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The aromatic substances found in plants are known as its essence. These essences are combinations of various alcohols, hydrocarbons, phenols, aldehydes, esters, and ketones that occur naturally in the plant.
Essential oils come from flowers, blossoms, leaves, fruit, rind, peel, seeds, bark, wood, and resin. The part of the plant varies according to the purpose and use of the essential oil. The oil is connected to so many of the biological properties of the plant that it’s considered essential to the plant and so is referred to as essential oil.
Essential oils are like human hormones. They exist in very small quantities within the plant. It takes 50 pounds of Eucalyptus, 150 pounds of Lavender, 500 pounds of Rosemary, 1,000 pounds of Jasmine, and 2,000 pounds of rose just to extract one pound of essential oil from each of these types of plants.
Due to the highly concentrated nature of essential oils, most applications require drops, rather than ounces. The price of the essential oil is directly related to the amount of plant material required for extraction or distillation.
The oils also contain plant hormones and possess anti-bacterial properties. In general, essential oils are naturally antibacterial and antiseptic. Their anti-inflammatory properties help reduce swelling. They also act as a natural analgesic, helping to reduce pain. The antiseptic power of plant oils has been observed in direct contact with the oil and in the presence of the fragrance vapors.
Essential oils are 75-100 times more concentrated than dried herbs. Contrary to their name, pure essential oils are not at all oily, they are light and non-greasy. One of the most impressive tests for the purity of essential oil can be done by placing a drop on a piece of paper. Pure essential oil will dry without a trace.
Only about 700 plants worldwide are considered to be aromatic, and therefore useful for the production of essential oils. While most oils are distilled from the plant material, the types of plants, the unique chemical make-up of its oil, and the location of the oil within the plant determine the extraction process.
There are three (3) main extraction processes: expression, distillation, and solvent extraction.
Expression is the best choice for citrus fruits because the oil is found in tiny sacs just inside the fruit skin.
Distillation is the most common method. Most plant oils yield to this process, especially herbaceous plants such as rosemary, and spices such as cinnamon. Most flower essences, such as jasmine and carnation, are too delicate for distillation and solvent extraction is the only method that allows the recovery of these oils.
Solvent extraction is the process of soaking the plant extracts in hexane for a period of time. It is then boiled down to a greasy consistency which is called concrete. This concrete is then dissolved in alcohol and then boiled again to burn off the alcohol to extract the absolute.
The location of the oil is unique to each plant. The oils are found in special cells within the plant roots (ginger), bark (cinnamon), wood (cedar & sandalwood), branches (petitgrain), leaves (rosemary), sap resins (benzoin & myrrh), flowers (jasmine), and fruit(orange).
Some plants may yield more than one oil, depending on where on the plant the oil is extracted. The bitter orange tree is such a plant, yielding bitter orange oil from the fruit, petitgrain from the leaves and terminal branches, and neroli from the blossoms. Essential oils actively participate in the development of the plant. The plant uses the fragrance released by the oils to attract or repel insects, communicate with other plants, and protect themselves from heat or cold.
The biological and psychological role of scent in humans is still not well understood; but, the benefits of essential oils are historic. The odor molecules of essential oils are quickly absorbed through the skin and nasal passages, passing through the blood-brain barrier and entering the bloodstream, enhancing the antibacterial effect. Essential oils also have a pronounced effect on the brain’s limbic system that affects our moods. For these reasons, essential oils have historically seen the heaviest use in the soap and perfume industries.