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What is Essential Oil?

Essential oils are concentrated " molecules..." (1) that have been extracted through distillation, cold pressed or solvent extracted from plants, roots, stems, herbs or flowers. By definition, 'Bioactive' means 'having a biological effect'. The extracted essential oil contains the properties, extracts and botanical compounds of the plant.

Essential oil is often used in food - as flavours, preservatives and active agents, in perfumes, cosmetics, skincare and aromatherapy. It is also used by registered practitioners for therapeutic purposes.

A Brief History of Essential Oils

Essential oils (EO's) have a very long history. They were used in the Neolithic period well before 4000 BC. The first record of Essential oils being used came from India, China, Persia and Egypt with trades between Greece and Rome.

"The earliest roots of science can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 3000 to 12000 BCE" (2). Jabir ibn Hayyan, an Islamic alchemist around 800 C.E, invented many chemical apparatuses as "...alchemy evolved into the science of chemistry". (3)

As witches were persecuted in the Middle Ages by the Catholic church, and monks kept many traditional secrets alive, even though the monks themselves, if found, could be persecuted as witches. Knights during the Crusades passed down knowledge of herbal medicine and distillation to the West.

A Persian chemist, Ibn Sina, also known as (Avicenna), invented the distillation of essential oils in the 10-11th century.

As bathing was considered a "sinful" act by the Catholic Church, essential oils gave people the ability to use them for their anti-bacterial properties and for the fragrance they imparted.

It was only in the 17th Century that essential oils lost most of their glory with the discovery of chemical substances.

In 1910, a French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, accidently burnt his hand. He was able to treat his hand by using Lavender essential oil. He was surprised by how quickly his hand healed and with very little scarring. (4). He was the first person to coin the term "aromatherapy".

Benefits of Essential Oils

There have been many studies, experiments and clinical trials that have touted the benefits of essential oils. Analysis of different compounds are being investigated for further medical drug development, destined for commercial use.

Sweet Orange Essential Oil (Citrus sinensis)

Scent: Sweet, zesty, warm, citrusy, uplifting, cheerful, bright

Orange essential oil has antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

Benefits in skincare: It can help improve the appearance of skin tone. Skin appears smoother in appearance, it can boost circulation, helps tighten pores, reduces dark spots and blemishes (due to its vitamin c) content and is great for acne as it has astringent toning properties.

They can be used in wash off products such as face cleansers, shampoo, conditioners and soap.

Orange essential oil is used as a "..natural food additive in several food and beverage products because they have been classified as generally recognized as safe (GRAS)". Furthermore, Citrus EOs are used as natural preservatives due to their broad spectrum biological activities including antimicrobial and antioxidant effects. (5).

Geranium Essential Oil (Pelargonium graveolens)

Scent: Crisp, herbaceous, fresh, soft, floral

In a study in 2013 it was shown that Geranium essential oil reduced inflammation by 73 and 88% (6) Geranium also exhibits anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties.

Benefits in skincare:

It is anti-aging, tightens, tones and regulates sebum production for smooth, radiant skin; it is soothing. great for skin, hair growth and can be used in massages.

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata)

Scent: Bold, bright, rounded by a warm, sweet, vanilla undertone

Ylang Ylang is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and is effective against 20 bacterial strains and 12 fungi. Studies were able to identify compounds extracted from the buds that had an "...inhibitory effect on melanogenesis.." and also "...inhibiting the production of melanin..." by regulating the tyrosinase gene expression. (7).

Benefits in skincare: Great for hair, has anti-fungal properties, helps to stop itchiness, moisturises dry skin, is anti-aging, tones skin, boosts skin cell regeneration, helps to treat acne, and its wonderful scent helps with stress and anxiety.

Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)

Scent: Earthy, musky with a very slight sweetness

Patchouli has antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It has more than 140 compounds. "...Patchouli oil was found to be more effective in inhibiting 20 bacterial strains and all 12 fungi". (8)

Benefits in skincare: Great for conditioning the scalp, helps with collagen production, skin elasticity, treats wrinkles and fine lines, contains antioxidant, helps to fade scars and blemishes, reduces redness, tones, tightens and helps with skin cell regeneration.

It has been used for centuries and its name can be traced back to Tamil Nadu (state in Southern India). The English word translates to 'green leaf'.

When goods were being traded via the Silk Routes Patchouli leaves would often be wrapped and layered to protect the precious commodities from moths, bugs and insects. Patchouli scent became associated with receiving exotic silks, materials, teas and spices.

Patchouli was introduced into France through Napoleon Bonaparte via Egypt and became a popular scent amongst the aristocrats and bourgeoisie.

Amyris balsamifera

Scent: Softly spicy with hints of pepper and ginger

Benefits in skincare: Anti- aging, helps to diminish fine lines and wrinkles, age spots and keeps skin moisturised, giving skin a smooth texture and a nice glow.

Often referred to as West Indian Sandalwood; however, Sandalwood is different from Amyris balsamifera.

