At the Apothecary we are passionate about essential oils. But what are they, how do they work and what does price and quality matter?

Firstly, what we call essential oils are in fact volatile oils from plants, when means that when heated – they evaporate. They are found in the roots {Valerian, Ginger, Vertiver}, leaves (Rosemary, Tea Tree, Manuka, Oregano, Neroli, Pine}, bark {Cinnamon}, resins {Frankincense, Myrrh}, flowers {Chamomile, Rose, Jasmine, Lavender}, fruit {Orange, Lemon, Lime} and seeds {Fennel, Aniseed}. When they get heated they disperse into the air and create a smell to which our brain recognises. As with all smells sometimes these evoke emotion and other times we simply enjoy the aroma and let it drift into our senses. Basically, anything that smells contains a volatile oil.

Volatile oils are extracted by steam distillation – a process whereby the plant material is compacted into a ‘still’ and gently steamed so that the hot water removes the volatile oils from the paint. It is collected via a tube and poured into an awaiting vessel. The water and the oil separates and the oil is left at the top in a concentrated form. It is important to know that there are many kg of plant in a small bottle of essential oil. Basically, essential oils are strong. In fact, many oils will strip paint and glue which makes them not only strong but also handy {Eucalyptus oil is the go-to for getting sticky glue residue off surfaces}. This also makes them good for cleaning as they will strip grease from surfaces {think citrus oils and pine for cleaning}. They are also good for those wanting to avoid the use of artificial fragrances in the home.

So do essential oils work therapeutically in our bodies? There have been many claims made about the effects of Aromatherapy. On the skin the oils can perfuse into the tissue but in reality most of the aroma from skin products goes up your nose and creates a nice perfume when applying. Only a small amount gets absorbed into the skin due to the volatile nature of the oils. Though this is one way to get the benefits of the oils on the skin e.g many acne creams use tea tree oil which has antiseptic and antibacterial properties.

The other way we can use volatile oils is to diffuse them into a room via a heated pad or candle lit bowl – or to use  a steam diffuser. This is the modern method and the one we find the best. Modern diffusers don’t actually heat the oils so they tend to diffuse more evenly throughout the day, rather than all at once. This makes the aroma last a lot longer and means you get more benefits as they also stay in the air longer than the heating or burning method. Several studies have shown more recently that these oils do in fact get into the body via the lungs, and when burnt or diffused they can and will enter the bloodstream having a therapeutic effect. Recently, Rosemary has been shown to enhance some facets of the memory. After begin burnt in a room the users were tested for their memory. Guess what? The Rosemary group showed improvements in some aspects of recall over the non-Rosemary infused group.

One other way we get essential oils into our bodies is by ingesting the herb in a tea or a powder. Think cinnamon powder in your cooking or fennel in your tea – Yum. These levels are safe for the body and don’t tax our mucous membranes. We do not recommend people ingest essential oils internally unless a specific oil is recommended by a qualified practitioner and in New Zealand it is very hard to find an aromatherapist who would recommend this. So please don’t try this at home – remember these oils can strip paint and our own mucous membranes are fatty surfaces too.

Finally and for anything that you buy – quality matters. The way the pant has been grown, collected, stored and processed as well as the way the oil has been extracted mean that some oils are better than others. Oxidation can also occur in volatile oils over time so exposure to oxidants can also render them inactive or rancid. We turn to Zurma to provide us with the highest quality oils in the market. Zurma Botanical Oil Studio, as well as being locally {Christchurch} owned provides us with really good quality oils that we can trust. They source organic where possible and the highest grade where possible. Yes just like your Olive oil {e.g Extra virgin} volatile oils also have a grade. They place the onus onto the growers to make sure that certificates are provided with each batch and if they are not happy with it they will simply send it back and try again.

So please enjoy what we have on offer and come in to have a wee play with our testers. We are quite sure you will find one you love among the 40+ oils we have in store.

Note: Pregnant women and young children must avoid essential oils unless known to be safe for use.

Simone Reddington is the founder of the Apothecary, a Medical Herbalist and thinker. She holds a degree in Psychology and is a professional member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists.