The Egyptian pyramids pay testament to the ancient world’s reverence for essential oils. The Pharaohs were entombed with their wealth in gold, jewels, and precious oils to take with them into the next life. Where the pyramids were broken into over the centuries, the gold and jewels were left behind by thieves in favor of the far more valuable jars of oils.

Ancient medical texts, the famous Egyptian Ebers Papyrus among them, discuss how to anoint the body with essential oils for health, beauty, and to treat a host of diseases and problems. Today we look to science to document the health choices we make… and the oils do not disappoint, though their story is hardly a simple one.

As discussed in Herbs and Essential oils: a comparison, herbs and essential oils can be an invaluable element of natural healing. This week my focus is on the chemistry and the benefits of pure essential oils.

Essential oils are the concentrated form of what is sometimes called the blood of the plant. They are as complex and contain as many different chemicals as our blood – and they are loaded with oxygen. Part of the health impact of essential oils has been attributed to this concentration of oxygen – oxygen which boosts the ability of our cells to metabolize allergens, toxins, or stress and thus supports the health of all the systems of the human body.

Most of the chemicals in an essential oil are considered secondary compounds because they are not vital to the plant’s survival, and science has not been able to determine why plants secrete them. Essential oils are considered volatile liquids since they are made up of light molecules that can evaporate or flash off if a jar is left uncapped. These same light molecules are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, affecting the emotions and assisting with memory and brain function.

Essential oils are not oily – they will not make your hands greasy. Instead, they rub right into the skin. They are called oils because, like oil, they combine with other fats and oils, and do not mix easily with water. In fact, the easiest way to remove an essential oil, if you experience a reaction or you hate the smell, is to dilute it using a pure vegetable oil (such as olive, almond, or jojoba) or even butter. Water will only drive essential oils into the body more strongly.

Essential oils are extremely potent. One drop of peppermint oil is said to have the same potency as 30 cups of peppermint tea. Why are essential oils stronger than herbs? This was touched on in discussing the herb drying process in Herbs and Essential oils: a comparison by opting health. The light liquid molecules in the live herbs which can be distilled to make an essential oil are the first aromatic chemicals to evaporate, along with the water, when plants are dried… which is why dried herbs have so much less aroma than fresh herbs or an oil.