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Hydrosols - Aqueous Distillate of Essential Oils

by Suzanne Catty(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 77 - June 2002

A Hydrosol Primer

While most people have heard of aromatherapy, even if only in the context of stress relief or relaxation, many will not have heard of hydrosols or aromatic waters. Aromatherapy usually deals with essential oils that are derived from plant material either via distillation or expression. The latter method is used for fixed oils like olive, almond, sesame, etc., and also, for the volatile citrus oils which are expressed from the peel or zest of fruits like orange, lemon and bergamot. However, the bulk of essential oils are produced by either hydro or steam distillation. This age-old process has been modernized for industrial purposes, but those who distil plants for health purposes still do so in the same delicate manner as distillers millennia ago. The process produces a small amount of essential oil and a large amount of water and it is the waters, the co-product of distillation, or at least a portion of them, that are the hydrosols of which I write. I must say that in authentic distillation only 20-30% of the total waters produced would be deemed therapeutic and marketed as hydrosols, whereas in industrial distillation, which produces 3-4 times the volume of water, I have known companies to sell all of it as 'therapeutic' hydrosols for use primarily in the cosmetics industry.

Bee Balm
Bee Balm

So now you know that in theory rosewater is a hydrosol, as is lavender, orange blossom, chamomile or rosemary water. In fact the most famous hydrosol is probably witch hazel, the distillate water of Hamamelis virginiana, and a product that is available in chemists and pharmacies all over the world. Unfortunately, due to its unstable nature, witch hazel is usually diluted with 10-30% alcohol to prevent bacterial growth. Which brings me to one last salient point - the issue of stabilizers and preservatives. Hydrosols, since they are water, just beg to be used internally - to be consumed as a beverage. We need to drink water after all, so why not healing plant waters? In my definition, hydrosols are free from any additives, including stabilizers or preservatives such as alcohol, grapefruit seed extract or synthetic chemicals. It does not make sense to drink bottled or filtered water and then add chemicals to it - the same is true for hydrosols.

From here perhaps the easiest thing to do is answer the two most frequently asked questions (FAQs as they are called) about hydrosols: "Do they really work?" and "Why use hydrosols when we have essential oils?"

Do Hydrosols Really Work

I might ask, "Why wouldn't they work?" For literally thousands of years, mankind has been using herbs for health in the form of tisanes. That is, small amounts of herbs are steeped in hot or boiling water and the resulting tea is consumed for specific physical or mental reasons: chamomile tea to relax, calm the mind and aid sleep; linden/tillia for stress and anxiety; peppermint for digestion and to wake us up and provide energy; ginger root for warmth, a cough, or for motion sickness. There are hundreds of herb teas with 'accepted' or 'proven' properties and no one asks, "Do they work?"

So consider this, the average tea bag weighs 2g; depending on the herb involved this would equate to around 4-8g of fresh plant material. On to this we might pour between 100-150ml of water, and this is then left to brew for approximately 15 minutes depending on how strong a tea we wish to prepare. Our tea is maybe a ratio of 0.08: herb to water. Hydrosols, depending on the plant material, are at the very least 1:1, sometimes 3 or 4:1. If herbal teas work, isn't it safe to assume that something so much more concentrated will also work? Even diluted (30ml in 1 litre of water), we still have a drink that is stronger than herb tea.

Then there is the issue of fresh versus dried plant material. We know that some of the volatile and fragile components of herbs are lost during the drying process. Drying techniques are, in fact, one of the biggest problems facing herb growers. I recently saw a 'drying container' for organic herb production. The fresh flower tops are spread on a net in an enclosed room, and both fans and heaters circulate warm air through the material. The temperature is controlled to stay between 35ºC and 40ºC with very low humidity, to ensure optimum speed of drying with minimum loss of volatile components. In this manner, one hectare of German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) flowers can be dried in less than a day. However, we know that most herbs on the market are not dried so carefully and much is not of organic production. Recent studies in the USA and Canada on herbs imported from China and used in traditional Chinese medicines showed that many of these 'medicinal herbs' contained large amounts of chemical contaminants in the form of pesticides, herbicides, etc., and also contained far less than the advertised levels of active therapeutic compounds. Some of the 'remedies' even contained pharmaceutical drugs, although they were not on the label. So, if we were to make a tisane, what medicinal value would it have and what concentration of active ingredients would be in each dose?

