They have been a part of traditional healing processes for centuries and have always been the source of interest in the fields of skincare, beauty and medicine. We’re talking about essential oils, or as they are sometimes known, ethereal oils or volatile oils. Forget your days in the Chemistry lab at school when the teacher would tell you to wait for the “oil of wintergreen” fragrance. The appeal and intrigue surrounding essential oils go way beyond waiting in spartan lab coats for a mysterious odour. They form the centre of many products in the beauty industry, and let’s not forget, aromatherapy as well. True to their name, they are said to carry the essence of the plant, flower, fruit or root from which they are extracted and in such concentrated forms that the adage “a little goes a long way” really applies here. Ylang-Ylang, rosemary, lavender, rose, tea-tree, citrus, peppermint, lemon, jasmine…the list goes on. Each oil treated as a unique component and yet powerful when placed in the right combination with others.

Age defying

True, there are those who dismiss the usefulness of essential oils in healing and those who swear by the same. But their properties have been documented over the ages by many men and women, all from different cultures. Many credit the Egyptians with having understood the properties of essential oils and its uses first to create incense, perfumes and pastes. The Chinese and Indians were also known for their in-depth knowledge on the subject of volatile oils but whether they practiced during the same time as the Egyptians or later is under discussion. Chinese healing methods and Ayurveda still depend quite heavily on the healing properties of certain plants and their extracts. The Greeks, Arabs and some Europeans also documented their thoughts on essential oils ages ago with some of the distillation methods created by a few Greek and Persian scientists still in practice today.

Drawing out goodness

With such a rich history, it’s no wonder then that the beauty industry worldwide tries to incorporate pure essential oils in its products. Perfumes, soaps, scrubs and cosmetics among other products all benefit from the incorporation of essential oils but not any essential oil will do, since their appeal and premium value also depends on the extraction process. A number of methods exist of draw out the essences of a plant. The distillation process is most common, usually used for orange blossom and rose oil. Steam is passed through the bark or flower, whose essences are vaporised and condensed further along in the distillation apparatus, after which it is separated from the water vapour in which it might be dissolved. While essential oils obtained via distillation are quite common, Ylang-Ylang is an exception as its distillation process takes close to 22 hours to complete, hence increasing its value when used in beauty products.

Like with the case of good olive oil, certain essential oils are produced by the expression or cold-press method. Citrus peel, due to the large amount of oil contained in it, is the most commonly cold-pressed element. The peel is pressed, squeezed or compressed mechanically which brings out the essential oils. Oils obtained by this method are said to retain their scent for a far longer time as they are present in a more concentrated form, hence making them quite valuable. Solvent extraction or maceration is also possible to obtain essential oils, and while the process is quite a complicated one, the fragrance of the oil or “absolutes” obtained is said to be closer to the original than those obtained by the distillation process.

The existence of complex processes of extraction and the care taken not to subject the essence to heat extremes only highlight the delicate properties of essential oils.

Essential oils can be used in multiple ways. Steam inhalations for various congestions, as air fresheners through diffusers, candles and incense sticks, in baths and Jacuzzis for a luxurious experience and in various creams, lotions and skincare products. But keep in mind that some oils are not to be directly applied to the skin in the “neat” or undiluted form as they can cause irritation and allergic reactions. Even certain “safe” oils like lavender and tea-tree should be used neat only after testing for allergic reactions. A drop here, a whiff there, that’s all that is needed to make something magical.

We love

For bathtime: The gift hamper from Forest Essentials with Sandalwood and Vetiver Cold-pressed Body Massage Oil, Silken Shower Wash and Ultra-rich Body Lotion. The Beautifying Oils from The Body Shop with marula nut, sweet almond and kukui nut oils are great to get rid of dryness.

For bedtime: Hit the bed with a spritz of L’Occitane’s Aromachologie Relaxing Pillow Mist with natural lavender, tea tree, geranium oils and linden tree flower extract on your pillow to calm the nerves. Then close and cover your eyes with Rosemary Eye Pillow from The Nature’s Co. which contains rosemary oil to remedy mental fatigue.

archana.a@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 23, 2012)
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