by Pallas Hutchison
Disclaimer: This post is meant for educational purposes only. It is not meant to treat or diagnosis any condition and is not intended as a replacement for diagnosis by a licensed medical professional.
The reason essential oils work lies in their molecular structure. The specific chemical make up of each oil varies, as does the healing properties and suggested uses. The primary components are terpenes and phenylpropane derivatives. Various forms of terpenes and higher homologues (molecules based on terpenes) are the active ingredients in essential oils. Isoprenes consist of five carbon atoms and are the building blocks of terpenes. Terpenes, chains of isoprenes, form complex molecules similar to hormones in the body, making the impact on the body understandable. Phenylpropane, as a byproduct of amino acid metabolism, is crucial to protein production.
This figure compares perillyl alcohol to limonene. Limonene is found in many citrus essential oils and common food items. "Perillyl alcohol stands out as effective against human pancreatic cancer, colon, liver to reduce vein graft intimal hyperplasia, as chemopreventive against colon carcinogenesis, prostate and lung cancer." (Brudnak)
Other chemical components of essential oils include alcohols, esters, phenols, aldehydes, ketones and oxides. These chemicals are oxygen-based, which creates a positive/negative charge when bonded with the carbon-based terpenes. The charge, or polarization, makes it more reactive. The chemical compounds are affected by the distillation process as well as plant quality, causing the potency and exact chemical make-up to vary from batch to batch.
The quality of the oil deserves some research prior to making any purchases; inferior quality oils, especially those diluted with a carrier oil, won't have the same constituents and will go rancid over time. Some oils, such as ylang ylang, are available in three grades, varying in quality depending on when they are removed from the distillation process. The oil removed in the beginning is marked "extra" and has the highest concentration and quality, which the price will reflect. Grades 1, 2 & 3 get progressively lower in quality and cost as they are removed later in the distillation process.
The biggest difference between pharmaceuticals and essential oils for healing are the side effects, or lack of. Synthetic medications come with a host of warnings, side effects and contraindications. Essential oils are natural substances that, when used properly, enhance and support the body with significantly less dangerous side effects. Existing conditions should be considered, as well as any medications. Some oils are caustic and may irritate the skin if applied 'neat' or undiluted. For example, citrus oils increase photo-sensitivity and should therefore not be applied prior to an out-door excursion.