Natural Healing Oils

Most natural healing oils on the market today are essential oils. An essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing aroma compounds extracted from plants. We use the word "essential" because it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant.

Essential oils are usually extracted by steam distillation. Other distillation processes include expression or solvent extraction. Different brands of oils have different concentrations, with many lower-cost oils often being watered down.

They have been used medicinally in the past, and are seeing a great resurgence in the twenty-first century. Medical applications range from skin treatments to allergy remedies. Claims for the effectiveness of medical treatments are regulated in most countries around the world.

As interest in natural healing oils has revived in recent decades, this site endeavors to show how individuals are using oils, for what treatment

Distillation

Alembic used to distill natural healing oilsToday, most common essential oils — such as lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus — are distilled. Raw plant material, consisting of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water. As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel.

Most oils are distilled in a single process. One exception is ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), which takes 22 hours to complete through a fractional distillation.

The recondensed water is referred to as a hydrosol, hydrolat, herbal distillate or plant water essence, which may be sold as another fragrant product. Popular hydrosols include rose water, lavender water, lemon balm, clary sage and orange blossom water. The use of herbal distillates in cosmetics is increasing. Some plant hydrosols have unpleasant smells and are therefore not sold.

Expression

Most citrus peel oils are expressed mechanically or cold-pressed (similar to olive oil extraction). Due to the relatively large quantities of oil in citrus peel and low cost to grow and harvest the raw materials, citrus-fruit oils are cheaper than most other essential oils. Lemon or sweet orange oils that are obtained as byproducts of the citrus industry are even cheaper.

Before the discovery of distillation, all essential oils were extracted by pressing.

Solvent extraction

Most flowers contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression; their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, a solvent such as hexane or supercritical carbon dioxide is used to extract the oils. Extracts from hexane and other hydrophobic solvent are called concretes, which are a mixture of essential oil, waxes, resins, and other lipophilic (oil soluble) plant material.

Although highly fragrant, concretes contain large quantities of nonfragrant waxes and resins. Often, another solvent, such as ethyl alcohol, which is more polar in nature, is used to extract the fragrant oil from the concrete. The alcohol is removed by evaporation, leaving behind the absolute.

Supercritical carbon dioxide is used as a solvent in supercritical fluid extraction. This method has many benefits including avoiding petrochemical residues in the product and the loss of some "top notes" when steam distillation is used. It does not yield an absolute directly. The supercritical carbon dioxide will extract both the waxes and the essential oils that make up the concrete. Subsequent processing with liquid carbon dioxide, achieved in the same extractor by merely lowering the extraction temperature, will separate the waxes from the essential oils. This lower temperature process prevents the decomposition and denaturing of compounds. When the extraction is complete, the pressure is reduced to ambient and the carbon dioxide reverts to a gas, leaving no residue. An animated presentation describing the process is available for viewing.