At the 2013 International Herb Symposium, I attended herbalist Cathy Skipper’s workshop on essential oils. Cathy trained and now teaches at the ‘Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Médicinales‘ in France.
I didn’t know much about essential oils and was curious to learn more. I was impressed by the oils and by Cathy for three reasons in particular: First, before talking about the uses of the essential oils, she talked about the plants, about how much is needed to produce any oils and the importance that harvesting and processing is done sustainably. Second, she advised that anyone interested in using essential oils spend at least a month researching the source and the company they choose before beginning to use them. And finally, after we passed around several essential oils to smell, I had to leave because the intensity of the smells gave me a headache. Essential oils, I concluded, were not something to dabble in and, until I had the time to do more than that, I decided it was safest to leave them alone.
Since I don’t use them often, I don’t know much about the industry and about sourcing and the supply chain in particular. But because essential oils are increasingly popular and because they have such a tremendous impact on plant populations, I decided I needed to begin learning more. This interview with Cathy Skipper is the first in that exploration.
As with other interviews shared on this blog, my goal is to present a diverse collection of perspectives and voices to help you get the information needed to make the decisions that work best for you. My choices might not be your choices. But if you purchase remedies made from plants, including essential oils, I believe it is crucial that you educate yourself enough to make an informed choice, for your own health and for that of planet. See more on the Sustainable Herbs Project here. And for a great overview of similar issues in sourcing plants for the herb industry read interviews with Josef Brinckmann of Traditional Medicinals and Sebastian Pole of Pukka Herbs.
How Essential Oils are Made:
Ann: I was very impressed by your recommendation that anyone interested in using essential oils spend a month studying them. That gave me pause! To me, it feels easier – and safer – to dabble with using herbal teas and tinctures for healing, than with essential oils. But often, people talk about herbs and essential oils interchangeably, as if they are basically the same thing. Can you explain the key differences between them in how they work in the body and should be used in healing? What are the times when an essential oil is needed and when is it more suitable to use teas, tinctures, and other forms of (more?) traditional herbal medicine?
Cathy: Herbs and essential oils are different tools in an herbalist’s toolbox. They both obviously originate with the plant but do not have the same function medicinally. Tinctures and teas are extracted through a maceration process in ethanol and water respectively. The active parts (secondary metabolites) that have an affinity with the vehicle used to extract are then found to some degree or another in the preparation.
Essential oils are made by a completely different process. They are produced with a still in a process known as steam distillation.* In steam distillation, through the contact with heat and water, the plant’s essences are transformed from the plant essences into what are known as essential oils. Steam passes through the plants and breaks the pockets containing the plant’s essences, carrying with it the lightest molecules. Steam can only carry light volatile molecules (with a maximum of 20 carbons (diterpenes)), which means that essential oils do not contain any of the heavier, non-aromatic molecules that may be found in teas and tinctures such as tannins, mucilage, and alkaloids. Conversely, although teas and tinctures can contain aromatic molecules, they do so in minute quantities compared to the concentrated amounts in essential oils.
The term essential oils can be confusing as they are not oils or greasy. However they are lipophilic, meaning that they have an affinity for oily substances and blend well with them in contrast to water, which they don’t blend well with at all and instead just float on the surface.
Essential Oils as Part of the Herbal Tool Box
As an herbalist I have a tool box containing herbal teas, tinctures, flower essences, essential oils, gemmotherapy macerats, hydrosols, balms, etc. None of these tools are really interchangeable. Each has its role and I use them alone or side-by-side, depending on the individual patient. I tend to use essential oils when I need a speedy action to try and curb infection, for example, as the powerful anti-infectious molecules such as phenols and montoterpenols will be the tool that best fits this job. I will also use a specific essential oil, for example, if working on a particular state or emotion that needs help to express itself, neroli for grief that needs to be acknowledged, for example. These are two very different uses and I will adjust the dosage and treatment method accordingly, the situation where infection is present may very well merit a short internal dosage whereas with the neroli it may simply be enough for the patient to smell the essential oil from the bottle.
Likewise with infection an herbal tea or tincture could be also added to the prescription. An example of this may be in a respiratory infection, where an herbal tea with pectoral and mucilaginous plants may also support the body if there is inflammation and coughing or a tincture of liver supporting plants in order to help the organism support the essential oil treatment and process any toxins originating from the infection.
Just like a craftsperson, I choose the tool or a combination of tools that I need at any one time, all the tools fit the theme (plant medicine healing) but their specialties differ depending on the form of extraction or processing the plant underwent and thus the molecules they contain and their strength and mode of action.
More about How Essential Oils are Produced:
Ann: I know that essential oils are incredibly potent. Can you say a bit more about how that happens?
Cathy: I have mentioned this a little bit above, but to go into more detail, a huge amount of plant material is needed to start with, ranging from around 7000 tons of Melissa officinalis, on one hand being one of the lowest yielding plants, and 7 kilos of dried clove buds on the other, being one of the highest yielding. The plant matter is either distilled fresh or pre-wilted for a time to help evaporate part of the plant’s water content, although woody plant parts are often dried for three weeks or so before distilling. A fire is made to heat the boiler, which holds the water that will create the steam, the plant material is positioned at least 10 cms’s above the water in the lower part of the still. Some distillers use the dried out plant matter that is left over from previous distillations to fire the still, this prevents the need for buying or cutting wood.
