An essential oil is the oil of the plant where it was extracted. Essential oils are also known as ethereal oils or volatile oils because they are highly concentrated liquids with volatile aroma compounds from plants. It is named as ‘essential’ because it carries a unique scent, or essence. Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation.
Essential oils have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians were known to use oils for many purposes. In 1922, well preserved oils were discovered in alabaster jars in King Tut’s tomb. References to essential oils are also found in the Bible (Reference: John 12:3 – “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.”)
The Arabians, Greeks, and Romans were also known to use essential oils. The famous trade route “Frankincense Trail” was a proof of the demand. (Reference: The Frankincense Trail BBC Documentary)
Many people believe that essential oils were the first medicine in mankind’s history. Pedanius Dioscorides was an ancient Greek physician and the author of ‘De Materia medica’ which is a precursor to all modern pharmacopoeias. Book one of this 5-volume encyclopedia has descriptions of the uses for aromatic oils.
Medicinal use of essential oils has declined in evidence-based medicine, but the popularity of aromatherapy has risen in recent decades. For example, clove oil is used for its antiseptic effects.
Essential oils are widely used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and many other household cleaning products. For example, Eucalyptus can be used to kill dust mites in blankets, and Lavender can keep away moths.
Essential oils are also used as GRAS (i.e. Generally Recognized as Safe) flavoring agents in foods and drinks. GRAS is an FDA designation and means the substance added to food is considered as safe by experts. This implies essential oils are exempt from food additive tolerance requirements of Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.