by Kelley White, Whatcom Talk, July 12, 2023
One of the best ways to improve quality of life is to stay educated, especially in products used on a daily basis. Emily Mitchell, owner and operator of Em’s Herbals in Bellingham, sat down to help clarify the difference between essential oils and infused oils, products closely associated with daily holistic care routines.
“Essential oils are a concentrated extract of a plant in a way that uses different methods of extraction,” says Mitchell. “Basically, you are extracting the volatile oils out of the plant. The volatile oils are what give the plant its smell. Essential oils are volatile oils that are basically evaporating from the plant into the air.”
There are quite a few unique methods used to extract these oils, depending on the plant in play, with the most popular being steam distillation. As essential oils are, in essence, ultra-concentrated material from the plant, the extraction requires a large volume of the plant as a whole.
“Essential oils are concentrated chemical compounds,” Mitchell says. “There are comparatively small amounts of volatile oils in the plant, but they can create a really potent smell, so they’re very strong in small amounts. To get an ounce of essential oil you need about 25 pounds of plant.”
Steam distillation heats the water to create steam, which then carries the essential oil particles along with the water molecules into the air. After they are airborne, the volatile oils and water molecules are separated, and the oil is collected.
“For some things, like oranges and lemons, there’s a lot of essential oil in the peel and they do a cold press to extract the oil,” says Mitchell. “For other plants, they need a chemical extraction and hexane may be used for those. They say hexane is food-grade so hexane would be used as a solvent and would, in theory, evaporate out of the essential oils after extraction, but that’s not always true. The hexane can cause extreme skin irritation and definitely shouldn’t be taken internally.”
Mitchell emphasizes the importance of understanding which type of extraction method is used in your oils as it makes a difference with how your body can react. “When it is recommended ‘don’t use directly on your skin, topically,’ the reason is to avoid the extreme irritation that hexane, or other caustic materials in the essential oils themselves, can cause.”
Essential oils can be very beneficial when used in aromatherapy. Mitchell notes this method of using the oils creates the opportunity for the oil to bond with olfactory receptors in the nose with a straight path to the brain. “There’s nothing that evokes memory like smells, and different essential oils have different therapeutic effects,” she says. “Lavender has a very calming effect, for example. I want to emphasize that these essential oils are concentrated chemical constituents that are extracted from the plant.”
The process of infusing oils requires steeping the plant over a period of time to properly imbue the plant’s benefits. “A plant has a broad spectrum of constituents—or ingredients and chemicals—and they all work together,” Mitchell says. “Nature has intelligence. Plants were here long before we were, and the innate intelligence of plants is amazing. By infusing oils into a carrier oil for topical use, all the plant’s benefits may be utilized, not just the volatile oils.”
When essential oils are extracted, most of the plant material is left unused. When oils are infused, the entire plant soaks into the oil for three weeks or three months, depending on the type of plant and process required.
“We use organic sunflower oil and jojoba oil,” says Mitchell. “Sunflower oil has a lot of essential fatty acids that are really good for the skin, and jojoba oil has been called the ‘skin’s twin’ as it has the same pH of the skin and matches the skin’s natural sebum.” This is what make infused oils such a great addition to lotions and body care items, such as salt scrubs and home made moisturizing oils.
Infusing oils allows for the use of the whole plant and is also nontoxic. “We press out that plant material and we’re left with an infused oil, so you have all the properties and the benefits of the whole plant in a liquid form that you can now apply topically, safely,” says Pacheco.
At Em’s Herbals you’ll find products such as lavender, chamomile, arnica, calendula, and comfrey leaf-infused oils. “Comfrey leaf is great for tissue and skin repair. We also have calendula, which is antibacterial and wound healing,” Pacheco says. “We’ve also got arnica, which has helenium in it, an anti-inflammatory.”
Comfrey leaf is one of their most popular infused oils among customers, with several touting its amazing results. “Comfrey leaf has been used to repair broken bones. It also has something called epithelial growth factor in the leaf where it actually generates new skin cell growth, so it’s very healing,” says Mitchell. “Many customers give me feedback about tissue repair like rotator cuff repairs or joints or tendons; they swear by the fact that it has given them relief.”
All plants used in their infusion process are either locally grown or sourced from the Pacific Northwest. Visit the Em’s Herbals website to find your natural pathway to relief.