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Natural Health Glossary
Medical Terms, Therapies, Accreditation

Don't forget to check the Herbal Remedies/Herbology 101 reference for more definitions!
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volatile oils (essential oils)
Highly concentrated aromatic extracts which are distilled from a variety of aromatic plant material including grasses, leaves, flowers, needles & twigs, peel of fruit, wood and roots.

They can be used to affect mood, to enhance health in a variety of ways, and as biopesticides.

They may be introduced into the body through application on the skin (do NOT use essential oils on the skin undiluted - see carrier oils, creams, and lotions), through inhalation, and/or through being ingested with food or drink as flavouring. This last option should only done with caution and at the recommendation of trained professional.

See also floral water, hydrosols, carrier oils, fragrance oils.
Volatile oils are:
1. Chemicals that evaporate at room temperature.
2. Oil having the odor or flavor of the plant from which it comes; used in perfume and flavorings
3. Highly concentrated aromatic extracts which are distilled from a variety of aromatic plant material including grasses, leaves, flowers, needles & twigs, peel of fruit, wood and roots.

Volatile oils are a class of Volatile Organic Compounds derived from plants through distillation. It takes many kg of a plant to produce a tiny amount of the essential oils. For example, almost 8 kg of peppermint goes into making an ounce of the essential oil.

The oils are called "volatile" because they evaporate (become airborne) at low temperatures - room temperature for many. Care must be taken in the distillation process to preserve the key components (hydrocarbons or terpenes); overheating, for instance, will release the oils into the atmosphere and render the remaining substance impotent.

Essential oils that retain the volatile component have many uses. Some have antibacterial, antimutagenic and even antitumour effects. See the individual plants for more detail.

Hydrocarbons in Essential Oils

Terpenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons; a phytochemical) can take the following forms:

Monoterpenes: (primary alcohols containing 10 carbon atoms) the most common grouping of volatile oils. Examples of this class include: camphor, menthol, Thujone, Thymol, Nerol, Linalool, Limonene, Geraniol, perillyl alcohol, found in such plant matter as citrus peels, mint leaves, lavender, and thyme. These phytochemicals are known to trigger apoptosis ('suicide' in defective cells) and to inhibit the synthesis of cholesterol in the liver.

Sesquiterpenes: (contain 15 carbon atoms) Found mainly in higher plants, sesquiterpene volatile oils are not as commonly found as monoterpines. Examples include Nerolidol, Farnesol, Ylangene, found in Neroli, mints, sandalwood, ginger, and German chamomile.

These phytochemicals have anti-allergen and anti-inflammatory properties.

Use

As a rule, do not use volatile oils undiluted on skin. Mix with carrier oils, creams, or lotions. You can decide which option to use depending on the area of the body being massaged and the specific properties of the volatile/essential oil.

See specific plants in the Herbology 101 database for more information.

Warnings: Do NOT use essential oils on the skin undiluted - see carrier oils, creams, and lotions. There are exceptions to this rule (lavender, tea tree are two), but it is a good practice to keep in mind when in doubt about the strength and safety of the oil in question.

Related studies, articles, and news items

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