The art and science of essential oils

Once an essential oil has its hooks into you, you are often charmed for life. It’s no accident that plants mimic animal pheromones, they want to lure you in...

Essential oils are just oils that you can’t live without. Right? While it might feel that way, the term actually comes from the word essence. Here are some other interesting things you might like to know...

What is an essential oil?

Essential oil is the concentrated liquid containing the fragrance compounds of individual flower, tree, herb, spice, shrub, shoot or greenery; the parts of the plant that attract pollinators, deter pests, and essentially, smell nice. But they don’t just smell nice. They’re full of goodness for your mind, body and soul too, and it’s for that reason they’ve been used for centuries for all things from religious incense, to medicine, to food flavouring.

How are essential oils made?

The method used to obtain an oil depends on the flower or plant it is extracted from. Each method yields a slightly different product, either an absolute, concrete, butter or essential oil. There are three main ways to extract an essential oil from its source, these include using: steam, solvents or pressure. For more on this, we've created a specific article on the subject.

What's so great about essential oils?

They can be antifungal, antibacterial and deeply beneficial too if used correctly and in the right amounts. The combination of these oils can be used to add allure and mystery to otherwise bland and pedestrian products. Washing detergent suddenly becomes the fragrance of carnal desire, hair conditioner wraps you in a web of intrigue, posh candles you decorate your house with, waft waves of seductive scent.

We're big on essential oils at Lush which is why you'll find them used in everything from bath bombs to fine fragrance, as experience shows that intoxicating aromas can work wonders on the body, mind and soul. In fact every moisturiser, shampoo and even shaving cream contains a perfume made in-house using exquisite essential oils and safe synthetics to enhance your experience and benefit the skin and hair. Here are just a few of our favourites and the reason why we love them...

Lavender

The name lavender is derived from the latin word meaning ‘to be washed’, because stems of the fragrant flower were traditionally added to baths to perfume the water. The floral, yet earthy aroma of lavender is calming and often added to product formulas to aid relaxation and even sleep.

Neroli

Neroli has long been used to perfume skin, in fact it is thought the name originates from an Italian princess who used the oil to scent herself. The essential oil is distilled from the flowers of the bitter orange tree and delivers a delicate floral scent with hints of fresh citrus that is known to lift moods and ease nerves.

Peppermint

Peppermint was a favourite ingredient of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. As well as being very obviously invigorating, the oil is cooling as well as stimulating on skin and can relieve irritation.

Rose Oil

Rose oil is a commodity that is in high demand thanks to its intoxicatingly rich floral scent that is said to lower the heart rate and alleviate feelings of stress. It takes a large quantity of rose petals to produce even a small amount of oil, which makes it an expensive process - a factor that is reflected in its price. Some rose oil can be found for extremely low prices though, and this discrepancy comes down to quality. Many cheaper oils, when tested, are found to have added chemicals or other, less expensive oils added into them. Read our article on the subject, to discover exactly how and where our high quality rose oil is produced.

How does Lush source its essential oils?

Despite their long history and wonderful benefits, essential oils are for all intents and purposes just another ingredient. They’re everywhere, from the lowest quality detergents to the most revered candles. But, just like other ingredients, there’s a spectrum of quality determined by how they’re grown, made and handled. The better the essential oil, the better it’ll smell in a fragrance, or maybe it’ll feel better when you shower with it. Ensuring that only the highest quality oils from trusted suppliers make it into a Lush product is a task that spans departments and countries. In fact, sourcing ingredients is far more complex than it has ever been, and this is especially the case when it comes to essential oils.

"I have learned over the years that the most important thing to do is to ask for a sample,” Lush buyer Emilia Dudek explains when asked how she determines whether an essential oil is good or not. "Once I have a sample and it’s good enough, I speak to the supplier about our criteria like no animal testing, our pesticides policy and the volume we need.”