St John's Wort
St John's Wort

When plant material is distilled for essential oils and hydrosols, it is often put into the still in a fresh or only slightly wilted state. If we are buying from certified organic producers we are then getting not only a contaminant-free product but also one in which the fragile and volatile components remain in the plant material being processed, thus delivering a more therapeutic finished product. So ultimately the effectiveness of hydrosols is bound to be significantly higher than that of herbal teas regardless of dilution rates.

There are, of course, varying qualities in water as in oils, and just because it is certified organic does not make it good. I was sent some certified organic rosewater this spring, but neither the taste nor fragrance was very rich. When I called the supplier I asked if the distillation was just for hydrosol or for oil as well and they informed me that, like many others, they distilled rosewater from dried roses all year round to keep up with demand. There was no oil produced from the distillation and the ratio was 1:1.
So do hydrosols work? Of course they do!

Why Use Hydrosols when we have Essential Oils?

To answer this question, let's again take a look at potency. An essential oil is highly concentrated. For instance, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) produces less than 300ml of essential oil from approximately 800kg of fresh flowers. Not a lot is it? When we use yarrow, our common sense (and the price) suggests that we should start with only one or two drops in a blend and gauge the reaction and dose from observing the effects. To use more would probably be unnecessary and a waste.

If a starving person is given a big meal, the body will reject most of it since it cannot process either the volume or content of the food. It appears that the same may be true with severely immune-depressed people; the body just cannot handle a large dose of medicine, especially medicine designed to enhance the immune functions. Research is showing that a depressed immune system may, if over-stimulated, have a negative reaction and just shut down or collapse under the strain of processing the medicine. Essential oils are known immune modulants, and as they are so concentrated it is reasonable to assume that they may be too strong for some systems at some times. The body may try to respond to the chemical cues to increase activity, but if it is unable to do so it may well 'crash'. That is not healing.

The same is true for infants, where the immune system is still developing and the senses are operating on overtime. Would you give a baby a kilo of chamomile to help it sleep? Of course not. Even lavender essential oil, which is far less concentrated than either of the chamomile oils, is stronger than necessary for undiluted use on an infant under normal conditions. The saying goes, "If you can smell it, it's more than enough for your child", and that's just from an olfactory point of view. The chemistry also dictates that babies, children and invalids respond equally or better to lower doses. Less is more in every case.

So bring in the hydrosols. Already significantly weaker than essential oils, water soluble for ease of application, absorption and ingestion, and dilutable down to homeopathic proportions, here then is the obvious choice for these special conditions. Everything about them is gentle - the smell, the chemistry and the potency - but they remain effective.

Of course, if you are using hydrosols you're actually using essential oils anyway. Every hydrosol contains minute droplets of essential oil in suspension; some even have a visible slick of oil on their surface. The Matricaria water I received this year leaves a bright blue ring at the neck of the bottle and the oil could be wiped off the inside lid of the transport containers. A tisane of this hydrosol at bedtime will put even insomniacs to sleep. This is real aromatherapy, water or not.

Of course, you do not need to be a baby or have a depressed immune system to benefit from hydrosols. They are powerful, healthy supplements that we can use in the same way as vitamins, minerals or herbs, and although they do not replace essential oils they work exceptionally well in synergy with oils for any aromatherapeutic protocol. They make a delightful drink and are delicious in cooking, giving a fresh herb taste even in the dead of winter.

Hydrosols are Phytotherapy

Phytotherapy is another name for plant therapy, which includes herbalism, homeopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, and even mud, seaweed and water therapies. Aromatherapy is, of course, another form of phytotherapy, and much of our modern thinking on how the modality should develop is coming from the naturopathic and phytotherapeutic domains. The expansion of our aromatic world to include hydrosols as well as essential oils is an important step in the new future of aromatherapy on a global basis. It also allows us to put aromatherapy into the larger context and to see ways in which herbs, aromatics and other remedies can work together in the healing process - true synergistic use of the plant properties.

My experience and that of several colleagues indicate that hydrosols may in fact be used exactly as homeopathic remedies. In the past year we have expanded our experiments in this and other areas. The more people trying different methods the more likely results will be.

