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Aromatherapy - Plant to the Bottle

by Jan Kusmirek(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 15 - October 1996

Aromatherapy comes in many forms, schools and ideas. The term itself covers a diverse market place of materials, goods and products, and may encompass anything from shampoos to essential oils. Whilst great work is being done by various organisations, such as the Aromatherapy Organisations Council which is the central body for UK aromatherapy organisations, as well as practitioner organisations like the International Federation of Aromatherapists and the Register of Qualified aromatherapists, there are nevertheless diverse opinions as to what constitutes good and bad courses, schools, essential oils etc.

In talking to students I have often found that one of the errors they make in considering the subject is to become too oriented to products in the early stages of their training. By this I mean that they often start with the contents of the ubiquitous brown bottle as a reference point for the understanding of an essential oil. I do not think aromatherapists are alone in this narrow view as it is very easy to slip into considering the welter of advertising and pressure to buy brought to bear not only upon the consumer but also upon the student and practitioner.

If one looks at aromatherapy as a specialised branch of herbalism then at least more emphasis would be placed upon the source of the materials used. This is less likely to be the case if an aromatherapist is specialising in skin care or working within the confines of the beauty industry where brand and image play a greater role. The one thing that all these diverse practitioners may have in common is the desire to use natural products.

Of course, one has to be very careful with that much abused term (natural products). Unless one is using fresh plant material, perhaps in food supply, one cannot really say that a substance is natural without context or further definition. Loosely speaking it is a fair bet to say that most aromatherapists view their materials as natural. One must, however, accept that the intervention of man is going to take away this naturalness to a greater or lesser degree according to the process that the material goes through.

One can look at this anomaly from several angles. First of all we have the plant growing in the ground and perhaps least consideration is given to this than any other part of the supply chain. I would go so far as to say the majority of therapists begin with the bottle and in the rush of everyday life they rarely stop to think about the origins of the material in that bottle. Was it a good plant in the first place, was it grown well, was it a product of standard agriculture, organic agriculture, wild plant and so on. One could go further and ask whether the plant was a species from a cultivated variety or clone. Once one begins to think about the plant itself then we have moved to a much simpler market place or idea. This is akin to buying vegetables in any retail outlet. On offer would be different grades and varieties, in the EU of course in standardised form but elsewhere more diverse. For example, there could be old fruit, damaged fruit, half ripe fruit etc.

Hopefully within the supply lines of vegetable oils, essential oils and herbs the processor has already taken this into consideration. This cannot, however, always be the case. A part of the industrial processing of any raw material, be it for therapy or food, is to maximise use, minimise wastage, maximise profit.

Within aromatherapy two principal materials are considered necessary – vegetable oils and essential oils. Not all the start material is of good quality, this may sometimes be reflected in the eventual price. Vegetable oils in particular are subject to a variety of processes which give rise to qualities that can be found described as highly refined to extra virgin cold pressed. Essential oils which are less obviously categorised may simply seem to be, at least from the point of view of the buyer, from cheap and cheerful or for the connoisseur.

A vegetable oil, which is the basic carrier, used in aromatherapy in its simplest terms is pressed from an oil bearing seed, such as Sunflower or Olive, and nuts such as Walnut. Until this century cultures worldwide have used simple and effective extraction methods. This fresh pressed oil was considered a perishable product and used relatively quickly.

In this century the industrial revolution has got to grips with food process technology. This has come about by the need to move the products from one part of the world to another and to store in shops for lengthy periods. The ideal is to produce a food, in this case an oil, that will not age or go bad.

The aim of the chemical refining process is to remove substances and nutrients that would otherwise affect the efficacy and use of the original oil. At the same time as removing many healthy substances the refining method itself can produce so called toxins such as trans fatty acids and free radicals. This should be of interest to those aromatherapists who work in skin care where often cosmetic products claim to be using anti free radical scavengers etc. So why add them back by using the wrong material?

It would seem anomalous then to use a highly refined inert oil or to use something rancid. This, however, can often be the case simply due to price. Cheapness plays an unfortunate role sometimes in the selection of the carrier oil. Some materials yield oil readily and quickly, for example Olive, others require more technical processing, heat in particular, such as Grapeseed which then requires highly refining. Some of the oils available may not be of food grade and, as referred to above in discussing plants, would not be suitable for use – for example old material or insect riddled material.

Essential oils themselves are subject to a variety of processes. The majority of practitioners I am acquainted with would describe themselves as holistic. Presumably they would like to work with more natural materials than some who would adopt a straight biochemical approach to treatment. This is not so easy.

As referred to above not everything that is "natural" is truly that. I often say you have to work as near to nature as is possible, that remark being qualified not only by the application you have in mind but also the purpose for which the material was produced.

There is a view that natural or synthetic makes no difference at the molecular level; they may be either organised naturally or by man.

