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An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, or aetherolea, or simply as the "oil of" the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An oil is "essential" in the sense that it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant. Essential oils do not form a distinctive category for any medical, pharmacological, or culinary purpose.
Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, often by using steam. Other processes include expression or solvent extraction. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavoring food and drink, and for adding scents to incense and household cleaning products.
Essential oils have been used medicinally in history. Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer and often are based solely on historical accounts of use of essential oils for these purposes. Claims for the efficacy of medical treatments, and treatment of cancers in particular, are now subject to regulation in most countries.
As the use of essential oils has declined in evidence-based medicine, one must consult older textbooks for much information on their use. Modern works are less inclined to generalize; rather than refer to "essential oils" as a class at all, they prefer to discuss specific compounds, such as methyl salicylate, rather than "oil of wintergreen".
Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine that claims that essential oils and other aromatic compounds have curative effects. Oils are volatilized or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, diffused in the air by a nebulizer, heated over a candle flame, or burned as incense.
Today, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is also used for making decaffeinated coffee. Although it uses the same basic principles, it is a different process because of the difference in scale.
Florasol (R134a), a refrigerant, was developed to replace Freon. Florasol is an ozone friendly product and it poses little danger to the environment. One advantage is that the extraction of essential oils occurs at or below room temperature so degradation through high temperature extremes does not occur. The essential oils are mostly pure and contain little to no foreign substances.
Estimates of total production of essential oils are difficult to obtain. One estimate, compiled from data in 1989, 1990 and 1994 from various sources, gives the following total production, in tonnes, of essential oils for which more than 1,000 tonnes were produced.
Although some are suspicious or dismissive towards the use of essential oils in healthcare or pharmacology, essential oils retain considerable popular use, partly in fringe medicine and partly in popular remedies. Therefore it is difficult to obtain reliable references concerning their pharmacological merits.
Taken by mouth, many essential oils can be dangerous in high concentrations. Typical effects begin with a burning feeling, followed by salivation. In the stomach, the effect is carminative, relaxing the gastric sphincter and encouraging eructation (belching). Further down the gut, the effect typically is antispasmodic.
Typical ingredients for such applications include eucalyptus oils, menthol, capsaicin, anise and camphor. Other essential oils work well in these applications, but it is notable that others offer no significant benefit. This illustrates the fact that different essential oils may have drastically different pharmacology. Those that do work well for upper respiratory tract and bronchial problems act variously as mild expectorants and decongestants. Some act as locally anaesthetic counterirritants and, thereby, exert an antitussive effect.
Some essential oils, such as those of juniper and agathosma, are valued for their diuretic effects. With relatively recent concerns about the overuse of antibacterial agents, many essential oils have seen a resurgence in off-label use for such properties and are being examined for this use clinically.
Many essential oils affect the skin and mucous membranes in ways that are valuable or harmful. They are used in antiseptics and liniments in particular. Typically, they produce rubefacient irritation at first and then counterirritant numbness. Turpentine oil and camphor are two typical examples of oils that cause such effects. Menthol and some others produce a feeling of cold followed by a sense of burning. This is caused by its effect on heat-sensing nerve endings. Some essential oils, such as clove oil or eugenol, were popular for many hundred years in dentistry as antiseptics and local anaesthetics. Thymol is well known for its antiseptic effects.
Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine in which healing effects are ascribed to the aromatic compounds in essential oils and other plant extracts. Many common essential oils have medicinal properties that have been applied in folk medicine since ancient times and are still widely used today. For example, many essential oils have antiseptic properties. Many are also claimed to have an uplifting effect on the mind. Such claims, if meaningful, are not necessarily false but are difficult to quantify in the light of the sheer variability of materials used in the practice.
Essential oils are widely used for skin treatments. They are the perfect solution for any type of skin problems. Essential oils can be used for the following skin issues:
Essential oils are derived from sections of plants. Some plants, like the bitter orange, are sources of several types of essential oil.
Apart from essential oils used mainly in foods, the best-known essential oil worldwide might be eucalyptus oil, produced from the leaves of Eucalyptus globulus. Steam-distilled eucalyptus oil is used throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and South America as a primary cleaning/disinfecting agent added to soaped mop and countertop cleaning solutions; it also possesses insect and limited vermin control properties. Note, however, there are hundreds of species of eucalyptus, and perhaps some dozens are used to various extents as sources of essential oils. Not only do the products of different species differ greatly in characteristics and effects, but also the products of the very same tree can vary grossly.
The second most well-known essential oil is probably rose oil, produced from the petals of Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia. Steam-distilled rose oil is known as "rose otto", while the solvent extracted product is known as "rose absolute".
One of the most popular essential oils in the world, lavender essential oil has a reputation of being mild, relaxing and appropriate for all ages and genders (Claims are made that it can be adverse to males since it can give off estrogen). Lavender essential oil is also an insect repellant.
