An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile (easily evaporated at normal temperatures) chemical compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, or simply as the oil of the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An essential oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived. The term essential used here does not mean indispensable as with the terms essential amino acid or essential fatty acid which are so called since they are nutritionally required by a given living organism. In contrast to fatty oils, essential oils typically evaporate completely without leaving a stain or residue.
Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, often by using steam. Other processes include expression, solvent extraction, sfumatura, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping, wax embedding, and cold pressing. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavoring food and drink, and for adding scents to incense and household cleaning products.
Essential oils are often used for aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine in which healing effects are ascribed to aromatic compounds. Aromatherapy may be useful to induce relaxation, but there is not sufficient evidence that essential oils can effectively treat any condition. Improper use of essential oils may cause harm including allergic reactions and skin irritation, and children may be particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of improper use.
Essential oils have been used in folk medicine throughout history. The earliest recorded mention of the techniques and methods used to produce essential oils is believed to be that of Ibn al-Baitar (1188–1248), an Al-Andalusian (Muslim-controlled Spain) physician, pharmacist and chemist.
Rather than refer to essential oils themselves, modern works typically discuss specific chemical compounds of which the essential oils are composed. For example: methyl salicylate rather than “oil of wintergreen”.
Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and other aromatic compounds. Oils are volatilized, diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, diffused in the air by a nebulizer, heated over a candle flame, or burned as incense.
Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer and often are based solely on historical accounts of use of essential oils for these purposes. Claims for the efficacy of medical treatments, and treatment of cancers in particular, are now subject to regulation in most countries.