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Hydrolats for Therapeutic Use

by Barbara Payne(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 44 - September 1999

From time to time you may have seen a product which seems to bear a variety of names such as hydrolat, hydrosol, floral water, distillate, and aromatic water, to name but a few and when examining the toiletries on sale you may also encounter a range of others such as toilet water, rose water, and Eau de Toilet. Confused? You are not alone! What are these substances? How do we obtain them? What can we use them for?


The word hydrolat tells us water is involved, (hydro – water) and the word often interchanged with it, hydrosol, denotes an aqueous solution. Aromatic water or floral water therefore, are near enough descriptions for what the product actually is. Although having said this, there are 'impostors' such as water which has had essential oil and a dispersant added. These are not hydrolats and neither are the waters which carry synthetic products made to resemble the fragrances of essential oils. There are said to be about 10,000 odiferous chemicals listed to date and many of these are synthetic. This causes some confusion as 'floral waters' may conjure up in the mind something which smells sweet or floral and this is not always the case. Indeed many true hydrolats do not smell like the plant they originally came from or the essential oil which may arise from the distillation of such a plant. Most people remember their surprise on smelling their first hydrolat. I had expected the same smell as the oil, perhaps a little more delicate. Not at all. It was pungent and earthy, but not unpleasant. Some hydrolats are completely devoid of smell due to the minuscule proportions of aromatic compounds present and still others smell quite musty. The lack of aroma, however, in either the plant or the hydrosol does not detract from the sometimes very useful therapeutic properties obtained from these.

Utilising hydrolats can add a whole new dimension to employing distilled plant substances and it is comforting to know that they can be used quite freely in the matters of age, current medication or state of health. They are extremely versatile and gentle, though powerful in their action.

The following are some suggestions of using hydrolats which you may find useful.

• For menopausal hot sweats and flushes: Take one teaspoon of vodka or white rum and dilute 2 drops of Sweet orange – Citrus aurantium var. sinensis and 2 drops of Clary sage – Salvia sclarea into it. Mix this with 30mls of Neroli hydrolat – Citrus aurantium var. amara flos. Shake well before spraying self each time you feel hot or over burdened. If put into a pretty perfume spray bottle no one will know what it is for. I like to keep my hydrolats in the refrigerator and this makes them especially cooling for such emergencies. The essential oil additions are very similar in action to oestrogen and will make life a lot more comfortable. The hydrolat of Rose – Rosa centifolia will work just as well as those suggested.

• For skin care use any of the hydrolats fresh from the refrigerator neat on a cotton pad as a toner.

• For skin problems such as spots use hydrolat of Cedarwood – Cedrus atlantica or Cypress – Cupressus sempervirens in the same way to clean and antisepticise.

• For sore places such as newly pierced ears or cuts and grazes clean the wound with hydrolat of Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia, this will serve as an antiseptic and also help to heal the wound.

• For colds and 'flu the hydrolats are extremely useful. Top up the burner with hydrolat of Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis or Myrtle – Myrtus communis and drop 3 drops of Eucalyptus – Eucalyptus smithi into this. This procedure will clean the room and the eucalyptus is an immuno-stimulant. Sometimes it is possible to get hydrolat of eucalyptus and this is even better. It is also possible to make a spray as described above with those oils which are broncho-dilators and antiseptics for the patient to use to freshen up or cool themselves.

• Tummy upsets can be settled by putting 1 tablespoon of hydrolat of Peppermint – Mentha piperita into a tea pot of Earl Grey tea and serving with a little honey. The honey will serve as a healer and antiseptic too.

• High blood pressure can be regulated in conjunction with your usual medication by using hydrolat of Geranium – Pelargonium graveolens in the bath. Two tablespoons should be enough. Make sure the bath is not too hot.

• Incorporating hydrolats into lotions just gives that little extra potential help to problems of body skin and makes one feel cosseted.

• For hair rinses you need to dilute your hydrolats as described above, repeat the rinses by using a catch bowl.

• Laundry can be dampened by neat hydrolat in a pump spray and tired best clothing can be given a light spray before brushing or sponging. This will also make sure germs do not lurk on an item of clothing which may not be worn again for quite some time.

• If your eyes are tired place a cool hydrolat onto cotton pads and relax for 10 minutes, Roman Chamomile – Chamaemelum nobile hydrolat or Cornflower – Centaurea cyanus hydrolat is very soothing.

