For centuries essential oils have been employed for their restorative properties to the mind, body and spirit. Highly concentrated, they are 75 to 100 times more potent than dried herbs. Only the highest essential oil grade is used in aromatherapy, the medicinal use of therapeutic oils to encourage good health and well being. Lesser qualities appear in perfumes, scents, flavorings and cleaning products and have virtually no therapeutic benefits.
Grade-A or therapeutic oils are extracted from organically grown and properly harvested plants. To maintain the beneficial properties, the herb must be distilled at the correct temperature, for a set length of time and at a prescribed pressure. Because of their strength these oils may be toned down with carrier oils -- sweet almond, jojoba, olive or sunflower -- when used in aromatherapy, massage or diffusing.
Extracted by heat or chemicals, Grade-B oils -- food or perfume grade -- may contain synthetics or extenders, such as alcohol or carrier oils. Grade-B flavors peppermint in candies or lemon extracts for baking. Also, these lower essential oil grades are used in household products such as pine- and orange-based cleaners.
A number of companies stretch essential oils for quantity and not quality. Therefore, some oils are altered, known as adulterated, to create an illusion of higher quality oils. Grade-C or perfume oils are used in industrial cleaners, fragrances designed for making candles and potpourri and, of course, perfumes. Grade-C oils have no therapeutic effects.
Floral waters or hydrosols are a byproduct of the Grade-A distillation process and are sometimes considered the fourth grade of essential oils. Popular hydrosols include rose or lavender water and orange-flower water, usually found in skin and hair products. Some floral waters contain natural fungicidal traits from the primary oil and are resistant to spoilage. Others that do not have natural anti-microbial properties are treated with preservatives, stabilizers or anti-oxidants to maintain the product for later usage. Although they are treated, these floral waters are considered natural.
Essential oils are volatile and evaporate quickly and cleanly. Adulterated or fixed oil leaves a residue once the essential oils have evaporated. Grade-A oils are sold with common and scientific names to identify the plant source. Cost also indicates quality. A 10 ml-bottle of true steam-distilled rose essential oil may cost more than $100, while peppermint oil may cost only $5. Essential oils are always sold in dark bottles labeled with the country of origin and process used.
Common oils on an aromatherapist shelf are: eucalyptus, which possesses antibacterial qualities and used as an inhalant for colds, coughs and congestion; excellent for massaging tired or sore muscles; ylang ylang, which helps alleviate anger, stress, insomnia and hypertension; helps balance sebaceous secretions; lemon, which eases tension, depression and is useful for oily skin or acne. Essential oils can be used in numerous ways: in electric or candle-based diffusers; as sachets, potpourri or air fresheners; additives to shampoos or lotions; or diluted and applied to pulse points like the temples, neck or wrists. Undiluted essential oils should never be applied to the skin.