Those mysterious little brown bottles used to be found only in health food stores–and were usually stocked next to other mysterious little bottles. But today, volatile organic compounds, which the layperson knows as essential oils, are found in drugstores, supermarkets and even in discount department stores nationwide.
But what are essential oils, exactly?
Just as with the question of what, exactly, aromatherapy is, the term “essential oil” means different things to different people. To a botanist an essential oil is a volatile organic liquid extracted from plant material.
To someone who embraces a more esoteric approach to aromatherapy, though, the answer will more likely run along the lines of, “An essential oil is the life force of the plant from which it was taken.” Or, as a well-known aromatherapy author puts it, “Essential oils are the essence of any fragrant plant.”
One thing essential oils are not, however, are oils. Despite the “oil” part of their names, the vast majority of essential oils contain no appreciable amounts of lipids at all.
But essential oils do seem to be important to their plants. Some of the roles essential oils are believed to play include:
- Attracting pollinators
- Allelopathic competition
- Predator defense
- Disease prevention
But can they really spur healthy changes in our bodies? A growing body of scientific research seems to suggest that they can.