Remember this information is for hydrolat usage. If using essential oils bear in mind they are concentrated substances and should be used in drops only.

The word hydrosol is used mostly in America and France but now we know these words are interchanged we see the fog beginning to clear. So what does the word distillate mean? This gives us another clue to help us understand the process by which these substances are obtained. A hydrolat is produced by the distillation process, so that in effect we have two distinct products from distillation of plants, i.e. essential oil and distillate, (hydrolat).

In this process steam is passed through plant material which can be anything from wood to flowers, and which has been pressed tightly and evenly in a still. The heat of the steam bursts open the membrane of the oil receptacles in the plant and the volatile plant oil molecules are released into the steam. The steam rises and takes with it hydrophobic, and hydrophilic molecules. When this mixture of water and various other molecules of the plant components separate back into liquid by means of being condensed, it produces two types of natural chemical cocktails. These separate into hydrophilic molecules suspended in water, (philia – a tendency towards or liking) making hydrolats, and hydrophobic molecules (phobia – aversion to), making essential oils. The hydrolat forms the larger part of the two. A good quality water must be used in order to produce wholesome products and some distillers use mountain spring water. Sound base material makes sure the end result is pure enough to be used therapeuti- cally in certain health care settings and in the home. The distillation process itself is carefully undertaken, not only with regards to the materials used but also that the temperature is not too hot nor too cold and timing is not too short neither too long. Some distillers only take off the first few litres in the belief that these are the purest. Hydrolats can be made into stronger solutions by a process known as cohobation. This entails the hydrolat being recycled through the distillation process several times. At the end the finished creation is a saturated, non-alcoholic, aqueous solution many times stronger than when first siphoned off.

The process discussed above is much simplified for reasons of space here, but suffice to say a few distillers produce only hydrolats out of choice and some spend many years, lifetimes in fact, gaining expertise and practising the art of producing these wonderful liquids. It is heart warming to note the increase of use among therapists and that hydrolats are not regarded simply as by-products of essential oil production. Indeed it is a fact that many cultures around the world have enjoyed the benefits of hydrolats for hundreds of years, incorporating them into their everyday activities including cleansing, healing and cooking.

Before examining what hydrolats can be beneficial for, it may be prudent to enumerate some of the methods of application. Hydrolats may be used as they are, or alternatively going on the premise that 'less is more', they can be diluted down quite radically. If diluting them, it is necessary to use good mountain spring water. One teaspoon, (5mls) of hyrdolat may be diluted with 200 mls of pure water and still be effective. Make sure your bottles and lids have been sterilised.

Methods of application are many and varied such as; a pump spray, in the bath water, as a salve for sore places, compresses, a perfume ingredient, rinses for skin and hair, to bind home made soaps, as ingredients for creams and lotions, on cotton pads, in a foot spa, adding them to beverages, scenting bedding, table linen and clothes, as disinfectants, in a burner (instead of water), with essential oil from the same plant, this way you are in effect putting the plant molecules back together! The permutations of such products are endless and hydrolats are just as versatile as essential oils themselves, but with a gentler action. They can be mixed in a blend in the same way as essential oils or used as part of a carrier for essential oils.

I hope this information has helped you to appreciate just how versatile hydrolats are and the uses which fall into every day occurrences. It is not necessary to make special arrangements to use hydrolats, they just fit into our lives so readily. I am sure you will soon think of other innovative ways to reap the benefits of hydrolats and see how wonderful they really are.

When buying hydrolats, as with essential oils, it is imperative that the quality is second to none. Look for specialist suppliers and remember the same rules which apply to medicines should be extended to essential oils and hydrolats.


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About Barbara Payne

Barbara Payne taught clinical aromatherapy in various hospitals in the North of England, for School of Health, University of Hull, and was principal of an IFA and IFPA accredited college of clinical aromatherapy, for many years. She served as an inspector and examiner and was Chair of Education for the ISPA, (now IFPA). Barbara had regular interviews with BBC radio and appeared on national television occasionally and lectured annually for the RHS. Having contributed to Positive Health over many years, Barbara has now decided to retire from her PH Expert Regular Column after Issue 154 in Jan 2009. She can be reached on Tel: 01482 835358;

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