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Essential Oil Chemistry: The Matters of Aroma

Jul 13, 2008
Uh oh. Chemistry - the word itself can make one's eyes glaze over. But wait, this is 'essential oil chemistry'. MUCH more fun! While even beginning aromatherapy students are put off by the mere mention of the subject, they eventually realize the importance of understanding at least the fundamentals. The basics of essential oil chemistry will help you appreciate what gives a fine oil its unique aroma, help you more carefully discern a good oil from a second-rate one, and can improve your practice of using essential oils therapeutically. The greatest benefits of essential oils lies in their potential for true medicinal applications, where their antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties are effectively utilized. And it is the understanding of their chemistry that enables the practitioner to select the right oils and use them most appropriately. Convinced? Well here's a primer to get you started...

So, why are essential oils called 'oils' anyway? They don't feel greasy, and they tend to evaporate completely, unlike common 'fixed' oils (such as olive, grapeseed, hazelnut and the like). Essential oils and fixed oils share a similar chemical foundation: their structures are based on the linking of carbon and hydrogen atoms in various configurations. But this is really where the similarity ends. Fixed oils are made up of molecules comprised of three long chains of carbon atoms bound together at one end, called a triglyceride. Every fixed oil is made up of just a few different triglyceride arrangements - olive oil, for example, is primarily made up of oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids (the names of particular carbon-hydrogen chains forming the triglycerides). Their long-chain shape holds them in a liquid state which does not easily evaporate.

Essential oils are 'volatile' oils - oils that DO easily evaporate. Their chains of carbon atoms to which the hydrogens attach are not as long or heavy, and are much more complex. Many essential oil structures are not really chains, but ring, or multi-ringed shapes with diverse sub-units - called 'functional groups' - sticking out in various directions. Like their fixed oil counterparts, essential oils are lipophillic - meaning 'fat liking'. The fat-liking nature of both fixed and essential oils makes them easily absorbed by our bodies. Because of their typically smaller structures however, essential oils are absorbed more rapidly than fixed oils, and can easily penetrate deep into the body. Despite their plant origins, this lipophillic nature of essential oils makes their profound healing action on the human body possible.

The therapeutic action of an essential oil is primarily determined by the functional groups found in the molecules that make up that oil (here, many folks might be responding with "Say what?!?"). An essential oil is actually made up of many liquid chemicals; sometimes more than one hundred distinct chemicals are found in one pure essential oil. Each of these chemicals is formed of a carbon-hydrogen structure with a functional group attached - it is the combination of the base structure AND the attached functional group that makes a single, unique molecule. And MANY of these unique molecules combine to form ONE essential oil.

The extremely complex nature of essential oils becomes apparent from this description. There are an almost infinite number of molecular combinations that can be formed from the building blocks of chains, rings and functional groups. And any SINGLE essential oil is made of many, sometimes even hundreds of these molecular combinations. Yet while this may sound complex, you needn't know ALL the chemical details to use oils therapeutically. It IS helpful to know that each oil is made of many molecular forms, that all the molecules within each oil exert some biologic effect, and that it is the SYNERGY of ALL these molecules together that create the sum total of an oil's therapeutic action AND its aroma. Nearly every laboratory study comparing complete, pure essential oils to one singled-out molecule that was thought the 'active ingredient' shows the essential oil to be more active.

The best natural, undiluted, properly distilled essential oils with all the major and minor chemical constituents will have the finest aromas AND the most potent therapeutic action. Many factors in an essential oil's production affect the total number and relative amounts of individual chemicals found in the final product. These include where the plant was grown, soil and climate conditions, time of harvest, distillation equipment, plus the time, temperature and pressure of distillation. This can give you an idea as to why two varieties of the same oil can smell so different: The full, beautiful bouquet of a fine essential oil will contain a myriad of notes, telling you that all natural components are present and in balanced amounts.

As an example, let's look at Lavender, the most commonly used of all essential oils. More than 50 individual molecules are present in a high-quality Lavender. As noted earlier, all of these chemicals work together to produce a therapeutic effect. For example, 'linalool' is antiviral and antibacterial; 'linalyl acetate' is also emotionally calming; other constituents including cineol, limonene, alpha-pinene and others are all noted for specific biologic and aromatic activity. It is the combined, balanced action of these chemicals that make lavender such a useful healing agent - no one chemical can be singled out and used to give the same profound results.

What does this mean to the lay-practitioner? That it's important to find a nice smelling lavender oil! Each of the individual chemicals has a distinct smell, talked about in terms of 'notes' within the overall lavender aroma. Some of these are sweet, some citrusy, some are herbaceous, and some can be camphorous. A precise amount of each will create a certain lavender aroma. Some lavenders are more sweet (and therefore more relaxing), others are more herbaceous (and more anti-microbial). Three important points should be noted regarding selecting by aroma: First, there can be significantly different aromas from the same species of plant, even when the essential oils are of the highest quality. You can often use your intuition to select the best variety for your needs (as between the sweeter more relaxing, or the herbaceous more 'medicinal' lavenders). Sedond, some plants (e.g. Rosemary and Thyme) have chemotypes - this specifies a predominant chemical in the essential oil - each being used for a certain therapeutic application. Know which chemotype is best suited to your needs before making a selection. Finally, it is most often the essential oil that smells the most 'true' to you that will be the most beneficial. Your senses can naturally detect what is good for you and what is not, if you're willing to listen to them impartially.

All essential oils are subject to similar variations in production methods or the manipulation of their molecular make-ups through the addition of synthetic chemicals. For the most therapeutic benefit, it is always best to use true, carefully-made essential oils. To do this, find a source that is dedicated to supplying only the highest grades of oils. Examine their product's aromatic quality and business practices and so that you are comfortable with their dedication to your health, not just their bottom line. Listen to your intuition and your own nose; they won't lie to you! With experience, your ability to discern between subtly different grades of oils will become more astute. With even more education and skill, you'll start to recognize individual chemicals within an oils aroma, and make the best decisions as to which oils will have the most profound therapeutic affects for you, your family, or in your professional practice.
About the Author
More information on using essential oil therapeutically and aromatherapy carrier oils is available at the Ananda Apothecary.
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