The Chemistry of Essential Oils

The Chemistry of Essential Oils

Chemistry of Oils

First – why are they called essential oils? Olive oil is an oil, is that an essential oil? Also, why are essential oils called ‘oils’ anyway? They don’t feel greasy, and they tend to absorb or evaporate completely, unlike common ‘fixed’ oils, or how they’re commonly referred to in the oily world to, which is a carrier oil (such as olive, grape seed, hazelnut and the like). Essential oils and fixed oils share a similar chemical foundation: their structures are based on the linking of carbon and hydrogen atoms in various configurations. But this is really where the similarity ends.
Fixed oils, or carrier oils, are made up of molecules comprised of three long chains of carbon atoms bound together at one end, called a triglyceride. Every fixed oil is made up of just a few different triglyceride arrangements. Their long-chain shape holds them in a liquid state which does not easily evaporate, which is why when you use coconut oil (for example) as a carrier oil, or just on it’s own, it takes FOREVER to absorb into your skin, and sometime leaves a residue on your skin.

Essential oils are ‘volatile’ oils – oils that DO easily evaporate. They’re chains of carbon atoms to which the hydrogen’s attach are not as long or heavy, and are much more complex. Many essential oil structures are not really chains, but ring- shaped, with some sticking out in various directions. Way more complicated than fixed oils. Some essential oils are made up of more than one hundred distinct organic chemicals. Like vegetable oils, essential oils are lipophillic, or fat-soluble. This makes them able to easily absorb into the skin. Within a few minutes of putting an oil on your skin, there is no residue, or any sign that it was there at all. Remember we discussed that essential oils are volatile, and vegetable oils/fixed oils are not. That is why oils for cooking or massage, such as corn, peanut, sesame seed, safflower, walnut, almond, canola, olive and other oils pressed from seeds are not aromatic. Sure, they have a smell, but you can’t smell them across the room in minutes as one can when you open a bottle of peppermint, hyssop, or cinnamon oil.


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