Simply establishing a relationship with a producer, however, is just the start of Emilia’s work. She then has to carefully maintain and nurture that relationship, plus anticipate fluctuations in usage. “Just securing the materials when we have new products, puts the usage up month to month,” she continues. “The challenge from our side is that many of these oils are only harvested once a year. So, for example, rose oil is produced in May and June and the roses are processed daily for around four weeks per year only and then you have to tell them, ‘Oh, we need much more.’ It’s difficult to get it out of season both from a quality and price perspective."

Working directly with suppliers and small companies is a priority for Lush and so Emilia spends a lot of time in conversation with these smaller businesses, something she says has distinct advantages. "Smaller companies know everything about the materials they sell because it’s their business, unlike massive companies which source 300 materials and don’t know half of them properly. When you talk to small-scale producers you see their passion."

Buying essential oils has opened Emilia’s eyes to the number of cheap copies on the market. “If you go the supermarket,” she says, “you’ll see labels saying ‘with rose oil’ and it’s only 0.01% of the product but they can put it on the label. We are the opposite, we’ve got so many excellent materials in our products and we don’t say ‘50% argan oil’, we just know that. It hurts me to read ‘rose fragrance’ when a product doesn’t even smell like real roses! My mum loves roses and when I bought her Ro’s Argan body conditioner she said: ‘I never knew roses could smell so nice.’ She just fell in love with it.”

How can Lush be sure of an essential oil's quality?

To make sure the oils are the quality expected, quality control analysts Alina Gliwinska and Nicola Bowman have a collection of control oils; a who’s who of the essential oil world.

Nicola and Alina compare the representative sample to their model essential oil and if things don’t quite match up they investigate further. Enter Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GCMS); a machine that separates the individual volatile compounds in an essential oil to show its chemical make up - a 'fingerprint' that they can compare against the controls.

Alina and Nicola analyse the results and determine possible reasons for variations. And variation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plants like mint come in different shape, sizes and colours and can smell slightly different, but that doesn’t mean these differences are bad or undesirable. Essential oils are natural products, and from the very beginning of the growing process there are things that can affect the yield of a plant. Alina explains: “Everything can have an impact on the quality of an oil. There can be different origins of the materials, or a different type of plant may have been used. Even weather conditions can affect them. If there is a flood or a hurricane, that can affect the product and how much we can get from the crop.”

But, thanks to the two step quality-checking process, and the close relationship that the teams foster with growers and suppliers, it is not often that a batch has to be sent back; perhaps three or four times per year they tentatively suggest. This helps to ensure wastage is minimal, and of course, that products are consistently top rate across the world.

Are essentials oils safe to use?

Quality isn’t just about the best fragrances or effects. Nicola and Alina also ensure that the essential oils, as well as the perfumes made from them, are safe for whatever they are used in. This means ensuring that any allergens are measured and controlled in accordance with IFRA - the International Fragrance Association.

But it’s not just allergens that pose a risk. Essential oils can be dangerous. As natural ingredients there is a fine line between safe and harmful, for example to obtain almond essential oil the deadly poison cyanide must first be separated from the yield. Alina and Nicole are responsible for understanding and regulating the quantities of chemicals in any given oil or perfume.

IFRA regulations are split into 11 different categories based on the purpose of a product and how it interacts with the skin. This means a shower gel and a moisturiser are allowed to contain different qualities of chemicals because one is washed off, while the other is left to soak into skin.

Alina explains: “When we develop new products we quite often have to make changes because the inventors like to be creative and let nothing dampen their creativity. Quite often they don’t look at how expensive they are, or the material used, or how many allergens they have.

“If they make a fragrance and they like it then they give me that information and I will check it if it is meets the regulations. Quite often for example they have a problem with benzyl alcohol. Because benzyl alcohol is one of the synthetics we use, but it also occurs naturally in jasmine, when you put them together you get an amount which is not safe for us to use. When that happens we combine the data, analyse the fragrance and make calculations so we can see how much of a substance we can use in a product to make it as safe as possible.”

So, although essential oils are natural, that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe, high quality or effective - that all depends on how they are grown, made, and handled. Beneath the beautiful blends and alluring aromas, an entire world of science awaits that’s essential to ensuring the essential oils in the products you use everyday are the best they can be.

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