Simply stated, essential oils are a mixture of aroma chemical molecules occurring in nature. Linquistic definition doesn’t mirror all dimensions of this natural scent sources, but give us insight comprehensive enough ( https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/essential%20oil ). Simply stated, essential oils are a mixture of aroma chemical molecules occurring in nature.
In this statement is a big trap for source sustainability, as it is expected that natural oils really come from nature. Today trends of “bio”, “natural”, “eco”, “sustainable” etc, are big challenge for actual maintenance of natural sources. From ancient times till modern medicine, aromatic herbs and spices were tightly intermingled and used in fragrance, flavour, medicine or for religious purposes. There was a constant search for the “heart” of the products to obtain the active ingredients. Till modern times even by using up to date analysis methods is not known how exactly essential oils work. There is also trend toward ingredients isolated from natural sources, even if synthetic way is simpler and much cheaper.
Just take a brief look into history of essential oils extraction. Toward 3000 BC, the first traces of distillation were found in Tepe Gawra ( https://www.grappamarolo.it/en/stories/history-of-the-alembic-in-ancient-times/ ) which now Northern Iraq as well as in Mohenjo Daro, which is now Pakistan. Distillation vessels were vases with conical tops. The water and the oil would condense on the side of the cone wall. Some evidence exists, that essential oils were used in India and China even 4000 to 5000 years B.C.
In the 9th Century, Arabs and Persian alchemists were interested in the distillation of alcohol and developed the first alembic, an Arabic derived name, closer to the ones we know today. Al Kindi, a physician/alchemist from Bagdad obtained Rose Essence. In this area till today rose oil is still present.
During the devastating Great Plague of the 14th Century, it was found that people handling perfumed materials were immune to the plague. Cypress, Juniper, Rosemary and Thyme were burnt in hospital corridors to suppress the spreading of the disease.
The distilled products became a specialty of the medieval pharmacies and, as of 1500, the following were well known: Cedarwood, Calamus, Costus, Rose, Rosemary, Spike, Incense Sage, Cinnamon, Benzoin and Myrrh. They were the sublime extract, the “quinta essentia”, the “Essential” oils. hence the name!
Today essential oils are widely used for aromatherapy, space scenting, candle preparation and still they are present in mixtures for industrial uses particularly in toiletries and microencapsulated products. As stated before plants containing essential oils are valued source for many chemical compounds used in fragrance production.
Recently I travelled to Bulgaria and visited rose farms and museum at Kazanluk (Казанлъ̀к). It’s nice to see how development of rose growing got hand in hand with modern extraction processes. Fortunately, there is so much effort needed to extract 1 g of rose oil (high price), that fragrance compounders doesn’t use it more extensively. We must take into account, thousands of hectares (https://www.lexira.eu/blog/geographic-map-of-rose-oil-24/ ) are used for production of commodity that mostly serves human well-being. Roses are only small part of acreage used for essential oil all around a world. Essential oil plants are sometimes grown industrially in some cases collecting in nature is present. Most of producers are small enterprises and dependent of sourcing firms. Everyday ingredients sourcing shows, that we most many times decide between natural source or nature identical ingredients. In most cases, price is obstacle for using nature materials.
We can talk about healing properties of essential oils, that are quite poor scientifically approved and mostly act trough complex system of scent processing in our nose and brain. Their psychological impact is not under question. A problem arises if crops don’t rotate, are growing with intense use of chemicals (better yields!?) are stealing water and acreage for more essential cultures. From bio, permaculture and other less evasive crop cultivation methods we know, that our knowledge is by far so comprehensive as chemistry for supported cultivation systems. Sustainability is big issue for many enterprises active in a field of scent and fragrance. I hope for good results in next time, then consumer pression is more and more intense.
Fortunately, sometimes there are sources, not necessarily connected with essentials oils directly. We will learn from close circuit processes from other industries and I hope that enough sources will be available for prosperous fragrance industry. We deserve pleasant scented environment. Probably I will probably come back to issues connected with sourcing.