Sunday, February 1, 2015

Essential Oils: a primer

I want to discuss essential oils as ingredients since they have so many beneficial actions on the skin. I have been using products with these natural essences in them for almost 30 years. Their effectiveness is powerful, and I have many clients who have turned their skin around through the use of essential oils.

What are essential oils?

They are aromatic liquids that are found in certain plants and flowers. Essential oils are fragrant essences that are produced in specialized glands within the plant as part of the process of photosynthesis. Essential oils are volatile, like gases, and have a very thin viscosity—similar to water. (Actually, essential oils, by definition, are volatile. Fatty oils are termed fixed.) If you put a drop of pure essential oil on your skin, it will evaporate almost immediately, whereas any fatty oil (like olive, wheat germ, or mineral oil) will remain on the surface with little penetration.

Essential oils are lighter than water, so they float on the surface and therefore were thought of as “oils” as far back as Cleopatra’s time. They are not, however, fatty oils. When I talk about essential oils, people with oily skin start getting nervous. They fear their skin will break out once they use products with so many “oils” in them. I understand the word oil to a person with oily skin has a negative connotation, but essential oils aren’t like regular, fatty oils as I’ve explained. In many cases essential oils can help reduce the amount of oil produced by the sebaceous glands due to their balancing effect.

Essential oils are antiseptic and antibacterial. They are perfect for problem skin, adding antibacterial properties to products without adding extra oils. Essential oils stimulate blood circulation. Since your skin cells are nourished by the oxygen and nutrients carried in the blood, any circulatory benefits are always welcomed. These aromatic essences are oxygenating and detoxifying and have a positive effect on the capillaries. Essential oils are also acidic (on the pH scale), thus complementing the acidic nature of the skin.

Sometimes you do get what you pay for. Just because a product says it contains essential oils doesn’t mean it is a good product. It will depend on the percentage of aromatic essences, the grade or quality of the oils, and the ingredients the essential oils are surrounded by. Even though a product claims to contain essential oils, don’t stop investigating.

One surefire way to know if the products you’re using contain pure essential oils is to look at the packaging. Pure oils cannot be housed in plastic; they have to be in either glass or metal containers, usually dark blue or brown bottles. If a product claiming to contain essential oils comes in a plastic jar or tube, most likely it does not contain pure oils or it has a low percentage of oils. There are hybrid plastics in use by some companies that are said to be sound for housing essential oils. But as a general rule, if you see products in plastic, they don’t contain pure essential oils. (For any Yonka users reading this, their packaging is plastic on the outside covering a thin metal inner tube. If you cut any tube you’ll be able to see that.)

Another telltale sign of the purity of essential oils is price. The average consumer isn’t going to be up on the prices for different oils, but here are a few examples. Each individual plant source has its own particular way in which the essential oil is extracted. Usually the choices are steam distillation, maceration, dissolving (using a volatile solvent), and pressing.

Essential oil of rose is one of the most expensive essential oils on the market. Why? Rose oil is commonly obtained through steam distillation of the petals and sometimes the stamens as well. It takes five tons of rose petals to extract 2 1/4 pounds of essential oil! Now you can see why rose oil is so expensive. If you purchase a product that says it contains rose essential oil, it will have to be expensive, or it is using adulterated or synthetic oil. Lavender oil, in comparison to rose oil, is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. It is also acquired through steam distillation. It takes approximately 220 pounds of lavender flowers to procure two pounds of essential oil. 

Unless you know the ins and outs of essential oils and how they are individually priced, you won’t necessarily be able to tell if you’re buying adulterated oils or not. My point in telling you about the prices is to simply alert you to the fact that pure essential oils aren’t cheap. If a product (especially a retail, mass marketed product) says it contains large quantities of many essential oils, you may not be getting the real thing. It’s a complex subject, and there are many wonderful books written about aromatherapy (the science of essential oils) and essential oils themselves. If you’re really curious, you may be interested in reading further on this topic.

One of the side benefits of using essential oils is their wonderful aromatics. It’s not really a side benefit because how things smell will affect you on many levels. Because of the intense aromatic qualities of essential oils, using products that contain them can be an olfactory pleasure all day long.

I don’t recommend that you play around with essential oils. Nor do I suggest you mix them into your face products. They are very potent substances and can cause serious irritations and/or injury to the skin if not used properly. Find a product line that employs essential oils and rely on the manufacturer’s expertise to create a beneficial aromatherapy product.

Aromatherapy is very big today, so it’s not hard to find products that contain essential oils. You still want to ask a lot of questions and try the product out before you buy if possible. An ingredient list that has essential oils in it doesn’t necessarily reflect the effectiveness of the actual product. Experiment and give products with essential oils a try. I think you will find they are truly, unforgettably wonderful.

For information about my favorite essential oils, see:
If you’re interested in reading about someone who doesn’t love essential oils, see: