Essential Oils: A History and Overview of Aromatic Plants to Support Well-Being

Published on June 09, 2023

By Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell has worked as a copywriter, writer, author, and editor for 35 years, specializing in the field of healthcare since 2009. She recognized the need for reliable health information while supporting friends through unique health challenges and refocused her career to bring clarity and compassion to healthcare communications. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a lifelong Northern Californian.

When you think of an essential oil, what comes to mind? Aromatherapy? A pleasant fragrance? A good massage? 

Essential oils provide pleasant fragrances to soothe our souls. But for thousands of years, they have also been an integral part of traditional remedies, cherished for their therapeutic properties. Whether diffused, applied topically, or incorporated into various health practices, essential oils are rich in biological compounds that may support and enhance our physical, mental, and emotional health.* 

If you are curious about adding essential oils to your natural health first aid kit, this overview can help you get started.

How Essential Oils Are Created

An essential oil is a type of highly concentrated plant oil that takes on the essence of the plant used to make it. Each essential oil possesses the unique aroma and potential health-supporting properties of the plant it comes from. 

The oil is obtained through distillation, cold-pressing, or solvent extraction. Steam distillation is the most common method, but different plants and circumstances call for different extraction techniques. 

For example, cold-press extraction is used for citrus fruits. The peel of the fruit is mechanically pressed to release the essential oil, which is then collected and separated from the liquid portion. Solvent extraction is employed when plant materials are delicate or when the essential oil content is low. In this method, a solvent, such as hexane or ethanol, is used to dissolve the essential oil from the plant material. The solvent is then evaporated, leaving behind the concentrated essential oil.

Each method has its advantages and may yield oils with different characteristics.

The essential oil steam distillation process has seven major steps:

  1. Plant Selection: The best plants for essential oils are rich in aromatic compounds and therapeutic properties. The plant type determines whether the plant's leaves, flowers, stems, bark, or roots are used to create the desired essential oil. 
  2. Harvesting: The plant material is harvested when it reaches its highest concentration of essential oil compounds. 
  3. Steam Distillation: The plant material is placed in a distillation apparatus, typically a still or a distillation tank. Water is added, and the mixture is heated. As the water reaches boiling point, steam is generated and passes through the plant material.
  4. Extraction: The steam carries the volatile aromatic compounds from the plant material, causing the essential oil-containing vapor to rise. The vapor then moves through a condenser, where it is cooled and converted back into liquid form.
  5. Separation: The resulting liquid consists of a mixture of essential oil and water. The essential oil, which is lighter than water, floats on top and can be easily separated from the water.
  6. Filtration and Purification: The collected essential oil may undergo filtration or further purification processes to remove any impurities, debris, or remaining water content. This helps to obtain pure and concentrated essential oil.
  7. Bottling and Storage: Because essential oil contains volatile chemical compounds (meaning they can evaporate easily), it is bottled in dark-colored glass containers to protect it from light and preserve its potency. It is then stored in a cool, dry place to help maintain its quality and longevity.

Essential oils range in price, depending on how much plant material is needed to make the oil. For example, it takes about 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make one pound of rose essential oil, 1,500 pounds of lemons to make one pound of lemon essential oil, and about 250 pounds of lavender to make one pound of lavender oil. It’s no wonder a single ounce of essential oil is so precious.

Because essential oils are highly concentrated, they should be used with caution, following appropriate guidelines for safe usage and dilution. 

The Difference Between an Essential Oil and a Plant Extract

Both essential oils and plant extracts can be used to help support health and wellness. In some cases, the terms are used interchangeably. But while essential oil is derived through distillation or mechanical pressing and is always an oil, a plant extract is created by soaking the plant material (whole, chopped, crushed, or ground) in a solvent and then straining the resulting liquid from the plant matter. 

A plant extract can be prepared as a tincture, infusion, powder, or concentrated liquid extract, depending on its intended use. For example, herbal teas are extracts made by soaking herbs in boiling water. Oil extracts are often soaked in heated olive or coconut oil. Tinctures are soaked in alcohol or other chemical solvents. Extracts can vary in strength, aroma, and flavor depending on how long the plant materials are soaked to remove their essential compounds. 

For instructions on how to make plant extract (in this case from oregano), read our article, “How to Make and Take Oregano Oil.”

While essential oils and plant extracts are distinct in terms of their composition and extraction methods, they both offer valuable properties and can be used in different ways based on their specific characteristics and applications.

The History of Essential Oils

There is evidence of aromatic plants being used in almost every ancient civilization. The renowned Chinese “Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine,”  published between 2697 and 2597 BC, notes the use of aromatics in traditional Chinese medicine. In India, essential oils were first used in Ayurvedic medicine for medical and spiritual purposes 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians used aromatic oils in medicinal preparations, ointments, and balms. The great sage of Islamic medicine, Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), who lived in Persia from 980 to 1037 AD, is thought to be the first person to record the method for distilling essential oils.

The use of essential oils declined during the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church considered their use to be witchcraft. However, they continued to be used in folk remedies and traditional medicine in various cultures and, by the Renaissance, were once again popular with physicians and chemists.

Interest in essential oils continued growing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé coined the term "aromatherapy" in 1928 and conducted research on the antimicrobial properties of essential oils. His work sparked interest in the scientific study of essential oils and their potential health benefits.

Today, as more people look for alternatives to Western Medicine, essential oils are gaining interest and popularity and are the subject of many laboratory and clinical studies.

Scientific Studies of Essential Oils

Depending on the specific research objectives and the desired outcomes of a study, scientific researchers often explore both the oils of full plants and specific biological compounds found within those oils. 

