We hear much about essential oils as used for aromatherapy as well as in homemade beauty formulas–we even use them in housecleaning formulas. But did you know that essential oils aren’t actually oils? They do not contain fatty acids and are not prone to rancidity as oils are. Yet, they do not dissolve in water–and do mix very well in base oils.
According to Stephanie Tourles, author of Organic Body Care Recipes (Storey Publishing, 2007), essential oils embody a plant’s aromatic hormones and chemical compounds–and due to their minute molecular structure, they can easily penetrate the dermis to nourish, rejuvenate, and revitalize skin cells. They are primarily extracted from various parts of a plant by steam distillation, with the exception of citrus oils which are cold-pressed from the rind.
Tourles writes that essential oils are highly concentrated natural products that must be used with caution. Only one precious drop of rose otto essential oil is produced from approximately 30 rosebuds–but not all flowers and herbs are as stingy with their essential oil. Always educate yourself about the properties and countraindications surrounding each essential oil before you use it. To determine potential allergic reactions to a specific oil, try this test: Combine one or two drops of the essential oil with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of base oil in a small bowl. Apply a small dab on the underside of your wrist, behind your ear, inside your upper arm, or behind your knee and wait 12 to 24 hours. If no irritation develops, the oil is safe to use.
Essential oils are so highly concentrated that few may be used “neat” (undiluted) on the skin: Lavender, tea tree, German chamomile, rose, sandalwood, and geranium. Always dilute with an essential oil with a base oil unless you know it is safe to use neat.
If while working with an essential oil, you rub or splash the oil into your eye or nose–which can cause excruciating pain–immediately flush the affected area with an unscented, bland fatty oil such as almond, olive, corn, soybean, peanut, or generic vegetable oil. Whole milk makes a substitute in an emergency. Using plain water does not help; essential oils are attracted to fats alone. Should the pain continue or should severe headache develop, seek prompt medical attention.
Essential oils retain their healing properties for five to 15 years if properly stored in a dark, dry, cool place, and some actually improve with age. The exception to this is citrus oils: They will remain potent for only six to 12 months unless refrigerated, and if refrigerated, may last up to two years or so if not frequently opened. Because they can be harmful if ingested, it is advisable to store essential oils out of reach of children or pets.