Introducing Aromatherapy Essential Oils
    Introducing Aromatherapy Essential OilsIntroducing Aromatherapy Essential Oils

    In this educational feature on the use of essential oils, Dr Sandi Nye addresses the practical common uses of three essential oils.

    Let me lead you by the nose for a moment! Since this subject is extensive we will only be able to very briefly and simply define essential oils (EOs) and aromatherapy in this article. Essential oils, which are composed of odiferous, volatile oil molecules, are traditionally the naturopath, herbalist and aromatherapists’ tools of trade.


    Essential oils however are not ‘oils’ in the commonly understood sense, because unlike vegetable oils (VOs), which are lipid-based, EOs don’t contain any fatty acids, consequently they don’t feel greasy or oily. They may be defined as aromatic substances, obtained from botanical material by various methods of extraction (primarily steam or water distillation), i.e. they are the accumulated end products of metabolic processes within the plant. Citrus oils, which are primarily extracted by mechanical pressure, are termed ‘expressed essences’, though distilled citruses are also produced.

    There are, however, several other processes that yield natural odour materials, which do not fit the common definition above, yet can be used in product making. These processes are applied to aromatic plant materials that cannot be steam distilled satisfactorily, either because their odiferous principles are heat-sensitive/thermo-labile, or because the yield is very low, or for a variety of other reasons. C02 extracts or other forms of solvent extraction fall into this category.

    Introducing Aromatherapy Essential Oils


    Essential oils can be extracted from many different parts of plants – for example flowers, fruit and rind, leaves and grasses, seeds and berries, bark and wood, roots and rhizomes, as well as gum and resin exudates. Each has its own unique aromatic, and chemical, profile that may determine its specific or general application.

    Usually a plant yields only one distinct EO – but occasionally more than one oil is produced from different parts of a single plant. The bitter orange tree is the classic example of this, as it produces three oils, each one with different aromas, chemical, and therapeutic properties. The flower petals yield orange blossom or neroli oil, the leaves and twigs yield petitgrain oil, while the rind yields bitter orange essence (and oil, if distilled). Natural bounty of note!

    Several others produce oil in two parts, for example carrot root and seed, celery and dill – leaf and seed, clove bud and leaf, cinnamon bark and leaf, juniper needle and berry/seed, and so on.

    A few other basic examples of plants produced from various parts include:

    • Flowers – chamomile, jasmine, rose, lavender, linden blossom, ylang ylang and Helichrysum
    • Fruit (peel) – bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, tangerine and yuzu
    • Leaves – all the herbs, e.g. basil, thyme, rosemary (usually leaves and flowering tops); plus Geranium, tea tree, bay, cinnamon, patchouli, petitgrain, myrtle and eucalyptus
    • GrassCitronella, lemongrass and palmarosa
    • Seeds/berries – allspice, anise, angelica, black pepper, cardamom, carrot, celery, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, juniper, may chang, nutmeg and parsley
    • Bark – cassia and cinnamon
    • Wood – cedarwood, rosewood, sandalwood and amyris
    • Needles – cypress, pine, spruce, juniper and fir Resin – benzoin, frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, Peru balsam and elemi
    • Roots/rhizomes – Angelica, spikenard, vetivert, carrot, ginger and valerian
    • Moss – oakmoss


    Although EOs provide several benefits – ethe- real, aesthetic and/or therapeutic – their two fundamental functions (in products) are to provide fragrance, and/or therapeutic benefits. It is for the latter reason that they may be scientifically classified as phytochemicals, due to their specific biological properties. EOs can therefore be included in a formulation, according to personal scent preference, for the sheer joy of it, and/or for their specific aromatherapeutic properties or aromatology actions. In cosmetics, they are generally used for their aromas in products such as bath products like fizzies, soap, and perfume, or room and linen spritzers; while their therapeutic qualities come to the fore in products like lotions, creams, massage oils, and ointments etc.


    EOs are produced in many different countries around the world, including South Africa, which has some outstanding indigenous oils on offer. To date there are over 3 000 known essential oils, although only a few hundred are commercially available to the food and cosmetic industry, and only a small percentage of these are used in aromatherapy. Most EOs are classified as natural products, and are categorised as Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) by the USA Food and Drug Authority [FDA], and elsewhere. Take heed however that there is a small percentage that should only be used by qualified professionals, due to the nature of their chemical constituents.


