There is a lot of misunderstanding about what essentials oils are. I often hear people assume that essential oils and fragrance oils are the same thing. Within the handcrafting circle I often see well meaning but misguided people using essential oils in products that simply shouldn’t contain them. In this article I discuss the basics of what essential oils are and provide some historical context.
What Are Essential Oils?
Every plant produces oils which they use as part of their natural metabolism and normal functioning. Essential oils are the natural oils that are derived from a plant through the process of extraction methods. Extraction methods vary, but overall they focus on separating the oil from the other plant matter. The oil obtained shares the same chemical and aromatic properties of the plant it was derived from. The oils are considered an ‘essence’ of the plant, hence the name ‘essential oils’.
Ancient civilizations and cultures developed very effective remedies and plant-based medicines which were appropriate for their time. Today this knowledge lives on within the realm of essential oils. Essential oils are simply an extension of ‘traditional’ medicines such as ancient herbal and plant medicine. In our modern times the therapeutic use of essential oils is known as ‘aromatherapy’, and there is strong scientific evidence that essential oils are effective in treating & relieving a wide range of health issues.
The History of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy has a long and rich history spanning thousands of years. While the term ‘aromatherapy’ is a relatively modern term, the actual use of herb and plant-based medicine has been observed by literally every major civilization in recorded history. There is even evidence to suggest that plant-based medicine was used as long ago as 18,000 BC, essentially a period pre-dating the rise of any and all civilizations. There is a lot of evidence that the world’s most proliferate civilizations looked to herb and plant-based medicine for thousands of years. The medicinal and psychological effects of plants would have been noted following ingestion or inhaling smoke produced while burning. This knowledge would have been passed down through the generations as ‘tribal wisdom’ and considered essential for survival.
China and India, both among the oldest and most powerful of ancient civilizations, have produced some of the oldest surviving medical (plant-based) texts in history. Egypt, a very successful and powerful civilization, had an impressive grasp of herbal medicine. Egypt produced many texts on the subject and it’s even believed that they discovered an early method of distilling oils from plant matter. Major European civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans also discovered the positive properties of herbs and plants for medical purposes. Between European and Egyptian culture, the knowledge of herbal medicine spread to the Arabian cultures of the time. In America too, Native American Indians and the Aztec empires both had their own beliefs and uses for plant-based medicine.
It’s no surprise then that every major civilization developed its own sense of spirituality, culture and medicine linked directly to their own understandings of plant and herb-based wisdom. They all incorporated incense and plant offerings into their medical rituals, but also into their spiritual rituals and offerings to their gods. The entire underpinnings of their cultures and beliefs were based on their knowledge and understanding of plant-lore, it’s quite amazing when you think about it.
The use of plant oils begins with the Egyptians. They are well-known for their love of perfume and anointing ointments. There is evidence to suggest that the ancient Egyptians discovered a way to extract essential oils from plant matter. Their early techniques of obtaining essential oils were based on an infusion method, wherein plant matter is heated with a carrier oil which in turn absorbs the oils contained in the plant. However, we know that by around the 3rd century BC they demonstrated primitive distillation methods too.
Fast-forward to the renaissance period (about 1300 – 1600 AD) and the study of essential oils has caught the attention of objective mainstream science. While essential oils were of particular interest to a number of prominent thinkers of the time, there was one man in particular who made a massive contribution to essential oils as we know them today. Abu Alo al-Husayn, more commonly known as Avicenna, was a highly regarded Arab physician and considered one of the leading thinkers of his time. He was a learned man who studied many fields, including medicine, philosophy and the natural sciences. He produced many publications, many which remained as mainstream texts in universities long after his death. He is credited with inventing, or at the very least perfecting the distillation extraction process as we know it in the modern age (ie, he figured out how to effectively remove oils from plant matter using specialized equipment).
Modern Times & Aromatherapy
Improvements in the field of chemistry in the 18th and 19th century eventually began moving science away from studying plant-based chemicals in an attempt to discover synthetic chemicals and to refine the production of such chemicals. It quickly became apparent how easy and cheap it was to mass-produce synthetic chemicals for medicinal uses compared to the relatively inefficient process of extracting essential oils. Therefore society began leaning more on synthetic chemicals for medicine, and forgoing plant-based medicine of the past.
However, the role of essential oils and plant-based medicine still remained of interest to a number of scientists. One such scientist was Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who worked for his families perfume company. At some stage in the 1920s he was introduced to some of the literature surrounding essential oils by a colleague. This sparked an interest and he went on to discover that many of the essential oils used by his company (which at that time had only been used for perfume) were actually better antiseptics than synthetic drugs of the time. He eventually concluded that essential oils should be given more weight in the modern medical world. He went on to coin the term ‘aromatherapie’ in a scientific paper (and later in a book) he published. For this reason Gattefosse is considered one of the founding fathers of aromatherapy as we know it today.
This pioneering work was carried on by other prominent scientist, and by the mid-1900s ‘aromatherapy’ had become a legitimate and accepted practice. Today individuals around the world are using aromatherapy techniques to to bring mindfulness, health and happiness to people from all walks of life.