In some cases, researchers investigate the essential oils derived from the whole plant, considering the complex chemical composition and potential synergistic effects of the multiple compounds present. Studies on whole plant extracts can help identify the overall benefits and possible mechanisms of action.

Researchers may also focus on individual compounds present in essential oils. By isolating and examining specific biological compounds, they can determine their pharmacological properties, mechanisms of action, and potential effects on the body.

As more studies are conducted on individual essential oils, we hope to gain a greater  understanding of their role in healthcare. 

Potential Health Benefits of Essential Oils

The chemical composition of essential oils determines their potential therapeutic properties. For example, lavender essential oil contains linalool and linalyl acetate, which contribute to its calming and sedative effects.REF#1899 More than 50% of oregano oil consists of phenolic compounds (primarily carvacrol and thymol), which have significant antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.REF#1900

While we lack scientific proof of the efficacy and safety of essential oils for therapeutic purposes, modern research continues to explore their potential benefits and limitations for various medical conditions. Some day this research may confirm the effectiveness of various oils for the purposes they’ve been used for traditionally, including: 

  • Respiratory conditions: Eucalyptus, peppermint, oregano, and tea tree have been used to address respiratory issues like coughs, congestion, and sinusitis. Inhalation of these oils is believed to help clear the airways and promote easier breathing.*
  • Digestive disorders: Ginger, fennel, and peppermint have been used to alleviate indigestion, bloating, and stomach aches. Research studies show promise on the effectiveness of ginger as an antinausea agent for chemotherapy, motion sickness, seasickness, and pregnancy.
  • Skin disorders: Lavender, chamomile, oregano, and tea tree have been used topically to treat various skin conditions. They are applied to wounds, burns, rashes, and insect bites to promote healing, reduce inflammation, and prevent infection.
  • Pain and inflammation: Clove, lavender, and boswellia have been used topically to address pain and inflammation associated with conditions like arthritis, muscle aches, and joint stiffness. They are believed to possess analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.*
  • Mental and emotional well-being: Lavender, rosemary, and citrus oils such as lemon balm have been used for their calming and uplifting effects on the mind and emotions. They are believed to reduce stress, anxiety, and promote relaxation.*
  • Sleep disorders: Lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood have been used to improve sleep quality and address insomnia. They are often diffused or applied topically before bedtime to promote a sense of calm and relaxation.
  • Headaches and migraines: Peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus have been used topically or through inhalation to relieve headaches and migraines. These oils are believed to have pain-relieving and soothing properties.*

While essential oils have been traditionally used for these purposes, their efficacy and safety should be considered with caution. You should always consult with your healthcare provider or a trained aromatherapist when considering essential oils for specific health concerns.

10 Tips for Using Essential Oils

Before investing in essential oils, consider these tips for using them safely and effectively.

  1. Choose a high-quality essential oil: Look for reputable brands that offer pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils. Check for third-party testing and certifications to ensure the oils are free from contaminants and impurities.
  2. Dilute essential oils: Most essential oils are highly concentrated and should be diluted before use. Dilution helps reduce the risk of skin irritation or sensitization. A common dilution ratio is 2-3 drops of essential oil per teaspoon (5 mL) of a carrier oil, such as olive, coconut, or almond oil.
  3. Conduct a patch test: Before applying an essential oil topically, perform a patch test on a small skin area to check for any adverse reactions. Apply a diluted amount of the oil and observe for 24 hours. If any redness, itching, or irritation occurs, discontinue use.
  4. Start with small amounts: When using essential oils for the first time, start with a low concentration and gradually increase if desired. This allows you to gauge your personal response and sensitivity to the oil.
  5. Choose the right inhalation method: Enjoy the aromatic benefits of essential oils through inhalation. Use a diffuser, steam inhalation, or simply add a few drops to a tissue or cotton ball and inhale deeply. Start with a low concentration and adjust based on personal preference.
  6. Apply topically with caution: When applying essential oils to the skin, target specific areas or massage them into larger areas for general benefits. Avoid sensitive areas like the eyes, ears, or mucous membranes. Always dilute essential oils before applying them to the skin.
  7. Consider sensitivities and allergies: Be aware of any personal sensitivities or allergies to specific essential oils. Some oils, such as citrus oils, can increase UV sensitivity and should not be used in direct sunlight. Use caution and follow safety guidelines when using photosensitive oils.
  8. Store properly: Essential oils are sensitive to heat, light, and air, which can degrade their quality over time. Store them in dark glass bottles tightly sealed and away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures.
  9. Educate yourself: Learn about individual essential oils, their properties, and safety considerations. Understand their potential contraindications, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions andare pregnant or breastfeeding. Consult with a healthcare professional if needed.
  10. Seek professional advice: If you have specific health concerns or are unsure about using essential oils, consult with a qualified aromatherapist or healthcare professional. 

Remember, essential oils are powerful substances, and it's important to use them responsibly and respect their potency.

As research digs deeper into the composition and properties of essential oils, we hope it will unlock their full therapeutic potential and a better understanding of the mechanisms behind their effects on the body and mind that individuals have reported to have experienced for centuries.


  • 1. Guy P. P. Kamatou and Alvaro M. Viljoen, "Linalool – A Review of a Biologically Active Compound of Commercial Importance", Natural Product Communications, 2008 Vol. 3, No 7..
  • 2. Lombrea A, Antal D, Ardelean F, Avram S, Pavel IZ, Vlaia L, Mut AM, Diaconeasa Z, Dehelean CA, Soica C, Danciu C, "A Recent Insight Regarding the Phytochemistry and Bioactivity of Origanum vulgare L. Essential Oil", Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Dec 17;21(24):9653. doi: 10.3390/ijms21249653. PMID: 33348921; PMCID: PMC7765853.