It is pretty common nowadays to see “essential oils” labelled on all sorts of commercial items. Cosmetics, haircare, all the way to household products. I was actually wondering about the annual global production of essential oils, and currently, it is estimated around 120 000 tons! There is indeed a clear demand for anything allowing a more natural and non-chemical way of taking care of ourselves and our surroundings, and a number of companies are using aromatherapy as a great marketing strategy to speak to health-conscious consumers.
While this may contribute to getting rid of toxic ingredients in our homes, it also has popularised the  use of essential oils to the extend of sometimes omitting thorough information on their true nature and power.
Not everybody is interested in aromatherapy per sé, and some are just happy enough knowing that their shampoos or house cleaners are “safer” than their neighbour’s…. But for those who would like to be (or already are) using essential oils at a more frequent pace and deeper level, there are a few basic things not to overlook.
You can read more at the end of this article about why I am sharing these tips today. Let me just add that I am not claiming to know everything about aromatherapy as it is a complex science but my education in the field allows me to share with you some professional insights.

History, condensed 

I know that my strength is not in writing short articles! I just find that for every theme that inspires me, there are so many things to say! (I will be working on my “straight to the point” style, promise!)
So, before we jump right into the core of the topic, I thought that having a bit of aromatherapy history in mind would be relevant.  

Essential oils have been used and studied for centuries and what we know about it today comes from a long heritage of several cultures (Aborigines, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Incas, Mayas, Aztecs…) going back as far as 40 000 years ago!
Through the Middle Age and the Renaissance, we can trace back many ways of using plants and essential oils: some cultures focussing more on the spiritual and even sacred dimension of the plants: purification, fumigation, embalming; and some more on the efficiency of plants used therapeutically: for healing wounds, stopping epidemics, like with the famous “Vinaigre des 4 voleurs”  (“4 thieves vinegar” in English).

Although the different uses of plants and their essences were not referred to as “aromatherapy” as we know it today, it has nonetheless spread through all continents, with discoveries made in terms of benefits at various levels (Confucius treated the theme of sexual harmony brought by the use of essential oils), or in terms of techniques (the “Serpentin” in Persia, ancestor of the current alambic used for distillation), to name a few examples.

Moving ahead a few centuries forward, you might have heard of René-Maurice Gattefossé who, in 1910 made a great discovery (or should we say “re-discovery”?). As there was an explosion in his laboratory, he got burnt. His reflex was to dip his hand in some fine lavender and the results in terms of healing were incredible. He then dedicated his research to the connection between each essential oil’s biochemical compound and their activities, and he became the first one in our Modern age, to bring the attention on Aromatherapy. It was only decades later though that his research got attention from the medical industry, in the 1960’s, through Doctor Jean Valnet’s  work. Valnet developed a method that could evaluate the anti-microbial activities of essential oils (following a similar method evaluating synthetical antibiotics). He led to the anti-infectious discoveries of essential oils, namely during the Indochina war, during which wounded soldiers were healed with band-aids dipped in essential oils.

From there, Germany, England and the US found an interest in resorting to aromatherapy in some cases where bacteria couldn’t be fought off efficiently with antibio-therapy. Dr Valnet became globally recognised and Aromatherapy spread through the Western world.

A therapy, indeed  

When you hear “aromatherapy” what comes to your mind in the first place? Today, we associate aromatherapy with lifestyle, with well-being, with spa and massages, with relaxation. That is all valid. But going back to one of its initial purposes, aromatherapy is indeed, as its name reveals, a therapy!

Although it is based on using what Nature is providing us, it is nonetheless powerful. For instance, with 100 kg of Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), you will obtain from 600  to 1 000 grams of essential oil. To get 1 kilo of Bulgarian Rose (Rosa damascena) oil, you will need as much as 6,5 tons of flower petals.
That should give you an idea about how concentrated those plant essences are, and while some might think that one drop couldn’t do much, well, it actually could.

If “therapy” involves following a treatment with the intend of relieving or healing a disorder, be it at a physical or mental level, how do the “aromas” (the aromatic volatile compound of the plant) come into the picture?
Maybe you have already experienced getting relief from a headache using some Peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oil, feeling more relaxed by breathing in some Marjoram (Origanum majorana) or getting your nose unblocked thanks to some Eucalyptus radiata?
If so, you already know that the benefits of aromatherapy are hard to ignore, and here is more on how essential oils actually work on the human body. 

As an average, we count about 200 different molecules present in each essential oil. These biochemical compounds are active and their volatility explains why they can easily get through our bodies and act at different levels.
The most known effects are related to their biochemical activity, whereby the molecules of the essential oils will connect with our own receptors, triggering a therapeutical action. To some other extent, they also act on our psycho-emotional field (while the aromas reach our brain) as well as on our energetic field.

