These days, advertisements for prescription drugs are almost as scary as horror movies. Thirty-second ads featuring smiling, happy people are usually overshadowed by fifteen-second listings of their potentially debilitating side-effects. After seeing those advertisements, it is easy to understand why so many people have become sceptical of modern medicine and have turned to the next best natural alternative.
Essential oils are considered the first medicine of mankind. Even before 3000 BC, they were known for their healing, beauty-enhancing, aromatic and therapeutic qualities. Essential oils were popular in Ancient Egypt and have been credited for Cleopatra’s renowned beauty. The Greek physician Hippocrates, believed in the value of daily aromatic baths and scented massages and this advice was widely adopted by many across India and Rome. Even baby Jesus was gifted frankincense and myrrh – oils known for their healing and immunity-stimulating properties.
So, what are essential oils anyway? Believe it or not, they are not actually oils. They are better described as plant extracts derived from flowers, shrubs, trees, roots, bushes or seeds. If you want a technical explanation, they are non-water-based phytochemicals which are comprised of volatile aromatic compounds. This simply means that their chemical compounds occur naturally in plants and they evaporate very quickly at relatively low temperatures. The rapid evaporation rate of essential oils is due to their tiny molecules, some of which can quickly penetrate the skin, which is why they are used in many beauty products. Essential oils are also fat-soluble and, unlike water-soluble compounds, they can penetrate the cells in the body within 20 minutes. Because they are completely natural, they cannot be patented, which is why they aren’t used in pharmaceutical drugs. So it’s not a wonder why they’ve become so popular.
Extracting pure essential oils is a very delicate process. This is why they come in small bottles and tend to be expensive. Some methods are enfleurage, solvent extraction, carbon dioxide extraction, the phytonic process and expressed oils, among others. However, steam distillation seems to be the most popular method that has stood the test of time. Steam is used to break the oil membranes in the plant, which allows for the release of the essential oil. This is not a perfect process, however, because several factors could impact the quality of the oil. The plant would have had to be grown in the right environment, harvested at the perfect time and distilled under proper conditions. The process also requires a large amount of plant material. It’s a gamble because sometimes, several pounds of the plant material may only retrieve one drop of the essential oil.
The latest rave about natural medicine has seen a boom in the essential oils industry. Hundreds of essential oils are available today, each with unique healing properties. While essential oils shouldn’t completely replace modern medicine, it’s nice to know what they are useful for. Remember to always do your research and consult your doctor when using essential oils. Some of them should not be ingested or used during pregnancy, and like pharmaceuticals, some may have side effects if used improperly. Here is a tiny list of some of the most popular essential oils and their uses:
Peppermint oil – Sometimes used as an energy booster, headache reliever, and memory enhancer
Lavender oil – Helps with relaxation
Tea Tree/Melaleuca Oil - A topical oil used to treat fungal infections, acne, cold sores, dandruff, and chest congestion (among others)
Rosemary oil – Helps in respiratory issues, reduces muscle pain, and supports oral health.
Eucalyptus oil – This is a key ingredient in vapor rubs, rash creams, and mouthwashes. It can also be used to relieve sore muscles and repel insects.