Simple guide to essential oils

There is a lot of information out there about essential oils, but it can become overwhelming if you’re just learning the basics. If you’ve been using natural skin care for awhile you probably know all of this. But if you’re just starting to make greener choices, keep on reading for our simple essential oil guide.


guide to essential oils

What are essential oils? How are they different from fragrance oils?

Take a whiff of a bottle of lemon essential oil and you’ll be thinking of freshly zested lemon. Or christmas trees with that bottle of pine oil. Essential oils are extracted from plants and retain the aromatic compounds of the plant. Depending on the type of plant, the oil can be extracted from the flowers, fruit, seeds, bark, leaves or roots. They are natural and retain many benefits from their original source.

Fragrance oils, often listed as “perfume” on product labels, are synthetic aroma compounds that are created in a lab. They often try to mimic natural scents that cannot be extracted – like raspberry or fresh cut grass or copy essential oils that are costly – like rose and jasmine. With many plants and fruits, there is no essential oil to be extracted. The natural fragrance that we know and recognize simply cannot be captured. So if you see a mango fragranced product most definitely a fragrance oil. Sometimes they will smell very close to what they represent, other times they will smell cheap and not all that “ocean breeze” like.

Where do essential oils come from? How are they made?

Depending on the plant and the type of fragrance being extracted, the oil may come from any part of a plant. Orange essential oil comes from the zest of the fruit. From the same tree, neroli oil is extracted from bitter orange blossoms and petigrain oil comes from the leaves and twigs. Cinnamon oil is extracted from the bark of the tree, while peppermint is extracted from the flowing top of the plant.

The plant material that the oil is extracted from generally dictates which method of extraction will be used, either distillation or expression for essential oils (or solvent extraction for absolutes, but I’ll explain that in a bit). Either method of extraction requires large amounts of the plant material to produce just a small amount of essential oil, making them costly to produce. Think thousands of lemons for just a pound of essential oil.


In this method, steam passes through the plant material and carries the volatile compounds with it. The steam then cools down in a condenser, where the essential oil floats on top of the condensed liquid. When separated, you end up with a small amount of oil and a hydrosol, which also retains a light scent. Rose, lavender and chammomile hydosols are often used in cosmetics.


This simpler method is used for citrus fruits like lime and orange. Machines are used to puncture the fruit, usually the rind, and then the fruit is pressed to extract the oils out. Often this method is referred to as cold pressed, similar to olive oil extraction. Although citrus fruits can be steam distilled as well, they tend to keep their more of their characteristic scent and colours when expressed.

Solvent Extraction

There are some botanicals that are very delicate, like jasmine, that are too fragile for distillation. The plant is mixed with a solvent that dissolves the plant material. The mixture is filtered to separate the solvent and the solid material that retains the plant mass. The end result of solvent extraction is a waxy concrete, which is further processed to obtain an absolute, a very concentrated form of fragrance that is used in perfumery.


What are essential oils used for?

Essential oils don’t just smell amazing, they have a multitude of uses. Most popularly, they are used for aromatherapy, a type of alternative medicine that uses essential oil for mind, body and spiritual health. The are also used in perfumery, to scent natural products, for deodorizing and cleaning, insect repellents and too much more to list.

Even though they are natural substances, essential oils are highly concentrated and need to be used with caution. Many are unsafe for use with children or pregnant women, others can cause problems when they are improperly used. Make sure you do the proper research before using any essential oils!

Why are essential oils so great?

We like essential oils because are natural AND smell great. Unlike artificial fragrances, they don’t linger on your skin forever and irritate those around you. And they make Hola Deodorant smell pretty amazing too.

*Originally published on

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