What Are Essential Oils?

Many of us are familiar with the words Essential Oils. Within recent years, essential oils have made an appearance in the health market across the world. Wellness gurus everywhere are idolizing them as the golden child of complementary health care. Your chiropractor or dermatologist might even be recommending them to you in their clinics. But, for those of us new to this world of aromatherapy, we ask, what exactly are these essential oils?

In fancy terms, here is the definition of essential oil.

Ex.) Essential oils are volatile, non-water soluble molecules that are collected through a temperature-regulated steam distillation process.  

Or in simple terms;

Essential oils are the good smelling oily essence of a plant that is extracted through heat, pressure and/or steam.

(Think of when you smell freshly picked lavender. That “aroma” can be extracted, giving you your essential oil.


Essential Oils are obtained from various parts of certain plants. They are extracted from flowers, stems, leaves, seeds, roots, bark, resin, and more.

When a plant is distilled, the aromatic molecules are extracted. These compounds are prized for their therapeutic and medicinal properties.

In fact, only 1% of the plant species in the world are actually aromatic. This means only select aromatic plants can be distilled. This makes essential oils all the more unique. The amount of essential oil produced from any distillation batch averages about 1% or less. This explains why some oils are very pricey, especially if the plants are rare or difficult to cultivate in larger quantities.


Essential oils are not the type of oils that you would think. In fact, technically they are not even oils, but more accurately an aromatic plant essence. During the 1800s alchemists observed that it did not mix with water, so naturally, the term “oil” from the word “essential oil”  seemed appropriate. The word “essential” was based on the archaic word “quintessence” from the middle ages meaning the fifth element beyond earth, water, fire, and air.

The process of boiling plant matter and water into an invisible gaseous form and then condensing the steam into a clear and fragrant liquid must have evoked these ideas.


Even though crude forms of essential oils have been used since the 1600s, the science behind the medicinal application of them was not published until Perfume Chemist Rene Gattefossé came around. He coined the term “aromatherapy” and wrote the first book about it called; René-Maurice Gattefossé’s Aromathérapie. His work was the catalyst of a new genre of medicine that we know as of today’s Aromatherapy. Since Rene’s publication, new research, studies, and practical applications continue to evolve, further solidifying its therapeutic use along the side of modern medicine.


Photo by: Michael Longmire

To make matters more interesting, not all essential oils are created equal. Let us step back and take a look into the entire cultivation process before even thinking about distillation. You may not realize it, but there many factors that affect the quality of essential oil.

Here are a few to think about;


There are plants that grow everywhere in the world. However, when it comes to therapeutic properties, some regions offer better quality than others. For example, Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is an aromatic shrub which is grown in many regions all over the world. But when we look at it more closely, we must think about the climate conditions it is exposed to. Would Lavender grow the same in Mediterranean regions as it would the semi-arid regions of the world?


For example, drought, floods, wind, frost are common issues that farmers face every year. Weather conditions will make or break a crop. Whether or not a crop has been negatively affected by weather conditions from the season they still end up in the market. An essential oil may be pure and unadulterated, however, the chemical profile of the oil will vary according to the conditions that the plants grew in. For this reason, some chemical profiles of essential oil will offer more therapeutic properties than others.


The time of year in which the plants are harvested is another common issue. Farmers who harvest too early or too late in the season will impact the quality of the plant.


Soil is a factor that is often overlooked. Down to the very soil and fertilizers used. If the soil is over cultivated, it can strip all the beneficial properties from the soil. If a crop has any type of history of using pesticides, then any crop grown “Organically” in the future could have trace amounts of pesticides remaining in the soil.


The time of day to harvest plays a significant role in the quality of essential oils. Some plants have more potent essential oils during specific times of the day. For this reason,  it’s important for farmers to be very knowledgeable with the botanicals that they cultivate.


Oil quality is affected by how it’s distilled. For example, when a manufacturer is unskilled or is just careless about the distillation process, they risk damaging the delicate volatile molecules in the plant. Some issues include raising the temperature of distillation too high. Using outdated equipment. Not keeping a clean work area and getting foreign contaminants into the distillation still. Just to name a few.

While these are only a few factors that help us determine the overall quality of essential oils. Concentration levels of therapeutic constituents and oil quality affect so many other factors.


Photo by: Kelly Sikkema

There are so many companies that sell essential oils. Just look on Amazon. It’s a tough decision. Most of the information that we know about these companies is from what they tell us.

Lucky for you, there are a few good indicators on how to determine if an essential oil is worth your money.


Always do a background search on the company. For example, search for any history of lawsuits, scandals, and reputable bad reviews. This makes for a good place to start. If you see that the company has faced issues with the law in the past, run the other way or if the prices are too low or too high that is a red flag!


Conventional essential oils are a grey area. It can be difficult to separate the good oils from the bad. Companies that label their products as organic or wild-craft are more likely to adhere to those standards of quality than those who don’t. This isn’t a sure way to validate a product’s quality, but it is definitely an easier way to save research time.


See that the oils are origin sourced. If all the oils you buy are coming from India or China, you could be losing a lot of the therapeutic properties of that oil which only comes from plants sourced in specific regions of the world. Soil and region play such a vital role in the therapeutic profile of essential oils, so getting your oils from various regions will give you different qualities


Essential oils are an investment. The time you took to earn that money is priceless. So the products you spend your money on should be worth every penny. If something doesn’t sit right with you, or if you still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask. It is the responsibility of the company to uphold transparency in what they are marketing. Don’t be afraid to ask a company questions. Your instincts will tell you the rest.


Aromatic plants have impacted the development of societies around the world for thousands of years. Uses have ranged from social, cultural, spiritual and medicinal and still play a significant role in our society.

Essential oils are very unique in the fact that they not only exert their effects on physical, physiological and psychological levels but also on emotional and spiritual levels by absorption via the sense of smell and the limbic system. Today, aromatherapy is practiced (mainly) by non-medical therapists and is regarded as complementary to traditional western health care. Aromatherapy is generally recognized as being valuable in the prevention and alleviation of stress. This includes the prevention of numerous adverse effects of stress on Well-being. As the research and development of the medicinal properties of essential oils continue to rapidly grow, aromatherapy is solidifying its place within the world of complementary medicine. As research on natural medicine continues to expand, we can only look forward to the empowerment we can instill in society by providing alternative solutions that work synergistically with the body.

Stayed tuned to XinerQi’s Science page as new research and botanical information is continually being added to help you stay informed and healthy.


Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice, Jennifer Peace Rhind, 2012

The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy, 2011, Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D.

Essential Oil Education The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, Kurt Schnaubelt


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