Homeopathic remedies are prepared by repeated dilution and succussion of standard tinctures in 60% alcohol or high proof vodka. The more diluted and succussed the remedy, the stronger its potency. Alcohol is the chosen medium because it contains water, which can best hold and expand the medicinal vibration of the remedy, and the alcohol acts as a preservative and antibacterial agent. Hydrosols can be treated in the same way as the tinctures used in homeopathy. Single drops can be diluted in quantities of distilled water and succussed to distribute the energy of the hydrosol throughout the water.

Probably the biggest drawback to the remedy concept is the delicate nature of hydrosols. Tinctures will stay viable and free from bacteria for fairly long periods thanks to their alcohol content. Homeopathic remedies, which are diluted in alcohol, also benefit from this preservative action; not so aromatic waters. Hydrosols ideally contain no preservatives and must be packaged in sterilized containers and kept cool and dark to avoid bacterial degradation. Any remedy made in the manner described will either require the addition of alcohol or have a short life span suitable only for immediate use or where clients are willing to prepare the dilutions themselves.

With this in mind, all the tinctures that I have prepared in the last three seasons were made using ethyl alcohol diluted with the hydrosol corresponding to the tincture herb. We have now got Aromatic Tinctures(tm) of Melissa, Ledum, Calendula, Echinacea, Hypericum and Yarrow. Some of the tinctures were succussed after the hydrosol was added and some were not. The efficacy of the tinctures did seem to be enhanced, and they certainly smell much better than most tinctures. We are also playing with the tinctures by adding complementary hydrosols, so Matricaria water is added to Melissa tincture, creating a more sedative nerve relaxant. The possibilities are endless and in this case the issue of shelf-life is removed.

Both the tincture and homeopathic dilution ideas are using hydrosols for their physical therapeutic effects and also for their energetic effects. I'm getting very unscientific here, but if we come from the view that real, authentic, organic essential oils contain the 'life force' of the plant, that they are alive, isn't the hydrosol alive too? The famous Neydharting Moor Spa in Austria has thousands of Kirlian photographs of the Moor waters and mud illustrating their energy. Why shouldn't we in the world of aromatherapy embrace the energetics of our oils and waters as an aspect of their healing abilities?

Storage and Shelf-Life

Finally let's have a little science. One of the major concerns in the use of hydrosols is shelf-life and contamination, especially when they are recommended for internal use. Aromatic waters have the reputation of being notoriously fragile and unstable. This is both true and not true.

My suppliers ship hydrosols in a variety of containers: amber glass, amber plastic, opaque plastic or natural semi-opaque plastic. If a high quality rigid plastic is used, I have not found any problems with degradation or leaching of chemicals either from shipping or storing in plastic. All my shipments are sent by air to minimize transport time where no controls over temperature or handling exist. The idea is to get them into cold storage and constant humidity as fast as possible. Ships and warehouses are notorious for their temperature conditions and all natural products must be handled with care.

Over the years I have developed a reasonable sterilization protocol for all hydrosol bottles and bottling equipment to help counter the formation of contaminants. Bottles are rinsed with 95% ethyl alcohol just before filling. The spray tops are taken apart, soaked in alcohol and reassembled as the bottles are filled. Both the bulk stock and bottled stock for sale are kept in the cold store until purchased or shipped. There are some other determining factors in extrapolating the shelf-life and stability of hydrosols, but you will have to look for my book, Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy,[1] to find out more. In the meantime, suffice to say that hydrosols are really incredibly safe, fun and effective products for use in aromatherapy, cooking, aesthetics and for the pure pleasure of them. Why not dive into these aromatic waters today.


1. Catty Suzanne. Hyrosols: The Next Aromatherapy. Healing Art Press. ISBN 0-8928-1946-4. 2001.


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About Suzanne Catty

Suzanne Catty is a licensed, internationally registered, aromatherapy practitioner, educator and researcher. She is the author of Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, the first book written exclusively about hydrosols, and co-author of Aux Petits maux: Les nouveau remèdes. As a practitioner and researcher, Suzanne demands the highest quality products to improve and enhance health and she pursues original methods to achieve optimum results for her clients. Her company Acqua Vita imports organic, wild and authentic essential oils and hydrosols direct from distillers all over the world. Our motto is "If you wouldn't put it in your mouth, don't put it on your body." Acqua Vita is located in Toronto, Canada but operates an extensive global mail-order business to service our clientele. The Aromatic Lyceum is the educational branch of Acqua Vita, which offers a range of classes from short workshops to teacher training programmes and a home study course. For further information contact us at or

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