Ancient Egypt: the birthplace of aromatherapy
Aromatherapy first appeared in Egypt and China. While we do not know much about Chinese aromatherapy, the Egyptian documents have managed to outlive many centuries to have the ancient scholars’ knowledge transmitted to us. The oldest document dates back to 4,500 years BC.
In addition to being able to master extraction techniques, they knew about the accurate properties of scents and aromatic substances on the body and mental state.
Furthermore, their knowledge of the antiseptic properties of plants have obviously been revealed by the state of preservation of their mommies.
The Egyptians already knew how to extract essential oils from plants and used them in various fields such as perfumes, pharmacology and embalming.
For the Egyptians, essences also had a strong ritual value and were definitely used for religious ceremonies.
In order to extract the plants’ active principles, they would use 3 techniques which are still in use nowadays: maceration, enfleurage and distillation.
Their knowledge has kept spreading through the ages to the civilized worlds.
French researcher and perfumer R-M Gatefossé was at the origin of the popularity aromatherapy has reached currently.
Anecdotally, when dealing with some slight technical hitch in his lab, R. M. Gatefossé burnt his hands and dipped them immediately in a bowl containing lavender essential oil.
Not only did it immediately relieve his pain, but, to his surprise, the essential oil cured his wound very quickly. From then on, Mr. Gatefossé decided to study essential oils.
Today, the richness and efficiency of essential oils are no longer in doubt for the people who already take advantage of their benefits.
From plants to aromatic molecules…
The plants’ aromatic molecules give them their beneficial properties. The most commonly used process to extract these molecules is water vapor distillation. To this end, the parts of the plant to be distilled are inserted into a still: under the effect of heat, water turns into vapor, which travels through the plants taking away their aromatic molecules. Then, the vapor carrying the aromatic molecules condenses as it travels through a cooling device. When it comes out of the still, thanks to the use of an essence jar, the essential oil is separated from the distillation water – or hydrolate – by gravity.
A few definitions…
An aromatic plant is a plant containing aromatic or fragrant molecules within one or several of its organs.
An essence is a liquid substance rich in aromatic molecules secreted directly by a plant within its producing organs. As for citrus fruit, the essence is directly extracted by expression (a technique consisting in breaking open “essence pockets” to collect essence).
Essential oil (EO)
An essential oil is the result of a water vapor distillation of aromatic plants. Thus, essential oils are distilled essences.
How to use essences?
By atmospheric diffusion
A few drops of essence can be put in a cup or on a handkerchief and left to diffuse under ambient temperature. A diffuser may also be used to warm the essence gently and improve its diffusion. It should be remembered that the best temperature for essences to diffuse is human body temperature.
Essences being concentrated into active principles, it is recommended to comply with the directions for use mentioned for each essence specifically.
Essences are to be kept in a dark, fresh and dry area to avoid any oxidization.