The molecules that can be found in an essential oil can be classified in different main chemical families (terpenes, alcohols, oxides, esters, aldehydes, ketones, etc.). To each classification and sub-classification will correspond some known properties.
It is then fundamental to understand the biochemical structure of an oil to better anticipate its benefits on the human metabolism and what associations to make in order to increase their efficiency.
For instance, limonene (commonly found in citrus fruit) is known to be antiseptic and sedative.
A Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) essential oil’s composition should contain about 80-90% of monoterpenes, including about at least 50% of limonene. Sweet orange essential oil is commonly used for purifying the air, as well as for promoting a good sleep.
Oxides such as 1,8-cineole commonly found in Ravintsara essential oil (Cinnamomum camphora) are great anti-infectious.
A Ravintsara essential oil’s composition should contain about 50-60% of 1,8 cineole. Ravintsara essential oil is commonly used for stimulating the immune system and fight off colds and flu.

One of my favorite places back home (“herboristerie”) where to buy plants in many different forms. 

There are many therapeutical actions that aromatherapy can be intended to be used for, and here are some of the main ones:
Anti-inflammatory, wound healing, anti-infectious, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-parasite, tonic, stimulating, anti-spasm, fluidifiant, diuretic, sedative, carminative, hormon-like, neuro-regulating, aphrodisiac, calming, astringent (cutaneous), regenerative (tissue), decongestant, anti-allergic, anti-pruritus, immuno-stimulant, lipolytic, … and the list goes on.

French and Anglo-Saxon Aromatherapy

There are many reasons why we refer to “French Aromatherapy” when given a scientific and medical background. Further to what I mentioned earlier about Gattefossé and Valnet, since the 1970’s, researchers such as Pierre Franchomme, followed by Daniel Pénoël, and many doctors, pharmacists and biologists have studied essential oils, recognising them as a combination of various molecules, each having particular properties.
Pierre Franchomme has also made popular the notion of “chemotypes” (we will talk again later about that), which refers to the chemical identity of a plant.
The correlation between the chemical constitution of an essential oil and its efficiency (as in the examples of the Orange and Ravintsara essential oils) can somehow be compared with the approach of allopathic medicine, whereby the therapist will give an answer to the patient’s problematic.

The use of an essential oil as an informative and energetic tool is a more Anglo-Saxon approach, whereby aromatherapy evokes well-being and relaxation and is used in that intent, rather than focussing on an ailment, injury or specific health condition.
The so-called Anglo-Saxon approach was developed by Marguerite Maury (biochemist, nurse and surgical assistant) in the 1960’s, valorising the emotional benefits of aromatic and relaxing massages.

Modern aromatherapy has developed into this two main “movements”, distinct but complementary.

My first-row experience in making essential oil! With my teacher Pierre Franchomme, summer 2015. We were making Clove essential oil (Syzygium aromaticum) for our educational purpose just outside the classroom. 

The different uses of essential oils 

In a nutshell, aromatherapy is used in various manners:

  • To prevent
  • In case of emergency (cuts, burns, bruise, etc)
  • Nursing / sanatorium care
  • Premises disinfection
  • Beauty and cosmetic care
  • Well-being

And in different forms, mainly:

  • Oral, sublingual ingestion
  • Suppository (vaginal or anal)
  • Cutaneous application
  • Fragrance (personal fragrance)
  • Inhalation
  • Ambiance mist
  • Diffusion (in a room)
  • Face cream, face masks, face lotion, bath salt, bath oil, shower gel, shampoo, conditionner, hair mask
  • Cleaning (kitchen, bathroom, floor, yoga mat, etc.)

One important factor, is how are the essential oils going to reach you. Under what form? and through which route?
While I would advice to be cautious about the essential oils you are getting, no matter what route is intended, it is still important to think about what your use is going to be, and according to that, make an even more enlighten choice.

A few words about dilution 

In certain cases, using some essential oils undiluted can be done safely but that should be recommended on case by case basis. Otherwise, you will often dilute them.
Keep in mind that essential oils are not water soluble: they do not dissolve in water!
They would dilute in alcohol, in fats such as vegetable oils and creams, in gels, balms, as well as in honey and maple syrup (for oral ingestion).

The dilution ratio will depend on your intended goal as well as who is the preparation made for. Is it for an adult, a kid, a toddler? It will generally go from 0,5% (in cosmetics for instance) up to 50% (for therapeutical massages for example).

What would I call a “good” essential oil? 

The variety of essential oils sold to the general public is wide; and with a very wide range of prices, as one would notice. How to make an enlighten choice then?

