The Basics of Essential Oils: The Science Behind Aromatherapy


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The use of essential oils: it’s complex chemistry. Image by ISP

Aromatherapists use essential oils in the practice of clinical aromatherapy to help with a number of health problems.

Often thought of as nothing more than a “pretty scent,” true essential oils do have therapeutic properties, obtained from the various chemical components that make up an individual essential oil.

Science and Essential Oils

Scientists have attempted to copy, isolate, or substitute individual chemical components of essential oils but, because many essential oils, such as rose (Rosa damascena) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), are so complex in their chemistry, science has still not correctly identified and isolated their individual chemical components.

For example, rose has over 300 constituents. Some of these chemical constituents are minor, but are vital to making up the unique fragrance and therapeutic properties which are rose. It is also impossible to replicate the therapeutic properties of a true essential oil with a synthetically engineered substitute.

Scientists have carried out various scientific studies (Duraffourd 1987, p.17, Valnet 1980, p.44, Schilcher 1985 p.217) with regard to the validity of the therapeutic properties of essential oils and their use with certain conditions; although results vary, there is evidence that essential oils do hold therapeutic value for use with specific conditions.

What is an Essential Oil?

Plants evolved with various tools to help them deal with the surrounding world; one of these tools was aroma or scent. An aroma in a plant is designed to both attract pollinators and repel predators. The location of the aroma indicates its purpose; for example, an aroma located in the root, bark or leaf is usually for defense purposes against predators, whereas flower and fruit aromas are designed to attract pollinators.
Aromas in a plant are the by-product of the process of metabolism, and are volatile; they evaporate at or above room temperature. A process of extraction, usually in the form of distillation or cold expression, draws out the aroma from the plant in the form of an oil – the essential oil.

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