An essential oil is a volatile extract obtained from aromatic plants. Essential oils are used in various product sectors, from the cosmetics industry to aromatherapy, passing through applications in the pharmaceutical, food and perfume industries for the body and the environment.
What are essential oils?
An essential oil is a highly aromatic hydrophobic substance, obtained both by pressing the peel of citrus fruits and by steam distillation of other plants. When it comes to citrus essential oils, the correct term to use is “essence”.
In chemical terms, an essential oil is a complex and heterogeneous, volatile mixture, with a prevalence of terpenoid compounds and lower percentages of aromatic compounds derived from phenylalanine or mixed compounds such as the thymol / carvacrol pair. In the essences (citrus essential oils) there are non-volatile compounds such as furocoumarins, responsible for photosensitization phenomena.
* hydrophobic substance, it means they are soluble in alcohol or in oil, but not in water.
What are essential oils used for?
As anticipated in the introduction, essential oils find different applications in a large number of sectors.
Essential oils have also become popular thanks to the many uses they find in the world of do-it-yourself: to perfume the car interior or domestic environments in a natural way, for aromatherapy, for the preparation of do-it-yourself cosmetics, for hair care, for skin care, to produce perfumed detergents or in the garden, to prepare natural repellents for flies, mosquitoes and other parasites.
Essential oils – Properties
On the basis of the essential oil examined, different properties can be found. Essential oils can have anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, rubefacient, expectoral, carminative, antispasmodic, digestive stimulant, insect repellent properties…. they can also have beneficial effects on the psyche: soothe anxiety, relax, modify mood, improve concentration levels… The properties of essential oils depend on their specific components and on mutual interaction.
Many essential oils have medicinal properties that are still used today in traditional Asian medicine (see Indian medicine, Ayurveda medicine). Let’s take some examples:
- Clove essential oil is considered a powerful analgesic, particularly useful against toothache.
- The essential oil of officinal lavender (true lavender) is very popular in aromatherapy, as an antiseptic and for many other medicinal uses.
- The essential oil of the tea plant (tree tea oil, Melaleuca alternifolia essential oil) is considered a powerful broad spectrum antiseptic.
- Peppermint essential oil (Mentha spica) is commonly used to relieve headaches.
Aromatherapy and essential oils
Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine in which aromatic substances have a great importance, for this reason it is necessary to choose the essential oil wisely to obtain the desired effect. In aromatherapy, not only the type of essential oil chosen is important, the quality of the essential oil and the dosage are also decisive.
In addition to aromatherapy, essential oils are used on another kind of alternative therapy based exclusively on perfumes, often this practice is called “osmotherapy”.
Essential oils, contraindications
The use of essential oils is “contraindicated” (not recommended) by pregnant women, by the elderly or weak and by children under the age of three.
Contraindications may vary with the properties of the essential oil used. For example, cinnamon essential oil is allergenic, some are contraindicated for diffusion, others for massages, essences (citrus essential oils) are photosensitizers so you shouldn’t be exposed to light after using them.
For the rest, more than contraindications, we can talk about precautions for use:
- never use an essential oil orally without the authorization of a specialized professional: in case of accidental ingestion, consult a doctor or call a poison control center.
- Before using an essential oil, perform an application test on the inner crease of the elbow in order to observe any allergic reactions.
- Essential oils should never be used pure but must be diluted. They dissolve in oil or alcohol, never in water.