Here are some criterion that are fundamental to start with:

  • They must be 100% pure, no alteration. You can find many essential oils that are “naturally” or synthetically altered. The reasons and techniques are many. You can read about Tony Burfield ’s study on the topic.
  • Origin (region or country)
  • What part of the plant (leaf, stem, bark…) and how the oil has been extracted (distillation, expression, etc.)
  • Information on their biochemical composition. Indication on the chemotype. This is obtained by analysing the essential oil and allow us to know with precision about its nature, and the condition in which it has grown and been harvested. For some essential oils, the chemotype will be precised in its name and label. For instance since we can find different types of thymes (Thymus vulgaris), they will be called “Thyme ct thujanol” or “Thyme ct thymol” to bring precision. For most oils though, the chemotype won’t be explicit on its label but the information should be available if required.
  • Presence of the latin name (in addition to the name in the language used in the country you buy it from). The latin botanical name is the most accurate name. So wherever you are in the world, that will serve you as a reference.
  • Traceability I would say is even more valuable than the organic label (I do work with suppliers that produce in very small quantities and in remote places where an organic label is just not even an option). Trust your source and the closer you are from it, the easier, and it will also bring less chances of alteration along the way.
  • The smell! Once you know how a “good” essential oil smells, you will be able to detect if there is something odd. Start by buying in small quantity if samples are not available and trust your nose in telling you if the oil is right, and right for you.

If you come across (and you will) essential oils that do not carry this type of information whether on their labels on when contacting the brand, my advice would be to look somewhere else.

In terms of pricing, it is absolutely normal that some essential oils are more expensive than others. That can be explained by the rarity of the plant and supply (some plants can be harvested only in a very short time frame within the year), and a low yield ratio, as seen earlier for the Rosa damascena. However, you can always compare and notice if a brand is charging way above or way below the usual.

Who can advice you on how to use essential oils? 

If you are are buying essential oils to be used with a therapeutical intent as explained earlier, these are fundamental conditions to gather:

> Get a proper diagnosis of your situation through a certified healthcare professional. Do not rely on what you can read online nor on someone’s personal case. Each body is different!

> Make sure you get your essential oil from a reliable source. In some countries you can find them at pharmacies and / or health stores. In Bangkok, our options are limited but they do exist!

Refer to the points mentioned in the previous paragraph and I hope that will guide you well enough.
I would not advice to buy from “marketers” or those channels building on profit-making to the benefit of other users who are not qualified to sell nor advice.
I often hear people asking if essential oils are dangerous. If we are talking about “good” essential oils, the answer is no, they are not dangerous, but they can become if they are being misused, so before doing so, please make sure to take all precautions to avoid unwanted results.

Take care of yourself 

The approach in natural medicine is that a therapist considers you as a whole but also, s/he acts more as a guide. I like that there shouldn’t be a dominant / submissive relationship between the patient and the therapist. You are ultimately the one deciding what is good for you. Use your good sense and gut feel, if you are unsure.
No matter the use you will have, the key word is taking precaution and inform yourself well so you can enjoy the tremendous benefits of essential oils. There is nothing more valuable than your health!

Note from the author (Joëlle):
Aromatherapy a topic that is very close to my heart. For those who don’t know me, besides experiencing a Healthy Bangkok, I have a job! I work through my boutique brand & consultancy agency, on mission-based projects, focusing on Natural Medicine & Wellness. It was back in 2008 when I got introduced to a reputable University established in 1987 in Paris that I decided to sign up for a course in Herbal medicine, out of a personal interest. Learning about traditional medicine, plants and well-being lead me to Aromatherapy, which I learnt few years later with the renown Mr Pierre Franchomme, one of the “fathers” of French aromatherapy (mentioned a few times in this article). I have carried on with a complete course on Aromachology with Mrs Patty Canac, expert in perfumes, author and using fragrances as a therapy to various conditions including psycho-emotional pathologies. So today, I thought I would share with you some important information about essential oils, because its use has become a trend, a lifestyle, and like all “trends”, there is a lot of information circulating about them which can be inspiring but yet confusing if not misleading, according to some sources. I hope you found this article useful!

On this page, you will find some bibliographic references.

Memories of my graduation day with my inspiring teacher Patty Canac and my dear fellow classmates. 

3 thoughts on “What are essentials oils and how to choose them?”

  1. Bonjour Joëlle
    Je suis à la recherche d’huile essentielle d’hélichryse pour son action sur les hématomes. Pensez-vous que je pourrais en trouver à Bangkok ?
    Merci davance.

    1. Bonjour Patrice, merci pour votre message!Je vous conseille de regarder sur le site
      Ici, comme vous avez du le remarquer, nos options sont assez limitees! Et Botanic Essence a une selection plutot satisfaisante et ils me paraissent assez serieux. Autrement, via Novessence (ils distribuent a Ecotopia, a Siam Discovery) avec une gamme d’HE plus restreinte (plutot utilisees pour la cosmetique) mais toutes provenant de France et de qualite.

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