What is an Essential Oil?

4 min to read
Andrea Butje

There are a LOT of people who absolutely love essential oils . . . who also aren't quite sure where essential oils come from or what they are.

If this sounds like you, you are NOT alone!

I've been working with essential oils since 1998. I am happy to help clear up any confusion for you.

What is an essential oil?

Essential oils are naturally occurring aromatic compounds. These natural compounds are found in different parts of the plants.

A few examples . . .

  • Lavender plants produce essential oil in their flowers and leaves.

  • Pines, spruces, and firs produce essential oils in their needles.

  • Ginger plants produce essential oil in their rhizomes.

  • Cardamom plants produce essential oil in their seeds.

Essential oils can also come from rootlets, wood, fruit rinds, and resins.

Now I'll explain how essential oils are produced, and this means I get to tell you about one of my favorite parts of my job...

I have traveled and met amazing farmers and distillers who grow and harvest plants and who produce essential oils.

It is so wonderful to see these beautiful plants as they grow and to meet the dedicated, loving souls who care for them and harvest them! Sometimes the plants are cultivated, and other times they grow wild and are harvested in a sustainable, conscientious way.

One example of plants that can be cultivated is Tea Tree.

I had been using Tea Tree essential oil for YEARS before I was actually able to visit a Tea Tree plantation in South Africa. When I finally managed to go, it was amazing! I was so happy to look down at the plantation and see all of the trees covering the landscape. I actually laughed with joy . . . and the farmer laughed at me, haha!

Another trip that stands out in my mind is when I went to see my friend Michelle in Corsica—she is a local distiller of wild Helichrysum, and her still is all hand built. (Amazing, right?!)

Helichrysum is a plant that has to be harvested by hand. When I visited, Michelle took me up into the mountains and gave me a hand-held sickle . . . and we spent all day harvesting these gorgeous Helichrysum plants with tiny yellow flowers.

It was a LOT of work!

I have to admit, after about 4 hours, I was wondering what time lunch was!

After a long day, we filled Michelle's truck with sweet, small, yellow Helichrysum flowers. We took it back to her still and made the essential oil right away. (That's how fresh a lot of essential oils are!)

Here's what happens when you put aromatic plant material into a still (this is what we did with the Helichrysum that day).

Once the flowers were in the still with the water, the water was heated to the point where the Helichrysum released its essential oil. During the distillation process, we get 2 resulting products, an essential oil and a hydrosol. A hydrosol is the aromatic water that remains after steam-distilling or hydro-distilling the plant material.

But we did not have very much essential oil! Here is a picture of Michelle holding a beaker of all of the essential oil and hydrosol we produced that day. You can see the hydrosol on the bottom—it's the cloudy, watery liquid. Floating on top of that, you can see a thin layer of yellow essential oil.

hydrosol and essential oil in a beaker

Can you believe that small amount of essential oil came from an entire truck full of plant material?

This puts into perspective why some essential oils can be so pricey (like Helichrysum). They take a lot of work to harvest and a lot of plant material to produce the essential oil.

At Aromahead Institute we have a philosophy of using the least amount of essential oil that we need to accomplish our needs. Why use more than you need? A single drop can go a long way!

Now you know what essential oil is, who makes them, and how they are made.

I hope this adds new dimensions of appreciation to your work with essential oils . . . and you'll be able to offer a solid answer when someone asks you "What is an essential oil, exactly?"

Doesn't knowledge feel so empowering?

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