The complexity of essential oil chemistry reveals an elegance that is nothing short of astounding. Learning something of their complex nature provides greater insight into how essential oils can affect you. Different compounds produce different effects on the physical, emotional, mental and etheric bodies. So learning about this chemistry can help you to use them safely and effectively.
Though an in-depth study of essential oil chemistry is beyond the scope of this article, we can cover some of the basics here as well as a few of the highlights. Delving deeper into this fascinating topic would be well worth your efforts. I’d recommend reading The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple by David Stewart - an excellent book written for the layman. Additional books are listed on the
resource page of this site.
Physically, essential oils are made up primarily of the elements - Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. The secondary elements consist of Potassium, Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Chlorine with a few trace elements thrown in - Iron, Zinc, Selenium, Iodine, Bromine, and Fluorine.
The primary elements form a wide variety of compounds that fall basically into two family groups – Hydrocarbons and Oxygenated Compounds.
The hydrocarbons are molecule compounds of only hydrogen and carbon atoms arranged in chains that form the family of terpenes:
However, within essential oil chemistry, each functional family of compounds is known to have specific therapeutic effects. For example:
Essential oil chemistry is quite complex! Every oil contains an amazing array of aromatic molecules. However, these functional families of harmonious molecules manifest coherency rather than chaos. Although one or two chemical groups may predominate in a given oil, all of the compounds together create an interplay of dazzling complexity perhaps resulting in an entirely different ‘net’ effect.
Dr. Stewart illustrates this point beautifully in The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple. He writes this about the essential oil chemistry of Myrrh, which he calls ‘the Rule-Breaker’:
“A particularly interesting oil is myrrh. It contains many compounds that are individually toxic, yet myrrh is one of the safest, mildest, gentlest oils in nature. Myrrh contains more furanoid compounds [a type of Ester-Lactone] than any other oil. Furanoid compounds can amplify ultraviolet light and can make an oil phototoxic – i.e., causing sunburn and skin damage when exposed to UV sources following application. Yet myrrh is actually a sunshield, protecting one from the sun. Egyptians used it for that purpose for thousands of years. Myrrh also contains phenols and ketones, compounds which are greatly feared by many aromatherapists of the British school. Myrrh is also unique in that it contains traces of certain acids, like acetic and formic. Formic acid is the poison that causes the painful burning and stinging from man insect bites. Myrrh also contains up to 3% xylene which is listed in the top three toxic compounds environmental engineers look for in hazardous waste sites. But as a constituent in myrrh, it is harmless. Single component studies would contraindicate the use of myrrh except in highly diluted applications. However, those who use pure therapeutic grade myrrh know that despite its intimidating chemistry, it is harmless and possesses many wonderful therapeutic qualities. Myrrh illustrates how chemical compounds that are dangerous alone can be safe and beneficial in the company of other compounds that mitigate their harsh personalities. Despite all of its unruly and potentially harmful components, myrrh also contains 60-80% terpenes – compounds well known for their coordinating, mitigating, and quenching qualities. ”
A therapeutic grade essential oil may be made up of hundreds or even thousands of different molecules. A fairly simple essential oil may contain anywhere from 80 to 300 different chemical constituents. An oil like lavender is quite complex. Though many of an oil's compounds occur in minute quantities - they all contribute important qualities imparting synergy to its therapeutic effects.
Because the chemistry of pure essential oils retains the original healing intent of the plants from which they derive, they manifest an ability to organize and balance our vibrational energies. If our bodies are out of balance and experiencing illness or dysfunction, the oils serve to restore order and balance – or homeostasis - to our various systems.
These biospiritual allies ‘know’ how best to in-form healing intentions. The subtle synergy within their complex chemistry allows a vast range of expression. If one compound exerts too strong an effect in one direction, another compound may block or counteract it – as illustrated with the example of myrrh.
Certain aromatic molecules in an oil may be very stimulating — both psychologically and physically. But, the same essential oil may also contain compounds that are calming and sedating, which may help to overcome anxiety or hyperactivity.
These healing allies tend to go only where they're needed, and provide only the action needed to help restore the body's natural balance. The same oil may have significantly different effects on a person from one application to the next, depending on their need at the time. This quality essential oils makes aromatherapy very safe.
Contrast this to oils adulterated with synthetic chemicals, which often interrupt the body's homeostasis, forcing an action based upon the chemical's make-up, not on what the body needs.
It's possible to duplicate these chemical compounds in laboratories and blend them together creating something that may smell like an essential oil. But scientists have yet to duplicate the therapeutic effects of a therapeutic-grade essential oil. Knowing what you now know about essential oils, I bet you can guess why.
Essential oils have historically been used for thousands of years to heal and support life-affirming practices. They are used regularly to this day in clinics and hospitals in Europe as well.
However, within the last couple of hundred years essential oils have gradually been replaced with chemical synthetics for healing purposes. These synthetics are chemical compounds produced more cheaply and in larger quantities than the pure grade essential oils.
But what is the true cost of these synthetic substances? What price might we really be paying with a ‘magic bullet’ approach to healing?
For instance, many essential oils are very effective in killing microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. And because the essential oil chemistry is so complex, the microorganisms can’t develop resistance to them by mutating – there are too many different chemical factors to overcome.
Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, states in his book Advanced Aromatherapy, The Science of Essential Oils, that “essential oils have a 95% success potential against infections. A century of research and evaluation has confirmed that essential oils are effective antimicrobial agents and they don’t have the side effects that accompany antibiotics. This is not surprising given the fact that antibiotics have weakened our immune systems producing resistant germs. Even conventional medicine readily admits that we have created a nightmare by overusing antibiotics. Frequent use causes microorganisms to build up a resistance to the antibiotics.”
Many of our synthetic drugs today carry potentially serious side effects.We spend billions of dollars every year to counteract these unwanted complications.
But essential oils represent a gentle, supportive approach to healing. Because of their chemical structure, they’re metabolized in the cells like other nutrients. Essential oils are volatile and evaporate quickly. So, unlike many synthetic drugs they don’t accumulate in the body. The remarkable qualities of essential oil chemistry make the oils a safe and natural alternative for healing the body.
Essential Oils and Aromatherapy > Essential Oil Chemistry