A common ingredient in natural products, essential oils are used commonly through inhalation or by topical application of diluted oil. Because these oils are so readily available to the public, many people incorrectly assume that no particular knowledge or training is needed to use them. Unfortunately, there are many who make this mistake. Some have read a little about aromatherapy, or a friend or supplier has told them a particular oil is good for this or that. But essential oils can cause problems if used incorrectly. How much do you really know about these powerful botanicals?

Some have read a little about aromatherapy, or a friend or supplier has told them a particular oil is good for this or that. But essential oils can cause problems if used incorrectly. How much do you really know about these powerful botanicals?

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from plant material-bark, berries, flowers, leaves, roots, seeds, or twigs-that are produced in several different ways.

The most common is steam distillation, in which pressurized steam is passed through plant material, causing oils to evaporate out. The resulting mixture of oil and steam is condensed back into a liquid, and the oil is skimmed off.Plants that are too fragile for steam distillation, such as jasmine, orange blossom, and rose, can have their oils extracted using solvents. Oils created by this process are called absolutes and are generally used in perfumes or diffusers because the solvent residue makes most of them unsuitable for topical use.

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A third method is carbon dioxide extraction. While these oils are technically absolutes, the pressurized carbon dioxide used as a solvent leaves no harmful residue and also creates a thicker oil with a more rounded aroma.

Finally, cold-pressed essential oils are those that have been extracted from fruit rind by grinding and pressing it.

Most essential oils do not have an indefinite shelf life: citrus oils will lose their efficacy after about six months, while most floral oils will last a year or maybe two. A few-cedarwood, patchouli, sandalwood, and vetiver-become better with age. You can refrigerate oils that you do not use often. It is also a good idea to store them away from sunlight, in small bottles with less air space.

The method of production is just one factor affecting the quality and price of these botanical extracts. Others include the rarity of the plant, how and where it was grown, how many plants are needed to produce the oil, and the quality standards of the manufacturer.

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It's also important to know that different varieties of the same plant can have different uses. For example, high-altitude French lavender is most often used in skin care products, while Bulgarian or English lavender is used in bath products, diffusers, or as a sleep aid. The variety called spike lavender is higher in camphor, which brings respiratory benefits. Lavandin is a hybrid of English lavender and spike lavender, and "40/42" is a blend of several varieties that is stretched with synthetic lavender oil and used by many soapmakers.

Even the same plant can produce widely different oils. Many years ago, I purchased a brand of ginger oil which I found very disappointing. It didn't really smell like ginger. It wasn't until a few years later, when I had learned more about essential oils, that I realized I had purchased an oil made from dried ginger root instead of fresh. What a difference!

I strongly recommend purchasing essential oils only from reputable distributors that specialize in aromatherapy supplies. Unfortunately, there are companies out there that rely more on outlandish claims than on the quality of their products and others that sell synthetic fragrance under the guise of essential oil. Here are a few red flags to watch for when choosing a product.

Although essential oils do have therapeutic value, there are no regulatory standards for their production and no official grades of oil are assigned or recognized by any organization. Manufacturers and distributors who claim their oils are "therapeutic grade" are using this as a marketing term only, and it is meaningless as an indicator of the oil's quality.

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