Essential Oils & Preservatives

Essential OilsTo find the specific properties and applications of individual essential oils, I recommend visiting a page like AuraCacia’s Rather than list singular properties I would like to talk a bit about using essential oils in your body- and home-products.

What are they? A saleslady at La Bottine aux Herbes told me that all essential oils are three things:

1). Not oils. They do not contain fatty acids, and hence, they are not really oils.

2). Volatile. This is why they are also called ethereal oils.

3). Antiseptic.

She also said that all essential oils are obtained through steam distillation: the plant material is put into a distiller, steam is applied to it, and then the steam infused with the plants’ essence rises, condenses and trickles out a pipe that separates the water from the “essential oils,”  which are extremely concentrated. It can take an enormous amount of plant material to extract just a little bit of oil – all depending on the composition of the plant and which part of it you use. Certain flowers, like jasmine, are not steam-distilled at all, but rather, their essences are obtained through a process called solvent extraction (the material is mixed with a solvent, like alcohol, and then the solvent is distilled). I believe there are several reasons for this. The first being the amount of plant material needed, the second being that certain flowers (again, like jasmine) cannot support the high heat required for steam-distillation, or if they do, the smell is altered through the process (like roses). Oils obtained through this method are often referred to as “absolutes” and they are often extremely pricey (20-30$). If they aren’t, it’s because they have been diluted, but then it should say so on the bottle, like the one I have:

It’s important to get quality oils, but if you don’t have oodles of cash keep that option in mind. The same saleslady advised me that if you are getting an absolute primarily for its scent, then a diluted flower essence can be just as effective, because the smell is usually very strong.

Where do they come from? Essential oils can be distilled from fruits, mostly citrus; from herbs or plants; from flowers, the petals and bud; from trees, both the leaves and the wood; and from seeds, like pepper and anise seeds. I find it helpful to consider the plant origin of your essential oils, not only because of their inherent properties  but also for creating a scent profile.

Why use them? Each essential oil usually has a host of medicinal properties and uses, and you can use them to complement and/or heighten the existing medicinal properties of your product. Of course, you can create a product just to carry your essential oils (carrier oils!), because essential oils cannot be used on their own, or applied directly on the skin, and can rarely, if ever be ingested (one exception being peppermint oil). Essential oils are naturally antiseptic, and some particularly so, like tea tree oil. Many can also be used to prolong the shelf-life of and protect your product.  And of course, they can be used solely for their smell.

How to use and keep them? If you use essential oils in a product make sure to always add it in at the end, after the heating stage. Although the shelf-life of essential oils is long, they should still be kept in dark glass bottles in a dark, cool place. I keep mine in the fridge. They can go bad. It takes a long time, but it happens. Citrus oils are photosensitive, so never use them for face creams or sunscreen, and keep your oils out of the sun (of course).

Classification: essential oils exist in all plants, so it is not always necessary to use essential oils to obtain the plants properties. You can also make an infusion or maceration. It will not be as potent as the essential oil, but it will be milder, and of course, also carry the properties of the carrier oil. In the case of expensive essential oils, it can be a good alternative. But if you like the scent of a particular flower, it may be worth it to buy a bottle, even a diluted version (as I explain above) because you will never extract the essence of roses through an infusion in your kitchen. I have tried, trust me. If you have a good nose, you may detect roses in your oil, but it will disappear quickly, especially if you intend to mix it with other butters or oils. In the case of citrus, the rinds of lemons, oranges and grapefruit is rich in oils, and since the fruits are relatively inexpensive, making your own citrus infused oil is rather easy and satisfactory.

Usually essential oils are categorized by their chemotype. An essential oil contains the various components of the plant’s chemical composition. Together these components create the plant’s (and consequentially its essential oil) distinctive smell or its perfume if you will. The dominant component determines the oil’s chemotype, and is usually responsible for its smell. The chemotype should be indicated on the bottle. For example, the chemotype of lemon-oil is limonene; the chemotype of lavender is linalool. Limonene is described as smelling strongly of lemon, or citrus, and linalool is described as a spicy floral. Lush uses both of these molecular components heavily in their products and labels them as “existing naturally in essential oils,” which is true. But they are not essential oils, and they have also been identified as possible skin irritants. Just FYI…

Preservatives: When making all-natural body-care products it can be wise to consider adding some type of preservative. Especially if you want to sell your products. Luckily there are a number of all natural options that don’t include parabens or other carcinogens. Vitamin E is often considered a preservative, because it can extend the shelf-life of oils. Because it has its own beneficial properties (it’s vitamin E!) for the skin, it is a popular additive. But remember, it is not a preservative per se – it keeps your oils from going rancid too quickly.

Grapefruit seed extract (GSE) is an all-natural preservative, extracted from the seed of the grapefruit. Some say it is about as effective as praying, but if you compare it to chemically processed preservatives that make a lotion last for ten years, it probably is. Who wants a ten year old lotion anyways? Grapefruit seed extract is described as a natural anti-microbial, but like I said, it will not make anything last for years. The way I understand it, the general shelf life of all-natural products containing moisture and/or organic matter (such as fruit) is about a month, tops, if you keep it in the fridge. Balms and salves that do not contain water can last much, much longer. Up to a year, especially if kept sealed in a dark dry place. Adding a few drops of an antimicrobial is never a bad idea, especially if your product is in a tin, or an open container.

Just like GSE, which is a citrus fruit extraction, citrus oils have antimicrobial properties. As, I mentioned above, limonene is added to almost all of Lush’s products, the ones that don’t contain parabens. This is why I am starting to think that it functions a bit like a preservative. I would just stick to GSE if you are looking for a preservative. If you add lemon oil for its antimicrobial properties, just remember, it is photosensitive, so don’t put it in a day-time face cream, or a body lotion. (the same reason your hair bleaches when sprayed with lemon juice).

Tea tree oil is often used as a preservative due to its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. It smells very piney and strong, so use carefully. Specific uses for tea tree include healing skin problems, like dandruff, eczema, psoriasis etc. or in deodorant (because it is anti-fungal and bacterial Tea tree is an excellent oil to use in your deodorant.

Production: the best way to make sure your product lasts to its full ability, is to only work clean. Like they say in kitchens – clean, clean, clean. I don’t mean hose your kitchen in bleach. Just make sure your work area is clean and that there is no cross contamination. If you are making lotion for yourself, I see no need to go out an buy a whole set of kitchen ware to whip up some body butter. Just keep your bowls clean. Easy! If you are making product for others, I would suggest buying some stuff to use exclusively for body products. Not because it’s less gross, but you will get annoyed when your boyfriend leaves egg to dry in your special Pyrex bowl. Trust me.

Storage. The best way to preserve your products is to store them properly, sealed in a clean dark jar or bottle, in a cool, dark place. Like your fridge. If it’s winter, and your place isn’t warmer than 20 Celsius you can probably get away with keeping them in a cupboard.


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