If you love the scent of natural herbs and flowers but want something more subtle than an essential oil, hydrosols can be a good option. A hydrosol is a byproduct of the essential oil distilling process that captures the plant’s essence and therapeutic properties in a more delicate form.
Hydrosols, also known as floral water or herbal distillate, can be used for aromatherapy or as a soothing skincare tonic, room freshener, or laundry spray. You can purchase hydrosols in small spray bottles or make your own using your favorite plants.
In this article, we explore the benefits of hydrosols, the best herbs and flowers to distill, and the easiest way to create your hydrosols at home.
What are Hydrosols?
Hydrosols are one of the two byproducts of the steam distillation of any botanical material, including flowers, leaves, stems, bark, or roots.
The distillation process starts by heating the plant material in water to create steam. As the steam rises, it passes through a condenser, where it cools and condenses back into liquid form. The condensed liquid is comprised of essential oil, which contains concentrated aromatic compounds and floats on the surface of the collected liquid, and hydrosol, the water-based portion of the liquid that contains a milder concentration of aromatic compounds. Together, these two byproducts capture the full essence of the plant material.
The Benefits of Hydrosols versus Essential Oils
While essential oils have a high concentration of volatile compounds that may provide greater potential health-supporting properties of the plant it comes from, you may prefer to use a hydrosol. Compared to essential oils, hydrosols offer the following advantages:
- Versatility: In addition to being used for aromatherapy, hydrosols can be used in skincare routines as toners, facial mists, or in homemade beauty products. Additionally, they can be incorporated into household cleaning solutions, room sprays, or as a refreshing mist for linens and personal spaces.
- Mildness: Because hydrosols have a lower concentration of aromatic compounds compared to essential oils, they are milder and safer to use directly on your skin. If you have sensitive skin, a hydrosol is less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.
- Ready-to-use: Unlike essential oils that require dilution with a carrier oil before you apply them to your skin, hydrosols can be sprayed or rubbed directly on your skin. Be sure to do a skin patch test first.
- Subtle Aroma: Hydrosols possess a delicate and subtle aroma compared to the more concentrated and potent scents of essential oils. If you’re sensitive to strong scents, a natural hydrosol won’t overwhelm you.
- Enhanced Safety: Due to their lower concentration of volatile compounds, hydrosols are generally considered safer for use around children, pets, and individuals with respiratory sensitivities.
- Cost-effectiveness: Hydrosols are typically more affordable than essential oils and offer a cost-effective way to enjoy the benefits of aromatic plants.
Since both hydrosols and essential oils have their own benefits, your choice to use one or the other will depend on personal preference and your purpose for using them.
How You Can Use Hydrosols
There is no scientific data to confirm the health properties of hydrosols, but studies of essentials oils suggest that plants can have a significant impact on both mental and physical health.* Many people enjoy using hydrosols in a variety of different applications:
- Skincare: Hydrosols can be used as facial toners or mists to hydrate, nourish, and revitalize your skin. They can also be used as a mild and fragrant ingredient in homemade beauty and skincare products.
- Aromatherapy: When used in aromatherapy, hydrosols may promote relaxation, uplift the mood, or create a soothing atmosphere.* They can be sprayed in the air or on your body, applied to a damp cloth to hold against your forehead or neck, or used in a diffuser.
- Cooling and refreshing: Hydrosols provide a cooling effect when sprayed on the skin, making them refreshing and invigorating during hot weather or after physical activity.
- Minor skin irritations: Plants with soothing properties, such as chamomile or lavender, make great hydrosols for calming and alleviating minor skin irritations, redness, or itchiness.
- Linen and room fresheners: Hydrosols can be sprayed on pillows, bedsheets, curtains, or in the air as a natural and gentle way to add a fresh scent to the space without the need for overpowering synthetic air fresheners.
- Natural Cleaning: Homemade cleaning solutions scented with hydrosols may increase the solution’s cleaning power while giving you control over the scent you want in your home.
- Hair Care: Certain hydrosols, such as rosemary or lavender, can be used as hair rinses or sprays to promote healthy hair and scalp. They can help condition the hair, add shine, and provide a refreshing aroma.
It's important to note that the quality of hydrosols can vary depending on the source and extraction method, which could affect their efficacy. Look for high-quality, organic hydrosols from reputable suppliers to ensure their purity and potency.
Choosing Herbs and Plants for Hydrosols
As with essential oils, the herbs or plants used in a hydrosol will affect its properties. When selecting a hydrosol, you’ll want to consider the four main factors that determine its effect:
- Aromatic profile: Choose herbs with appealing scents that align with your preferences and intended use.
- Therapeutic properties: Different herbs offer unique therapeutic benefits, so select herbs that address your specific needs.
- Safety and compatibility: Some herbs may not be good for you if you have allergies, take certain medications, or have health conditions, so research their safety guidelines and potential interactions before use. You can use Gaia Herbs’ Herb Reference Guide for a comprehensive review of plants used in Herbalism.
- Availability and Freshness: If you’re making your own hydrosol, look for fresh herbs from reliable sources, or consider growing your own to ensure quality and potency.
