What Are Essential Oils?

"What are essential oils?" The answer to that isn't as straightforward as it might seem at first glance. To many, essential oils are those little brown or blue bottles of scent they sprinkle into their bath, add to their mop water or use to refresh potpourri.

What, exactly, is an essential oil?
What are volatile organic extracts?


To a botanist, essential oils are simply the compounds that give plants their characteristic scents. (A whiff of cinnamon essential oil, for example, smells very much like cinnamon bark and leaves.) And while science isn't completely sure what roles essential oils play in plant health, there is evidence that essential oils act mainly as natural pesticides and microbials while also attracting insects the plants need for pollination and other functions.

But to an aromatherapy professional, volatile extracts are so much more--even if some of aromatherapy's biggest names can't always agree on which ones deserve to wear the label "essential oil"--or which ones we should pretend don't even exist. Take for example this explanation:

"Essential oils are volatile compounds produced by distilling various types of plant material."

OK, so what about citrus oils? They are not distilled. Some of our resinous "oils" aren't processed, either. And if you think about it, you might argue that any volatile liquid you can simply squeeze out of a rind, or let drip out of a stem, is far more "natural" than a product you essentially cook out of its parent plant.

And then there's the issue of fragrant materials like enfleurage, concretes and pomades. They certainly aren't essential oils but without the process that produces them we would have virtually no jasmine, tuberose or violet.

Lisa's Take On What "Essential Oil" Means

As you can see the answer to, "What is an essential oil?" can get very complicated very quickly. For the Essential Oil Database, we chose to meet in the middle of the debate. When speaking generally, any volatile organic liquid used for therapeutic purposes "counts" as an essential oil. But when we're talking specifically, as we do in our profiles, we will always use the correct term, e.g., jasmine absolute.

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