Adopting a purely biochemical approach one can see essential oils simply as chemicals. These chemicals may be so complex that man cannot reproduce them by synthesis but they are nonetheless chemicals. An holistic approach would add to this by referring to vitality or life force which goes beyond the biochemic approach. One thing for sure is that nature cannot produce anti natural molecules and natural products are biodegradable. Synthetic products are not always biodegradable and that makes a lot of difference when it comes to eliminating them.

Natural complex chemical structures may cure a disease – Taxol extracted from Yew or to prevent premature aging Ginko Biloba. Even if these are natural complex chemical structures they can be analysed to give data on reproducibility, concentration and identification. Whilst this must be good, one should allow that the analysis has its limitations and it should not begin to dictate an average standard as an optimal quality.

Essential oils can be compared to wine, there are good years and bad years, good growers and bad growers, poor manufacturers and better manufacturers and so on. No-one would really think of using a biochemical analysis to ascertain the quality of the vine, nevertheless I hear that whisky distillation, a product that shares some similarity with essential oils is to be standardised by analysis.

Essential oils yield themselves from the plant by bruising, i.e. rubbing the plant, or by volatising under heat and other given circumstances. The oils are held in sacs and other methods in the plant which require specific and careful process handling.

The end purpose of the essential oil can often be taken into consideration by the processor – is the material destined for the perfume or flavours industry, if so then consistency which would then require careful chemical manipulation is the objective of the exercise. The end product, be it a sweet or a burger, should smell or taste like it did on the previous occasion. The perfume on the counter must be entirely replicable.

Nature is, of course, bio-diverse and is not too happy in replicating things season by season, so one can see the need for the process industry to "interfere" or rectify that natural material. On the other hand the holistic aromatherapist may not be interested in the replicability or reproducibility, being satisfied with a material as near to nature as is possible but in the first instance having clearly established that it came from a plant. This latter oil is likely to be more expensive than the refined or rectified material.

However, the therapist should keep in mind the purpose of the material. If for example, the object is just to create a pretty smell of Lavender using a burner then it is not the most sensible thing to use a clinical or connoisseur material which would be reserved for more important applications.

A good example of the manipulation of essential oils can be seen with Ylang Ylang oil. Ylang Ylang is generally sold in a number of grades – extra, first, second and third. Extra is the most expensive and chemically can be judged by its ester content. This, however, can be easily manipulated.

Basically the grades are arrived at by fractionating the distillation process. The "extra" is derived from the oil being taken at a given time, say two hours after the start; Nos 1, 2 and 3 following suit.

The aroma of Ylang Ylang "extra" is very powerful and is difficult to reproduce artificially. It is frequently adulterated not only with Nos. 1, 2 and 3 but with other chemical components such as Vanillin and Methyl Benzoate. There is no apparent definition for Ylang 1 and 2 and they are generally used in cutting other grades. Ylang 3 is interesting because it is cheap and has a good tenacity and is usually used in soap perfumery but is also frequently adulterated not only with chemicals but also other materials such as Amyris, Cedarwood and so on.

There is another type of Ylang called "complete" which should be the result of an uninterrupted water and steam distillation of Ylang Ylang flowers. In reality complete may simply mean a mixture of the other varieties of Ylang Ylang.

From an aromatherapy point of view one can perhaps see the benefit of the extra and complete oils but would one really find the other grades acceptable? This would be an individual judgement based upon the purpose and even perhaps the definition of aromatherapy. Is one treating a person or making soap? The one thing which should not be the determining factor between the use of the grades in aromatherapy is price alone.

Other considerations with Ylang behind the scene would have been the type of flowers used, only the true yellow flowers give the desired result. Indiscriminate picking of immature blooms is not uncommon. Distillation should have been immediate to avoid fermentation and off notes. There is a difference between material distilled into hot water rather than heating from cold. The length of distillation is important, perhaps 20 hours or more. All this again will vary upon the type of still and process.

Essential oil production can still be very individual and as one sees from the example above open to the same interpretations and parameters as the wine referred to earlier.

From the therapist's point of view one thing should be quite clear; that there are substantial differences between essential oils, one supplier and another. There are many essential oils for sale and clearly not all of them are offered with aromatherapy in mind. It often takes experience and a long search to settle upon a regular supplier who is seeking to market products for holistic aromatherapy. There are penalties to be paid when one finds one, it could be price or variation in chemical analysis but as I have said above that depends upon the stance and position of the therapist as to whether they wish to be near to nature or whether to be standard or biochemic in their approach. Equally the end use would need to be considered for bodywork or perfuming.


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About Jan Kusmirek

Jan Kusmirek is qualified in Aromatherapy and is a director of the specialist company Fragrant Earth as well as several essential oil and extract companies. He is an international lecturer and writer and is legal and parliamentary secretary for the AOC [Aromatherapy Organization Council] and ATC [Aromatherapy Trade Council]. He may be contacted via


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