What is Aromatherapy ?
The origins of plant oils dates back to the time of the Egyptians, they were seeming the first people to distil plants being somewhat in a crude form in order to extract their Essential oils. These oils once distilled where you in many ways form medicinally to religious ceremonies and to beautify the skin and face and not forgetting as perfumes.
In India the use of plants and plant extracts medicine has been used continually for 5000 years. Ayurvedic medicine, as it is called is unique in this respect. One of the oldest known books on this subject is the Veda which is Indian. This book not only mentions many aromatic materials such as sandalwood, Ginger, Myrrh, Cinnamon and Coriander but it also indexes the various uses of plants for religious or medicinal purposes.
No-one knows for sure whether the extraction and use of aromatic material began in Egypt or India – suffice to say that in both these countries the use of plants was an important part of their cultures for thousands of years.
The use of these oils can be traced thorough out history,
- In 14500 BC a Chinese Emperor recorded what he believed was the medicinal properties of Rhubarb, Opium and pomegranate
- 3000 BC the Egyptians were particularly familiar with the art of aromatics. When Tutankhamen tomb was opened in 1922 they discovered many aromatic preparations that were still fragrant. One priestly perfume named Kyphi was a mixture of 16 ingredients which included Honey, Raisins, myrrh, cinnamon, turpentine, Juniper and cardamom.
- Hebrew prized the art of aromatic perfumes, which they used in religious ceremonies. The three wise men brought baby jesus the precious gifts of Myrrh and frankincense.
- When the Romans acquired the knowledge of aromatics, they became fond of using essences to spray rooms, enhance massage and enhance their bathing. Roman historians have claimed that when the wife of Emperor Nero died he used as much Frankincense that had been produced in ten-year at her funeral.
- The crusades to the middle east and the invasion of spain by the Moor brought the essences to Europe.
- In the middle ages essences were used to ward of the Black Plague. One poplar protection was to smear the body with “four thieves’ vinegar” which was a concoction of Lavender, Sage, rosemary, Mint, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Camphor, Garlic and Absinth macerated in vinegar.
As you can see the use of plant oils has been around for than more than 6000 years but the term ‘Aromatherapy’ was only brought into being in the 20th century and its strict meaning is a therapy using only the aromas (I.e. The essential oils) from the plant, not the plants in their entirety (I.e. herbalism). Thus most of the history connected with Aromatherapy is in reality the history of whole plants for medicinal use.
A French chemist by the name of Rene-Maurice Gattefosse owned his own perfumery business. One day whilst working Gattefosse burnt his hand and plunged his hand into the nearest liquid which just happend to be a Vat of Lavender oil. Afterwards he found that his burn healed quickly. This began his lifelong interest in studying the therapeutic and healing properties of plant oils. Very little is known about him, but he wrote several books on essential oils citing cures of skin cancer, facial ulcers, gangrene, and Black Widow spider bites. His book Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Végétales(which you can buy below) brought his ideas to the attention of a wider public in 1937. It was translated into English as Aromatherapy and so the name was born
In later years biochemists have isolated dozens of ingredients in essential oils that account for the amazing properties they hold.
What are essential oils and how are the created ?
Essential oils are liquids that are contained in the glands, veins, sacs and glandular hairs of aromatic plants, they can be found in petals, roots, rinds, seeds, saps, nuts, leaves or the bark. Flowers, leaves and non-fibrous parts need little, if any preparation prior to distillation where as tough stalks, woody parts, roots, seeds and fruits need to be ‘Comminuted (cut up, disintegrated or crushed – wood is grated) in order to rupture the cell walls, allowing the easy escape of the volatile oils. These oils are not only derived from various culinary herbal plans, but specific parts of the plant such a the root of Ginger or the flowers of Lavender and the leaves of Rosemary. Similarly with spices, the leaves of the Clove Tree or the bark of the Cinnamon Tree. The most familiar essences are probably those that are derived from flowers, like Rose and Geranium. Yet the resin of the pine tree is also valuable, as is the wood of the Cedarwood and the leaves of the Eucalyptus.
Voilatile is derived from the latin wood Volare – meaning to fly
Although the basics art of extracting essential oils from plants has remained the same for as hundreds of years ago, science has made tremendous advances in the techniques and methods used. Distillation is and no doubt will be the most important of the extractions process.
There are several ways in which you can extract the essential oils ,Steam Distillation, Expression, extraction, Solvent extraction.
- Steam Distillation (e.g. Geranium, Chamomile, Lavender) : This process involves placing the plant material on a grid inside a distillation vat and then passing steam through it under pressure. The heat of the stream causes the cells of the leaves, twigs, berries etc to burst open, releasing their essential oils as a vapour. This vapour is passed with the steam through a cooling tanks, where it condenses. When the steam and vapour oils are cooled the essential oil usually floats on top of the water in the collecting tanks (most essential oils are lighter than water) The essential oils are then collected.
Did you know ? To produce 1 kg of lavender oil you need 200 kg of fresh lavender flowers and for 1 kg of Lemon oil 3,000 lemons are needed, But the most shocking of all is Rose oil, between 2,000 and 3000 kg of Rose petals are needed for just 1 kg of oil.
- Expression (e.g. citrus oils) : This form of extraction is only used for the collection of citrus oils. The peel of citrus fruits has oil glands containing the essential oils. These oils are pressed from the peel after th pulp has been separated. traditionally this was done by hand but now it is done by machine.
- Extraction : This process is used mainly for the finest flowers such as Jasmine, Orange flowers and Tuberose. The final product of the extraction are called Absolutes, concentrates and Resinoids. These are the oldest methods and the process is similar too Maceration – Soaking the plant materials in a vegetable base oil or Enfleurage – Placing flower petals on purified animal fats.
- Solvent Extraction : This is the most complex process, in which flower petals are placed in a seal container and a liquid solvent such as petroleum ether is allowed to flow over the petals and completely cover them. The solvent slowly dissolves the essential oils from the petals, then the solvent is then collected and the solvent is then gently dissolved off. On separation, the residual is a semisolid aromatic material called Concrete, which contains some of the plants natural waxes and other non-aromatic materials. The crete is then shaken with alcohol and when the alchol is distilled off you are left with the coloured liquid – the absolute remains. Resinoids, similar to concrete, are extractions from tree resins.
When essential oils are used for any therapeutic purpose it is generally best to avoid essential oils that have been extracted with solvents, as some traces of solvents may remain. This method is better suited to products used in perfume making.
Where can I use Aromatherapy oils ?
Apart from using the oils in a massage, which is the most widely known method, oils can become a major ingredients in beauty treatments, they can be added to baths as a restorative or used in the home as an aroma. The oils can also be used to clean surfaces or even repel insects! Aromatherapy can fit in easily to your life and can be used in many different ways for many different reasons, From the big things already mentioned to a few drops of Eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief when you have a cold, to a few drops on an aroma necklace or bracelet to suit the situation it is needed for, such as lavender to calm and don’t forget Tea Tree for spots.
There are many essential oils, in fact there is as many as 90, In the chart I made below is 45 of the most common/popular oils used and the scent groups they are part of.
Note : Please read up on how to use essential oils safely before you start using the oils, especially if pregnant, have any illnesses or what to use the oils on children and babies as many will not be suitable for your use. My motto “It’s better to be safe than sorry”.
Drop me a line or two below and tell me which is your favourite essential oil and why or what brand you love to use, I’d love to know.