Romantically described as the “life-force” of a plant, these highly fragrant liquids are known by chemists as volatile oils. Each carries a distinctive scent - the essence of the plant.
This deliciously fragrant oil, a personal favorite that some experts have used in many skincare formulations, is distilled from the blossom of the orange tree (Citrus aurantium amara), which grows mainly around the Mediterranean in Spain, Morocco, Italy and Tunisia. The orange tree is one of the most versatile sources of fragrant oils: orange oil is expressed from the peel; petitgrain is distilled from the twigs and leaves, and neroli - the most precious - from the tiny white blossoms. Touching the delicate petals damages the fragile oil glands, so the flowers are shaken from the trees and collected in huge sheets first thing in the morning, before the valuable oil starts to evaporate in the heat of the sun. The flowers are taken straight to the still and processed within hours. Neroli was named after a princess of Nerola in Italy, who liked to wear it as a perfume and made it fashionable as a scent. It combines fresh sharp citrus notes with sweet warm florals, an unusual odor profile which makes it one of the classic ingredients in eaux de colognes, such as the now cult 4711. Diluted into creams and massage oils, neroli is relatively well tolerated on the skin and has a toning, balancing effect. Aromatherapists often use the soothing aroma of neroli to help relieve fear, anxiety and shock.
When French physician Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burnt his hand in a lab experiment, he thrust it into a vat of lavender oil. Amazed at how quickly his hand recovered, he was inspired to record the healing properties of many other essential oils, and coined the term “aromatherapy”. His book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, is the standard work on the subject.
The sweet-scented, mauve-flowered bush has a long history as a medicinal herb. It grows wild around the Mediterranean - thriving in even the poorest soil: the name comes from the Latin “lavare”, meaning to wash, suggesting the Romans used it to fragrance the water they washed in. It was part of their herbal pharmacopoeia, grown wherever they set up camp (alongside rosemary, parsley, fennel and borage). Perhaps they used it, as herbalist John Parkinson suggested in 1640, for “griefes and pains of the head and brain”. Modern science testifies to lavender's powers to help rest and relaxation (tuck a sprig into your pillow case) as well as to help alleviate headaches - massage a few drops into the temples.
The oil is also strongly antiseptic and some people keep a small bottle in the kitchen to use neat on small burns and grazes, cuts and insect stings. Some also like to sprinkle a few drops into a warm bath, and mix five drops in a 100ml spray bottle of pure water for a refreshing summer after-sun skin spritz.
Lavender is said to produce the best quality medicinal oil. Once it’s been cut and distilled, it is stored for up to 18 months to let the fragrance mature, much like a fine wine.
Many species of mint have been used to produce essential oils but the two most in favor now are the sharply-fragrant peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and softer-scented spearmint (Mentha spicata), the type most used in cooking.
The main constituents in peppermint are menthol-type compounds, best known for their ability to create a cooling effect on the skin, while spearmint is rich in carvones, which produce a chilling effect almost like a local anesthetic.
While we all know about using mint in cooking, toothpaste and chewing gum, we may be less familiar with its use in skincare. But that cool-as-a-mountain-stream freshness gives a zing to toners and any product designed to revive and stimulate the skin. It also helps brighten the complexion by encouraging a rosy glow. Preparations containing peppermint oil have been found to help relieve the scaly skin linked to conditions such as acne and also dermatitis, making it useful in shampoo.
In aromatherapy, it's used to ease muscular pains and headaches; in fact it makes an appearance in stick
In 1770 the explorer Captain James Cook, who was travelling north along the coast of New South Wales, met native Australians (Aborigines) who prepared a spicy tea from this small tree or shrub - and so the name was born. The folk history of the leaves’ healing properties goes back beyond records, but the oil was not commonly used until Australian chemist Dr Arthur Penfold published papers on its anti-microbial activity in the 1920s and 30s. This gave rise to the commercial tea tree oil industry. Demand waned after the Second World War, presumably with the development of effective antibiotics, but revived in the 1970s, with the re-emergence of interest in traditional and natural medicine.
Nearly 100 chemical compounds have been identified in tea tree oil; the most important appears to be an anti-bacterial called terpinen-4-ol, which makes up about 40 per cent of the oil. It's been shown to treat moderate acne as effectively as benzoyl peroxide, although more slowly, and anecdotal reports suggest it can help eradicate the tiny white bumps of the increasingly common, contagious virus molluscum contagiosum (often found in children), for which conventional medicine has no answers. It also has antifungal activity and is known to treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis effectively.
Tea tree oil is used for insect bites, spots, boils and minor wounds. It can also help ease ear infections and bee stings. Laboratory studies report that tea tree oil has shown activity against MRSA. A bottle of this multi-purpose oil is a must for any natural medicine chest. However, it should never be taken by mouth and may sometimes cause contact dermatitis in sensitive people when applied topically.
This is one of the favorite essential oils for its divine scent and gentle skin-toning properties. Pure rose oil is one of the most precious essential oils, as it takes a full metric ton of the fragile blooms to produce just 200ml. There are two main types of rose from which the volatile fragrance oils are extracted: firstly, Rosa centifolia (or more accurately, a hybrid of Rosa centifolia and Rosa gallica), which is also commonly known as cabbage rose, or Rose de mai; there is also Rosa damascene, or damask rose, the variety usually favored by perfumiers.
Rose are harvested widely in South France and Turkey. Each morning the growers gather early, before the sun rises and starts to evaporate the valuable volatile oils. It's a family affair, as children join parents and grandparents to ensure each bloom is carefully hand-plucked and placed into hessian sacks (plastic would contaminate the petals). It's a magical time, with the scent of roses filling the air as literally millions of flowerheads are loaded onto tractors, spread out to dry on warehouse floors, then tipped into huge vats to begin distillation with water or steam to produce the oil. Solvent extraction - the alternative processing method - gives 'rose concrete', which is further processed with alcohol to produce 'rose absolute'. The quantity of oil is variable; an abundance of flowers won't necessarily yield the greatest oil content, whereas an apparent paucity of blooms may produce much more, as quantity depends on how enriched the petals are.
Rose is a complex oil, with over 300 chemical constituents, including the important perfumery constituents called citronellol, geraniol, nerol and phenylethyl alcohol, plus minor ones which impart subtly differing aromas. It has both skin-calming and mood-uplifting properties and is a very special addition to massage blends for face and body.