How To Make Your Own Hydrosol
If you’re going to make your own hydrosols, you’ll need specific equipment to create a steam distillation process. If you’re really serious, you can invest in a manufactured hydrosol distillation system in stainless steel or copper. You will then follow the instructions that come with the kit.
However, you can also make a hydrosol with the equipment you already have at home. Here’s how.
The Ingredients and Equipment You Need
- Fresh herbs or plant material of your choice
- Distilled or filtered water
- 1 large stockpot with a lid
- 2 heat-resistant glass bowls
- Ice cubes (enough to fill the inverted pot lid several times over)
Prepare the Plant Material:
- Thoroughly wash and clean the herbs or plant material to remove any dirt or impurities.
- Thoroughly wash and dry your pot and bowls with hot soapy water to avoid bacteria growing in the hydrosol.
- Chop or crush the plant material to help release its aromatic compounds.
Assemble the Distillation Setup:
- Place the large pot on the heat source.
- Put one of the glass bowls upside down in the pot.
- Place the plant material at the bottom of the pot around the inverted glass bowl.
- Set your second glass bowl on top of the inverted bowl, right side up.
- Pour filtered or distilled water over the plant material and around the inverted glass bowl, making sure it covers the plant material but doesn’t touch the upper glass bowl.
- Flip the pot lid upside down and place it on top of the pot, making sure it has a tight seal.
Start the Condensation and Collection Process:
- Turn the heat on under the pot to medium-low.
- Fill the inverted pot lid with ice cubes.
- Let simmer for up to several hours. Check inside the pot periodically to make sure the water level stays at the height of the plant material. The heat should be low enough that the plant material doesn’t burn or dry out before you have created hydrosol. When the ice cubes on the lid melt, dump the water and replace the ice.
As the water heats up, it will produce steam that will carry the aromatic compounds from the plant material with it. The steam will rise and hit the bottom of the pot lid, where the ice will cool the steam and force it to condense back into a liquid and drip down into the empty glass bowl as hydrosol.
Once you have enough hydrosol in the glass bowl for your use (this can take up to three hours), turn off the stove and take the glass bowl out of the pot. Let the hydrosol cool. If any oil has collected along the top of the hydrosol, you can mix it in for a more concentrated product or use an oil separator to skim it off and store this essential oil separately.
Store your hydrosol in a sterilized glass jar or spray bottle and keep it in the refrigerator, with a label noting the plant material and date for easy identification. If you don’t have a refrigerator, keep it in a cool, dark place that maintains an even temperature. It should last up to a year. If it develops any sign of mold (white or dark film on top of the hydrosol) before you use it up, throw it away.
Hydrosols will last longer if they don’t have any oxygen in the container (empty space above the liquid). So as the volume in the original bottle goes down, you can transfer the hydrosol to a smaller sterilized container to ensure a longer shelf life.
Popular Herbs for Hydrosols
While there is no shortage of plants that can be used for hydrosols, some of our favorites, based on their wonderful scents and potential health properties, include:
- Lavender: Lavender is one of everyone’s favorite aromas, and lavender hydrosol is renowned for its calming and soothing properties. It may help reduce stress, promote relaxation, and support healthy skin.
- Rose: Rose hydrosol is prized for its luxurious aroma and rejuvenating qualities. It can hydrate the skin and may enhance mood.* While rose-based essential oils have been studied and shown to have antimicrobial properties, rose hydrosol has shown no antibacterial effects.
- Chamomile: Chamomile hydrosol is gentle and is believed to have a positive effect in soothing sensitive or irritated skin. Its calming properties may also help promote sleep when sprayed in a room or on a pillow or used in a diffuser.*
- Peppermint: Peppermint hydrosol has a refreshing and invigorating scent. It may help tighten skin when used as a facial toner and calm itching because of its cooling properties.* It can also be a stimulating hair tonic and may help reduce itchiness and manage dandruff.*
- Rosemary: Rosemary hydrosol is known for its clarifying and stimulating properties. Studies indicate that rosemary essential oil may stimulate hair growth,REF#2219 so using rosemary hydrosol may also support good scalp and hair health as well as invigorate the senses.*
- Lemon balm: Traditionally, lemon balm has been used for its sedative effects. Lemon balm hydrosol may be a good option for use in aromatherapy or body spray to support relaxation.
Customized Herb Blends for Hydrosols
With hydrosols, you don’t have to limit yourself to a single herb or scent. Why not get creative and combine different herbs to create customized hydrosols with unique aromas? Experiment with blending herbs like lavender and chamomile for a relaxing blend, or rosemary and peppermint for an energizing and uplifting hydrosol.
Consider complementary aromas and therapeutic properties when combining herbs to ensure they harmonize well together. Remember to research each herb thoroughly and consider any potential allergies or sensitivities before using them in your hydrosol blends.
Start with small quantities and adjust ratios based on desired intensity. If you’re making your own hydrosols, it can be fun to experiment and develop a hydrosol that is uniquely your own.
- 1. , "Rosemary oil vs minoxidil 2% for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia: a randomized comparative trial", Skinmed, January-February 2015. 1 1. , "Rosemary oil vs minoxidil 2% for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia: a randomized comparative trial", Skinmed, January-February 2015.