The quality of water is vital if the hydrosol is going to be used therapeutically because the steam that captures the aromatic molecules is produced from this water.
The water boils, steam is generated, this rises and passes through the plant matter bursting the pockets, canals and glands where the essences are contained, the essences are carried with the steam upwards where they go through the goose head lid and into a ‘lentil’ in French. I can’t find the translation in English but it is a dish shaped vessel on top of the condensation spiral full of cold water that creates the condensation where the gas now converts into liquid, the liquid continues down the serpentine, a copper spiral measuring around 6 metres (depending on the size of the still) that is in a vessel of cold water, the liquid cools down and exits the still into a decantation vase, in most cases (not cloves though) the essential oil is lighter in density than the water and so floats on the top of the hydrosol. The two can be drained off using little taps at different levels of the decantation vessel.
Ann: This sounds so complex – much more so than simply filling a jar with fresh plant material and covering it with alcohol! And it is also a lot more plant material. Where do most of these plants come from? What are the key issues relating to sourcing plant material for essential oils?
Cathy: This question is one that is really important, different essential oils require different amounts of plant material. Take white fir (Abies concolor), which is more or less in the middle, 500 kgs of plants are needed for 1 liter. These are huge quantities and essential oils are becoming more and more popular, they are not just used for medicine but for cosmetics, bath and shower products, cleaning products, food flavoring, and agricultural treatments for example.
I personally believe it is important not to lose touch with their origins: these plant essences come from the secondary metabolites that plants make to fend off pathogens, attract pollinators, deal with extreme weather conditions, they provide us with concentrated plant medicines, but at what cost to the plant?
I live in France and so for sourcing, I always buy the locally produced essential oils from small ‘artisanal’ distilleries, making hand-crafted oils, this way it is possible to visit the distiller, get to know him and how he works and for me, most importantly to get a sense of his attitude and relationship with the plants.
I say ‘most importantly for me’ for several reasons:
- Ecologically, given the volume of plants needed to make a small quantity of essential oil, it is very important that the harvest is carried out with care and respect for the plant and that the harvest takes into consideration the need of the plant to regenerate and multiply for future growth.
- As essential oils are used for healing, I do not understand how we can consider using anything other than organically grown or wild-crafted plants. And with wild-crafting, it is crucial that the harvester choose harvesting areas free from road and agricultural pollution.
- A point that is very important to me personally is the care and sensitivity of the harvester towards the plant, what is the relationship the harvester has to the plants themselves, does the harvester see them as living beings and is he or she aware that not just the plant molecules but the energy that went into every stage in their preparation, such as the attitude the harvester had towards the plants when picking, the thought he or she was thinking etc. will have an implication in the final product?
It is important that essential oils are distilled slowly and for as long as is needed to extract the plant’s ‘aromatic totum’, that is the full possibility of aromatic molecules contained in the plant. As we saw above, only the volatile, aromatic molecules are distilled and it is important for the whole of this part of the plant molecules i.e. the aromatic fraction, to be collected by the steam. This means that what is called the ‘head’ of the distillation (the lightest molecules), the heart (middle phase and what will give the body of the essential oil), and the tail (the heaviest molecules) are all collected by the steam. This takes time. With some thyme chemotypes, it may take less than an hour to obtain three quarters of the volatile molecules and another hour and a half to distill the rest. Because heating and time cost money, some distillers may cut the distillation off before the end. Therapeutically the essential oil in question will not be complete. In aromatherapy, even the molecules present in tiny amounts add to the synergy of the oil and therefore to its action and so cutting the time short impacts the efficacy of the oil.
Aromatic Medicine by Patrice de Bonneval and Cathy Skipper is available for purchase in the US and UK.
When buying exotic oils originating from other countries, it is more difficult to be sure of about the sustainability of the plants and how they are treated from the time of harvest to the finished product. It is important to be sure they are organically certified and for countries where there is no certification, to make sure there is some form of guarantee regarding traceability. Here in France, many of the smaller distillers work in partnership with a distiller from elsewhere, Madagascar for example, and in this way the quality can be guaranteed as distillers usually know each other, have visited, have links and can thus know about the distillation, harvesting methods and general philosophy of the producer.
Essential Oil Use in the US
Ann: In your workshop, you mentioned differences in how essential oils are used in France and in the US. Could you say something more about that?
I see on social media and I talk a little with my great friend Jade Shutes (president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy – NAHA) about the situation in the States and essential oils. People who know me, know I love America and Americans, but on the question of essential oils, I am knocked to the ground by the method of selling and exploiting these precious plant medicines and by the conflict that seems to exist within the aromatherapy world itself. It makes me very sad.
I think as humans and above all healers we have to be very clear about the tools we use. I believe plant medicine is based on a relationship between the plant, the healer and the person needing healing. It is a three-way relationship.
