The term “essential oil” is a contraction of the original “quintessential oil.” This stems from the Aristotelian idea that matter is composed of four elements, namely, fire, air, earth, and water. The fifth element, or quintessence, was then considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant and this is also reflected in our language since the term “spirits” is used to describe distilled alcoholic beverages such as brandy, whiskey, and eau de vie. The last of these again shows reference to the concept of removing the life force from the plant. Nowadays, of course, we know that, far from being spirit, essential oils are physical in nature and composed of complex mixtures of chemicals.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in their Vocabulary of Natural Materials (ISO/D1S9235.2) defines an essential oil as a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.
According to Dr. Brian Lawrence “for an essential oil to be a true essential oil, it must be isolated by physical means only. The physical methods used are distillation (steam, steam/water and water) or expression (also known as cold pressing, a unique feature for citrus peel oils). There is one other method of oil isolation specific to a very limited number of essential oil plants. This is a maceration/distillation. In the process, the plant material is macerated in warm water to release the enzyme-bound essential oil. Examples of oils produced by maceration are onion, garlic, wintergreen, bitter almond, etc.”. Link
Distillation process for essential oils
The majority of essential oils are obtained by low pressure steam distillation without using a chemical descaler.
Distilled part of the plant
The various parts of a single plant (flower, leaf, stem, bark, root etc.) can produce different essences.
The “Essential Oils” are expensive. Especially the pure and organic certified brands. But why is that? Well, producing the purest of oils can be very costly because it may require several hundred of kilograms or even tons of plant material to extract 1 kg of pure essential oil.
To obtain 1 kg of essential oil, you will need :
- 7 kg of Clove floral buds – Eugenia caryophyllus.
- 50 kg of Lavendin – Lavandula x burnatii clone reydovan.
- 150 kg of True Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia ssp angustifolia.
- 1 ton of Everlasting (Italian Everlasting) – Helichrysum italicum ssp serotinum.
- 4 tons of Damask’s Rose petals – Rosa damascena.
- 5 to 10 tons of Melissa – Melissa officinalis. Link
And yes, there are much cheaper essential oils that you can find in different stores. But why is that?
There are a few ways to make oils cheaper. One way is to dilute the oils by adding carrier oils. Check the label, as it will often say, for example: Ingredients: Cedarwood essential oil, sweet almond oil. Another way to make the oil cheaper is to extract it using chemicals rather than the expensive and lengthy process of steam distillation with water:
High pressure, high temperatures, rapid processing, and the use of chemical solvents are often employed during the distillation process so that a greater quantity of oil can be produced at a faster rate. These oils may smell just as good and cost much less, but they will lack most, if not all, of the chemical constituents necessary to produce the expected therapeutic results.
I personally use only organic although they might cost a bit. But they are indeed MUCH more potent than the non organic ones. There are definitely health benefits when used correctly. It takes only one or a few drops of these oils, regardless of application or method to see the results. So you might be paying more but use much less, and the purity makes the results much more effective.