What are Essential Oils?

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.


Tim n Ash Black
Ash wilson8 years ago

good to know

Brent Williams
Brent Williams9 years ago

Thanks Rachel, et. al. for your cautionary notes re: essential oils. There is so much in the alternative/complementary health care field that has no scientific basis. One person makes a claim, someone else quotes it, and all of a sudden, it's "true". Trying oils on a sensitive area? Fine, if it doesn't cause a reaction that means it's okay for -you- to use, at least, this time. Many people develop sensitivity when exposed to some oils over time. Be very careful with essential oils and don't believe the hype. Just because they're natural doesn't mean they're harmless. Poison ivy is natural and it's essential oil is what causes the reaction...

anon a.
anon a9 years ago

The responders seam to have alot of useful knowledge. I plan to learn more; have just enjoyerd learning while at WFoods (working). My NAt. MD suggested Tea Tree Oil and Listerine to rub ob my nail where brittle. That should be a safe one...

Sharron Myers
Sharron Myers9 years ago

You say: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.

This simply is not true! Do you know that even Lavender if undiluted can cause skin reactions. It is always better to dilute any oil with a carrier. Don't believe everything you read on the web. Much of it is garbage taken from one aromatherapy site to another and propagated as truth. As a certified aromatherapist I suggest you check out your sources before posting things that can be dangerous or untrue. Like 15 years for an shelf life! No Way! People really should take the time to get themselves educated.

Rachel Markel
Rachel Markel9 years ago

What growth are you referring to Trisha? I am referring to the effectiveness of the constituents in the essential oils over the long term.

Trisha Springstead Rn

As a formulator, chemist and microbiologist who works only with essential ois, I can tell you that all of my essential oils are stored in a cool room, in brown glass jugs. I have geranium,
german chamomile, clove bud oils, cinnamon oils, myrrh and a host of other oils that have preserved with no growth now going on 8 years, I have the first US Patent #7060306 that is preserving carrier and essential oil balms with no growth for 3 years. We test for growth on our products every month. So there is some truth to this statement.

Rachel Markel
Rachel Markel9 years ago

Not sure where the information came from regarding the shelf life up to 15 years, that's nearly impossible. This defies all logic pertaining to organic chemistry. As a supplier and devoted essential oil user that statement just has no truth to it.