method is used frequently. However, it may be the least effective, as only a little of the oil essence is released as the candle slowly burns.  Also, depending on the type of candle used, there may be toxic fumes that are released along with the essential oil that negates its affect, either partially or totally.

Another means of diffusion is to place a lit tea light under a small metal or stone brazier containing essential oils. As the brazier warms, the oil is released into the air. Oil burners are a popular means of aromatherapy.

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Cold Nebulizer diffusers: This method of diffusing is effective for sending ultra fine particles of the oil into the air that will remain for a longer period of time. Air is pumped through a tube and picks up particles of the essential oil, shooting it into the air.  The benefit of this is that the antibacterial and antifungal properties of most oils will eliminate harmful bacteria and mold spores from the air. Also, one of the important benefits of a nebulizer diffuser is that it allows inhalation of the oil over a longer period of time and can be timed to be released at specific times and durations throughout the day.

Inhaling essential oils via a nebulizer is an excellent way to infuse a room or house with invigorating or calming scent, lift your mood or improve the air quality. Using oils such as eucalyptus can also help asthmatics breath easier and avoid attacks.

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Ultrasonic Diffuser: This diffuser is very different from traditional diffusers in the means in which it disperses essential oils. Instead of using heat, the catalyst is the vibration caused by a small disk under the water and oil placed in the diffuser well. The extremely fast vibration emits an electric frequency, which causes the liquid to vaporize and enter the air.

This is a nice way to experience essential oils, but the ratio of oil vs. water that is vaporized is not optimal. As water is needed to aid in the diffusion process, a mixture of water and oil is what is sent into the air, with water being in the majority. For those who desire a higher concentration of oil, traditional diffusers will be more appealing.

Ultrasonic Diffuser Aromatherapy

Electric heated diffuser: Another effective means of dispersing essential oils, heat diffusers warm the oil. When it evaporates into the air, the smell disperses throughout the area. This makes for a nice smelling room, but the heat usually alters the structure of the oil and damages many of the beneficial elements so important to healing and mood enhancement. For essential oil purists, heat diffusers are usually not an option.

Electric heated diffuser Aromatherapy

Reed Diffusers: A newly emerging means of diffusing essential oils is reed diffusers. Using natural reeds, which work better than bamboo and other materials, the oil is absorbed by and travels up the reed. It then evaporates and is released into the air. This provides a slow and steady infusion of essential oil into the air.

reed diffuser Aromatherapy

Many popular stores now sell reed oil diffusing sets. However, check the package carefully, as many of these contain synthetic oils and fragrances. It is easy to make your own mixture using thirty percent essential oil mixed with seventy percent carrier oil to dilute it. Thinner oils work better and will diffuse easier. Natural reeds are also very inexpensive and can be purchased in bulk.

Inhalation of Essential Oils

Inhaling essential oils either directly from the bottle or from a cloth has been shown to assist in healing upper respiratory infections, clearing nasal blockage and dilating bronchial tubes to stave off or halt an asthma attack. In fact, in some popular asthma medications the active ingredient is a synthetic version of an essential oil, such as Khella.

Due to the concentration of essential oils, caution should always be used. Be sure to consult with a Naturopathic Doctor or other Alternative Healthcare provider before beginning to inhale essential oils directly.

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Although not as common as diffusion and inhalation, essential oils are also taken internally. By adding a few drops to of oil to dishes while cooking, many report increased digestive strength and reduction of mucus buildup. Ingesting essential oil in moderation has been said to increase immune system function, clear skin and promote overall vitality.

Cinnamon, Peppermint, Lemon and Clove oil are amongst those recommended for consumption and labeled by the FDA as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Any essential oil can be toxic if ingested in large amounts. However a few drops added to a dish does not come near the 100 ml of say, nutmeg oil that would cause impairment.

Aromatherapy Side Effects and Precautions

It is important to reiterate that essential oils are highly concentrated and volatile compounds. When used in aromatherapy, they must be handled and dispensed with caution. Observe the following precautions when administering or receiving aromatherapy:

Long a staple of eastern medicine, aromatherapy as a means of improving health and enhancing mood is becoming more widespread and recognized in the west. Many individuals have experienced tremendous benefits of aromatherapy and continue to engage in aromatherapy to maintain their health. If considering aromatherapy for yourself please do so under the guidance of a certified health professional.

Also Read…

- List of essential oils

- how to make aromatherapy candles

Pure Inside Out. The Main Essential Oils and Their Healing Properties
David Crow via National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.  How To Use Essential Oils Effectively
Experience-essencial Ultrasonic Diffuser Purifies the Air and More!
Ron Guba via National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy Toxicity Myths-The Actual Risks of Essential Oil Use
The Ananda Apothecary. Essential Oils and Cancer: A Review of Published Scientific Studies
PubMed Central. Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity

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