The potential danger of an essential oil is generally relative to its level or grade of purity. Many essential oils are designed exclusively for their aroma-therapeutic quality; these essential oils generally should not be applied directly to the skin in their undiluted or "neat" form. Some can cause severe irritation, provoke an allergic reaction and, over time, prove hepatotoxic. Non-therapeutic grade essential oils are never recommended for topical or internal use.
Essential oils should not be used with animals, as they possess extreme hepatotoxicity and dermal toxicity for animals, especially for cats. Instead, essential oils should be blended with a vegetable-based carrier oil (as a base, or "fixed" oil) before being applied. Common carrier oils include olive, almond, hazelnut and grapeseed. Only neutral oils should be used. A common ratio of essential oil disbursed in a carrier oil is 0.5%–3% (most under 10%), depending on its purpose. Some essential oils, including many of the citrus peel oils, are photosensitizers, increasing the skin's vulnerability to sunlight.
Industrial users of essential oils should consult the material safety data sheets (MSDS) to determine the hazards and handling requirements of particular oils. Even certain therapeutic grade oils can pose potential threats to individuals with epilepsy or pregnant women.
Essential oils can be aggressive toward rubbers and plastics, so care must be taken in choosing the correct handling equipment. Glass syringes are often used, but have coarse volumetric graduations. Chemistry syringes are ideal, as they resist essential oils, are long enough to enter deep vessels, and have fine graduations, facilitating quality control. Unlike traditional pipettes, which have difficulty handling viscous fluids, the chemistry syringe has a seal and piston arrangement which slides inside the pipette, wiping the essential oil off the pipette wall. This improves accuracy, and the inside of the pipette is easy to clean and reuse immediately. Chemistry pipetting syringes are equal in accuracy to the best laboratory equipment and are available in sizes from 1 mL through 25 mL.
The use of essential oils in pregnancy is not recommended due to inadequate published evidence to demonstrate evidence of safety. Pregnant women often report an abnormal sensitivity to smells and taste, essential oils can cause irritation and nausea.
Estrogenic and antiandrogenic activity have been reported by in vitro study of tea tree oil and lavender essential oils. Case reports suggest the oils may be implicated in some cases of gynecomastia, an abnormal breast tissue growth, in prepubescent boys.
There is some concern about pesticide residues in essential oils, particularly those used therapeutically. For this reason, many practitioners of aromatherapy buy organically produced oils. Not only are pesticides present in trace quantities, but also the oils themselves are used in tiny quantities and usually in high dilutions. Where there is a concern about pesticide residues in food essential oils, such as mint or orange oils, the proper criterion is not whether the material is alleged to be organically produced, but whether it meets the government standards based on actual analysis of its pesticide content.
Essential oils are used extensively as GRAS flavoring agents in foods, beverages and confectioneries according to strict Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and flavorist standards. Therapeutic grade essential oils are generally safe for human consumption in small amounts. Pharmacopoeia standards for medicinal oils should be heeded. Some oils can be toxic to some domestic animals, cats in particular. The internal use of essential oils can pose hazards to pregnant women, as some can be abortifacients in dose 0.5–10 ml, and thus should not be used during pregnancy.
The flash point of each essential oil is different. Many of the common essential oils, such as tea tree, lavender, and citrus oils, are classed as a Class 3 Flammable Liquid, as they have a flash point of 50–60 °C.
The following table lists the LD50 or median lethal dose for common oils; this is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population.LD50 is intended as a guideline only, and reported values can vary widely due to differences in tested species and testing conditions.
|Common Name||Oral LD50||Dermal LD50||Notes|
|Neem||14 g/kg||>2 g/kg|
|Lemon myrtle||2.43 g/kg||2.25 g/kg|
|Frankincense||>5 g/kg||>5 g/kg||Boswellia carterii|
|Frankincense||>2 g/kg||>2 g/kg||Boswellia sacra|
|Indian frankincense||>2 g/kg||>2 g/kg||Boswellia serrata|
|Ylang-ylang||>5 g/kg||>5 g/kg|
|Cedarwood||>5 g/kg||>5 g/kg|
|Roman chamomile||>5 g/kg||>5 g/kg|
|White camphor||>5 g/kg||>5 g/kg||Cinnamomum camphora, extracted from leaves|
|Yellow camphor||3.73 g/kg||>5 g/kg||Cinnamomum camphora, extracted from bark|
|Hot oil||3.80 g/kg||>5 g/kg||Cinnamomum camphora, oil extracted from leaves|
|Cassia||2.80 g/kg||0.32 g/kg|
It is important to understand that the foregoing figures are far less relevant in everyday life than far smaller, often localized levels of exposure. For example, a dose of many an essential oil that would do no harm if swallowed in diluted solution or emulsion, could do serious damage to eyes or lungs in a higher concentration.
In 2002, ISO published ISO 4720 in which the botanical names of the relevant plants are standardized. The rest of the standards with regards to this topic can be found in the section of ICS 71.100.60 
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