Turmeric essential oil (Curcuma longa)

Scent: Warmly rounded, herbaceous, woody, spicy scent

Used for thousands of years Turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. In studies Turmeric essential oil appears to have higher availability of one of the many bioactive ingredients - Curcumin. (9)

The use of Turmeric dates back to 4000 years during the Vedic period in India. It is used in Ayurveda.

Arabic traders introduced Turmeric to western countries in the 13th Century.

Skincare benefits: Good for acne, helps to combat dry skin, fade marks and to diminish fine lines and wrinkles and to prevent free radicals that may affect skin elasticity.

Carrot seed essential oil (Daucus carota)

Scent: A very strong earthy scent

Antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, it can help remove some varieties of fungus from skin.

Benefits in Skincare: It is a great anti-aging ingredient and helps to rejuvenate and even out skin tone. It is great for mature and damaged skin.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Scent: Fresh, light, bright, calming

Lavender is antiseptic, anti-biotic, anti-inflammatory and has analgesic properties. Studies suggest that it can help to fight anti-fungal-resistant infections. It has been shown to help alleviate anxiety disorders, PMS (Pre menstrual syndrome) and menopause.

Its history dates back to 2,500 years and it is believed that it originated from the Mediterranean, Middle East and India.

Benefits in Skincare:

It may help improve sleep, treat skin blemishes, help with hair growth, soothing smell, calm skin from redness and acne and protect against free radicals.

Essential oil vs Synthetic Fragrances

Synthetic fragrances can contain up to 3,000 - 4,000 chemicals. If you see fragrance in an ingredient list it may contain up to 100 toxic ingredients.

There is usually no disclosure of what these ingredients are and these fragrances can be very harmful to human health. Allergies and sensitivity to ingredients in skincare can sometimes be contained within these fragrances.

Essential Oil Fragrance and Quality

When we use the term "natural" there should be a distinction between what our perception of what natural means and what an actual ingredient contains. Essential oils are a natural alternative to synthetic fragrances.

Essential oils have a very complex range of properties, for example, Lavender essential oil can contain up to 300 compounds.

Essential oils are variable in quality and are dependant on several factors such as where it's grown, the climate and cultivar. It has many qualitative and quantitative compositions.

Essential oils are fantastic and there are some handy tips that you need to know that can help you benefit from its amazing properties such as:

  1. Essential oils should always be diluted with carrier oils.

  2. It can take up to 252,000 petals to make a 5ml bottle of rose essential oil or 45 lemons for a 15ml bottle of essential oil. As you can see essential oils are concentrates. When formulating with essential oils it is very important to use less. Less is more in this case.

  3. An increased amount of essential oil should not be used to mask the scent of a product.

  4. Keep essential oils out of light and away from heat. It is better to keep your products in a cool, dark place.

  5. Distilled essential oils are better than expressed essential oils.

  6. Buy authentic essential oils. Some may be disguised as another essential oil to meet a lower price point. Unfortunately, this affects the end product.

  7. Essential oils should not be used if you suffer from skin conditions.

  8. Always look at your ingredient list.


(1) G. León-Méndez, N. Pájaro-Castro, E. Pájaro-Castro, M. Torrenegra-Alarcón, A. Herrera-Barros, Essential oils as a source of bioactive molecules, Rev. Colomb. Cienc. Quím. Farm. 48(1), 80-93 (2019).

(2) Wikipedia (The Free Encyclopedia)

(5) National Center for Biotechnology Information, Noura S. Dosoky, William N Setzer, Biological Activities and Safety of Citrus spp. Essential Oils,, Jul 5, 2018

(6) Mohamed Nadjib Boukhatem, Abdelkrim Kameli, Mohamed Amine Ferhat, Fairouz Saidi, Maamar Mekarnia - Rose geranium essential oil as a source of new and safe anti-inflammatory drugs, NIH - National Library of Medicine (National Center for Biotechnology Information),, DOI:10.3402/ljm.v8i0.22520, 2013.

(7) Loh Teng Hern Tan, Learn Han Lee, Wai Fong Yin, Chim Kei Chan, Habsah Abdul Kadir, Kok Gan Chan, Bey Hing Goh - Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, and Bioactivities of Cananga odorata (Ylang Ylang), NIH - National Library of Medicine (National Center for Biotechnology Information), PMC - PubMed Central doi: 10.1155/2015/896314. 2015

(8) Mallappa Kumara Swamy, Uma Rani Sinniah, Luca Forti (Academic Editor) - A Comprehensive Review on the Phytochemical Constituents and Pharmacological Activities of Pogostemon cablin Benth: An Aromatic Medicinal Plant of Industrial Importance - NIH - National Library of Medicine (National Center for Biotechnology Information), PMC - PubMed Central, , 2015

(9) Shusuke Toden, Arianne L Theiss, Xuan Wang, Ajay Goel - Essential turmeric oils enhance anti-inflammatory efficacy of curcumin in dextran sulfate sodium-induced colitis, NIH - National Library of Medicine (National Center for Biotechnology Information), PMC - PubMed Central,inflammatory%20and%20anti%2Dtumorigenic%20properties. doi 10.1038/s41598-017-00812-6, 2017


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