An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, or simply as the “oil of” the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived.
Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation, often by using steam. Citrus oils are cold pressed. Other processes include expression or solvent extraction. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavoring food and drink, and for adding scents to incense and household cleaning products.
Essential oils have been used medicinally in history. Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer and often are based solely on historical accounts of use of essential oils for these purposes. Claims for the efficacy of medical treatments, and treatment of cancers in particular, are now subject to regulation in most countries.
As the use of essential oils has declined in evidence-based medicine, one must consult older textbooks for much information on their use. Modern works are less inclined to generalize; rather than refer to “essential oils” as a class at all, they prefer to discuss specific compounds, such as methyl salicylate, rather than “oil of wintergreen”.
Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine that claims that essential oils and other aromatic compounds have curative effects. Oils are volatilized or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, diffused in the air by a nebulizer, heated over a candle flame, or burned as incense.