Good Scents: Nature’s Essential Oils and Hydrosols

Good Scents: Nature’s Essential Oils and Hydrosols

by Kathryn Gassaway, Vendor-Contributor, Plantopia Gifts The Mid-Week Madeira Beach Morning Market

The most common question I am asked, while vending my pure botanical products at local fresh markets, is about the essential oils and hydrosols that I sell.  The question is: “What are these and how do you use them?”  So when I was asked to write a column for the Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market Newsletter, the subject matter was already pre-determined.


The most simplistic answer is that essential oils are the oils that are extracted from plants.  There are various methods of extraction.  The two most common methods being cold pressed or steam distilled.  Hydrosols are the water that is extracted from the plants and is a by product of the steam distillation process.  If the water is extracted from a flower, such as rose petals, it is commonly referred to as floral water.  As to the second part of the question: “How do you use them?”  That is a question that has been asked, studied and researched for literally 1000’s of years.  This month’s article focuses on the history of aromatherapy and some of the amazing people and cultures that discovered the many uses for essential oils.

The use of aromatic plants and their oils have been traced back to the Vedic literature of India and the Yellow Empire’s Book of Internal Medicine from China.  Both of which date back to 2000 BC.   Most of us are familiar with tales of Cleopatra (69BC-30BC) bathing in rosewater and anointing herself with exotic resins and plant oils.  But the first records of the Egyptians using aromatics came from the Papyrus manuscripts during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, 2800 BC.  In Pakistan, archeological discoveries by Dr. Paolo Rovesti in 1975, recorded finding a distillation apparatus made of terracotta.  It was displayed in the museum of Taxila and was dated to the year 3000 BC.

Moving forward in history, Hippocrates, “the Father of Medicine”, recorded prescribing perfumed fumigations for patients in Greece around 490 BC.   The “Three Wise Men” brought Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The Arab scholar and physician Avicenna (AD 980-1037) is credited with inventing the first refrigerated coils.  This was a huge advancement in the distillation of essential oils and hydrosols.  Making the process faster and more efficient reduced cost and made them more widely available.

During The Middle Ages aromatic herbs were cast across floors to kill odors and purify homes.  Tiny bouquets of flowers and herbs were carried and sniffed through out the day to protect against infectious diseases, like the plague.  By the 16th century floral waters and essential oils could be purchased from apothecaries.  In the early 19th century, during the scientific revolution, chemists for the first time could not only distill essential oils, but they could identify, separate and name the individual constituents of the oils.  For example: menthol is one of many beneficial chemicals that can be found in varying concentrations in several essential oils, such as, spearmint, peppermint and pennyroyal.

The term “Aromatherapy” was coined in 1928 by a French chemist, Rene Maurice Gattefosse.  While working for his family’s perfumery, he had an accident that resulted in a severe burn.  It was his discovery, of the healing powers of lavender essential oil, which led him to studying the therapeutic effects of different essential oils.  In a time when many chemists were striving to become famous for isolating the active ingredients of essential oils and trying to create new and cheaper synthetic ones, Gattefosse dedicated his life’s work to studying the therapeutic effects of using essential oils in their purest natural form.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Jean Valnet used essential oils in the treatments of his patients for medical as well as psychiatric disorders.  His successful treatments and discoveries were published in “Aromatherapie”.  Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968) was instrumental in establishing credibility to the aromatherapy industry.  She constructed the first aromatherapy clinics in Paris, Britain and Switzerland.  In the world of cosmetics and anti-aging serums, she is credited with being a pioneer in using essential oils in cosmetics for their rejuvenating effects on the skin.  During a time when essential oils were primarily used only for their fragrance properties in cosmetics and perfumes her research and the documentation of her findings was groundbreaking in its day.   “The Secret of Life & Youth” published in 1964 highlighted her research findings.

Today aromatherapy is widely accepted as a complex and comprehensive natural form of therapy.   Modern science has provided us with a plethora of information on the therapeutic properties of 100’s of essential oils.  Organizations like the International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA) have helped to standardize quality guidelines and training requirements for aromatherapists.  Essential oils have recently gained a resurgence of popularity for home and personal use due to studies published on the adverse effects of synthetic and artificial fragrances.

Next month’s topic: “Methods of Application”!

Kathryn Gassaway

Plantopia Gifts

Natural Botanicals For

Body, Bath & Home



2 thoughts on “Good Scents: Nature’s Essential Oils and Hydrosols

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