If the plants that are harvested for the essential oils have been done so in a ‘profit above all’ attitude and have not been recognized for their aliveness, their preciousness and their key role in the next step, which is healing, there are several implications. The first is that the essential oil will hold the memory of the plant’s treatment and the motivation of the people that had a role in all the stages before and including the distillation, i.e if the main motivation was ‘harvest as much plant matter as quickly as possible because time is money’ the essential oil will be less appropriate for healing than an oil distilled from plants that have been harvested with the aim of healing in the forefront, with respect for the plant, for the plants ecological environment, etc.
Secondly, be it on a more subtle level, I think we are ignorant to think we can rape nature and then disguise the finished product as a healing tool without it eventually coming back to us. What we sow we reap.
I am astonished by the generally unhealthy ethos that seems to embrace the essential oil ‘industry’ in America. Even the word ‘industry’ resonates on a tonality that is far from that of ‘healing’. I am not implying that business cannot be healthy and soul based and I am sure many of the essential oil companies are. However, sadly it is not always the case. I believe that the disharmony around aromatherapy in the States is in part related to an ‘upside down’ approach. There is too much ‘big business domination’ and people concentrate too often on the bottle of essential oil and forget (if they ever knew) the plant behind the bottle.
In my opinion there is a need in aromatherapy education to bring the plant back into its central role, to understand the plant, communicate with the plant, learn about its growing conditions, love it as a plant, and then get to know what forms of medicine can be made from it….
This is the right way round in my opinion. Healing doesn’t stop or begin at molecules, healing also needs love and magic and love and magic all the way down the line from the plant production, harvesting, processing, commercialization, preparation and prescribing. This may sound utopian and it is, given the context of modern society but it is also normal when one gets down to the basics, which are nothing less than a healthy relationship between the plant and the human.
In France, I cannot say there is this phenomenon and I hope there never will be. I will let you into a secret, I don’t know if it is appropriate but I am going to say it anyway: Making essential oils into a business sales pitch is to me the opposite of where I believe we are going with plant medicine in the future.
My personal path is towards plant communication, understanding the plant’s message, asking what information is the plant bringing into matter. Essential oils are a good way of understanding and working with a part of the plant’s ‘raison d’être’. My way of feeling and understanding the world gives a lot of recognition to the invisible side of things. By this I mean that a plant is incarnated on earth in a physical envelope like all life forms. It is easy to forget that behind the physical envelope is a being, for me it is not the physical that creates the soul, but the soul that creates the physical. In western herbalism we are ready, I think, to integrate the plant spirit aspect into the way we work with plants.
I believe in the herbal medicine of the future, we are going to be working more and more with the message of the plant and needing less and less to actually take the plant from its soil – the healing information is going to be more and more easily communicated subtly. I see it today in my own work, in certain situations the patient can be helped just by holding a bottle of essential oil. Herbal healing is for me a working together of plant and humans, not just humans exploitating and profiting from the plant by human, which, in my opinion, is purely business without the healing. I have been studying with a French guy called Claude Lefevbre on plant communication and learning to not only communicate but travel into the world of the plant guided by the plant’s soul, after this it is impossible to look at the plant as an inanimate bundle of molecules for us to ‘exploit”. Claude has just finished writing two books on the subject and I have begun to translate them into English, they should be available by the end of 2015.
Ann: That sounds fascinating – I’m also really drawn to this aspect of working with plants and I look forward to your translation! Given what you have said above, what should consumers interested in using high quality essential oils made with plants that are sustainably sourced look for?
Where possible work with local distillers. When I say work with them, let them know that you are using their oils therapeutically and that quality all along is really important, you could offer to assist in a distillation and see how things are being done, talk to them about their harvesting techniques etc.
If there are no distillers near you, which is obviously often the case… ask other aromatherapists to recommend distillers that they work with, try and buy straight from the distiller or re-sellers that have a transparency to their products and work themselves closely with the distillers they buy from. Check the distiller’s websites: do they have a page about their philosophy and working methods. The French distiller that I work with the most and who I know well since he is one of our former students, Christophe Cottereau from Les Senteurs du Claut (www.lesenteursduclaut.fr), works consciously from the harvesting to the final product.
here is a page on their website that describes where they harvest, how they harvest, what they harvest. They also make a specific point about managing the sites they harvest from, they leave at least a third of the plants from any one harvest in order to ensure their renewal and won’t harvest from the same site for at least two to three years. In France the plant producer’s union (Syndicat des simples) has a very strict specification bill for harvesting , they are a mark of quality in France, their philosophy being:
- To supervise with care each stage in the production and transformation of medicinal plants.
- Wild harvesting must be carried out in pollution-free zones and respect the renewal of the resources that have been harvested.
- A rigorous botanical identification of the plants harvested must be carried for the safety of the consumer.
- Any agricultural techniques used must be respectful to the environment.
- The consumer must be able to benefit from a high quality product that is the reflection of respect to the environment from which it originates.
*An exception to this is the citrus family (Rutaceae), whose essences are extracted through a mechanical process known as cold pressing. Technically these are known as essences and not essential oils as they have not been changed in anyway from the state that they were found in the plant. However in the aromatherapy world it is quite acceptable to group them with essential oils.