Essential oils are generally extracted by distillation. Other processes include expression, or solvent extraction. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics and bath products, for flavoring food and drink, and for scenting incense and household Cleaning products.
Various essential oils have been used medicinally at different periods in history. Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer, and are often based on historical use of these oils for these purposes. Such claims are now subject to regulation in most countries, and have grown correspondingly more vague, to stay within these regulations.
Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades, with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine which claims that the specific aromas carried by essential oils have curative effects. Oils are volatilized or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, or burned as incense, for example.
The recondensed water is referred to as a hydrosol, hydrolat, herbal distillate or plant water essence, which may be sold as another fragrant product. Popular hydrosols are rose water, lavender water, lemon balm, clary sage and orange blossom water. The use of herbal distillates in cosmetics is increasing. Some plant hydrosols have unpleasant smells and are therefore not sold.
Prior to the discovery of distillation, all essential oils were extracted by pressing.
Although highly fragrant, concretes contain large quantities of non-fragrant waxes and resins. As such another solvent, often ethyl alcohol, which only dissolves the fragrant low-molecular weight compounds, is used to extract the fragrant oil from the concrete. The alcohol is removed by a second distillation, leaving behind the absolute.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is used as a solvent in supercritical fluid extraction. This method has many benefits, including avoiding petrochemical residues in the product. It does not yield an absolute directly. The supercritical carbon dioxide will extract both the waxes and the essential oils that make up the concrete. Subsequent processing with liquid carbon dioxide, achieved in the same extractor by merely lowering the extraction temperature, will separate the waxes from the essential oils. This lower temperature process prevents the decomposition and denaturing of compounds and provides for a superior product. When the extraction is complete, the pressure is reduced to ambient and the carbon dioxide reverts back to a gas, leaving no residue. Although supercritical carbon dioxide is also used for making decaffeinated coffee, the actual process is different.
Estimates of total production of essential oils are difficult to obtain. One estimate, compiled from data in 1989, 1990 and 1994 from various sources gives the following total production, in tonnes, of essential oils for which more than 1,000 tonnes were produced.
Essential oils are usually lipophilic (literally: "oil-loving") compounds that usually are not miscible with water. Instead, they can be diluted in solvents like pure ethanol (alcohol), polyethylene glycol, or oils.
Essential oils are derived from various sections of plants. Some plants, like the bitter orange, are sources of several types of essential oil.
Because of their concentrated nature, essential oils generally should not be applied directly to the skin in their undiluted or "neat" form. Some can cause severe irritation, or provoke an allergic reaction. Instead, essential oils should be blended with a vegetable-based "carrier" oil (a.k.a., a base, or "fixed" oil) before being applied. Common carrier oils include olive, almond, hazelnut and grapeseed. Common ratio of essential oil disbursed in a carrier oil is 0.5–3% (most under 10%), and depends on its intended purpose. Some essential oils, including many of the citrus peel oils, are photosensitizers (i.e., increasing the skin's vulnerability to sunlight, making it more likely to burn). Lavender oil, though generally considered the mildest essential oil, is cytotoxic to human skin cells.
Industrial users of essential oils should consult the material safety data sheets (MSDS) to determine the hazards and handling requirements of particular oils.
Estrogenic and antiandrogenic activity have been reported by in vitro study of tea tree oil and lavender essential oils. Case reports suggest that the oils may be implicated in some cases of gynecomastia, an abnormal breast tissue growth, in prepubescent boys.