Essential oils are packed full of enriching benefits that have helped humanity for centuries - but where do they actually come from?
Years before the manufacturing of essential oils even began, herbal remedies were being used across the globe to provide health and wellness for a number of ancient societies.
In the modern age, we too are recognising just how impactful essential oils can be in aiding certain conditions, and how the power of these all-natural treatments goes far beyond their pleasant scent.
While essential oil extraction is not necessarily a new concept, as more and more of us get to grips with aromatherapy and its useful properties, it is understandable that we would want to know exactly how, and where, our oils came to be.
What is an essential oil?
Before we deep-dive into how essential oils are made, let's get to the grips with the fundamentals of what makes these oils so special.
An essential oil can be simply defined as the extraction of a plant or fruit's aromatic essence.
These essences are naturally produced as a result of the plant's ecosystem, and are used as a way to attract pollinators, repel predators and discourage the attention of other species.
They can also function as in-built anti-microbial protection for the plant.
The essential oil can usually be found within the glandular structures of its host, which can appear either on the surface, or internally.
In short, an essential oil is simply a liquefied version of the plant or fruit it comes from.
Despite having many different sources, essential oils are generally grouped into four categories based on their extraction sources:
These categories can also help in finding desired scents and benefits, as the oils within each group tend to contain similar properties to one another.
How are essential oils made?
There are two main processes for the extraction of essential oils: steam distillation and cold pressing.
These methods are the most common for the widespread manufacture of essential oils, however other methods including solvent extraction and enfleurage are also occasionally used.
Sometimes, you may come across "concrete" or "absolute" essential oils that are made by combining solvents, waxes or resins, and plant material together.
While these are heavily revered in the perfumery industry, many do not consider them to be pure and are therefore not the best oils for aromatherapy practice.
What is steam distillation?
The most common method for essential oil extraction is steam distillation. This is a process whereby steam and cold water is used to help separate the essential oil from its host.
Steam is passed through a dome-like vessel - sometimes known as a "still" - containing plant material.
The aromatic molecules of the plant are then released as vapours that rise along with the steam to the top of the vessel.
These vapours then travel into a cooling chamber that is surrounded by cold water - also known as a condenser. The rapid change of temperature forces the vapours and steam to turn back into liquid form.
They are then transported to a separator, where the oil naturally rises above the leftover water - which is now known as hydrosol or "floral water" due to its high levels of plant material.
At this stage, the oil is ready to be collected.
What is cold pressing?
The cold pressing method is mainly used for citrus essential oils, as well as some carrier oils that can be used for dilution or topical application.
This method is also known as expression or expeller pressing.
Citrus fruits, unlike their plant counterparts, tend to have their essential oils contained in sacks on the underside of the fruit's rind.
The whole fruit is placed inside a steel drum, and the sacks are repeatedly punctured until the entire surface of the rind is marked.
The fruit is then carefully pressed to squeeze out both the oil and the juice within it.
As there will still be a lot of solid fruit material - or "pulp" - left behind, the liquid mixture will then be centrifuged at a high speed to separate the oil, juice, and leftover fruit material from each other.
The oil then naturally floats to the top of the juice and is ready to be collected.
These close ties between juicing and oil harvesting mean that citrus oils are often simply a by-product of the juice industry - making them heavily accessible across aromatherapy circles.
What happens after the distillation process?
The pure essential oil is now ready to be bottled, boxed and sent out for use in your everyday health and wellness routine.
Essential oils are renowned for their extraordinary natural benefits - tackling numerous ailments from lack of sleep to joint pain.
Some common uses for essential oils include:
- Candle and soap making
You can find out more information on how to use your essential oils here.
Shop our complete range of pure essential oils here.