    1. Atlas Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)

    Several EOs are derived from trees commonly called ‘cedars’, for example Virginian cedar, Atlas cedar etc., which can be confusing unless the botanical name is included to identify the type of oil. Atlas cedarwood has a long history of use in medicine, cosmetics, and ceremonial use such as incense and mummification rituals. It’s an excellent bug repellent and has been historically used as a building material for cedar chests and cupboards, for example.

    Part of the plant used for extraction: Wood.

    Main extraction process: Steam distillation.

    Aromatic description: Dry woody, slightly sweet, balsamic with a hint of smoky spice.

    Primary uses: Relaxing and destressing to body and mind, while having an antiseptic and astringent action on skin so it is good for acne, spots and dandruff and thinning hair. It’s also indicated as an inhalant for respiratory problems, and helps for arthritic and rheumatic aches and pains.

    Blends with: One of the few ‘base’ notes, it blends well with several other oils such as most citrus, clary sage, cypress, frankincense, geranium, jasmine, juniper berry, lavender, pine, rose, rosemary, vetivert and ylang ylang.

    2. Eucalyptus, narrow leaf (Eucalyptus radiata)

    There are several species of eucalyptus oils used in aromatherapy, which vary in aroma, chemistry and therapeutic activity. The most common is E. globulus, however E. radiata is preferable, as it has similar properties but is more suitable for use with children, and the aroma is softer and more pleasant to use.

    Part of the plant used for extraction: Leaves.

    Main extraction process: Steam distillation.

    Aromatic description: Fresh and lightly camphoraceous with a citrus-floral, woodsy undertone.

    Primary uses: Excellent for respiratory problems, as it relieves breathing, loosens mucus and reduces inflammation. It’s a good antiviral oil, which is helpful for coughs and colds, acne, herpes and various other conditions. It also strengthens immunity and is cooling and anti-inflammatory in action. Most eucalyptus oils should be used with caution on the face of children under 10, due to the chemical constituent 1,8-cineole that is high in this plant species, but also in some other oils.

    Blends with: Basil, cajeput, cedarwood, citrus, frankincense, ginger, lavender, spearmint, tea tree.

    3. Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)

    Pelargonium species used for EO extraction should not be confused with the ornamental household varieties. Geranium, considered the poor woman’s rose oil, is an excellent stand-alone oil. Of the over 700 varieties of cultivated geranium only about five are used as EO-producing species. Pelargoniums are indigenous to South Africa. The Bourbon oil from Reunion island, which is a hybrid of P. radens and P.capitatum, yields a very fine, richly rose-scented EO, which contains chemical constituents also present in rose oil (geraniol, linalol, citronellol). Other rosy fragrances such as true rose, as well as rosewood (endangered) can also be used as substitute for geranium in many instances.

    Geranium EO is used as a flavouring agent in many food categories, as well as in alcoholic and soft drinks. Rose geranium was very popular during the Victorian era, where it was often kept potted in parlours, with a fresh sprig always available to revive the senses. The fresh leaves were also offered in finger bowls at dining tables when formally entertaining.

    Part of the plant used for extraction: Fresh, partly dried leaves, stalks and flowers.

    Main extraction process: Steam distillation.

    Aromatic description: From very sweet and rosy to musty, minty and green.

    Primary uses: One of the best skin-care oils, it is suitable for all skin types – sluggish/congested, oily and acneic, dry, and combination skin. It is used in cosmetic formulating for its tissue regenerative ability, as well as its tonic and gently astringent actions, but it has many other properties. For example, it balances the nerves and hormones, which is why it is often included in products for stress, PMS and menopausal problems. It is also excellent for broken veins and skin damaged by trauma e.g. burns, frostbite, chilblains, bruises, cuts, plus dermatitis and eczema. It also balances all the Ayurvedic doshas.

    Blends with: Bergamot, black pepper, carrot, cedarwood, chamomile, Citronella, clary sage, clove, frankincense, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lime, neroli, orange, patchouli, peppermint, petitgrain, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, vetivert, and ylang ylang.


    I hope that I have piqued your interest in this introductory article to the marvels of essential oils by focusing on what I consider to be three of the top best oils available to delight the the senses, calm and cure. Look out for the next instalment!

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