Bottle of aromatherapy oil, dried lavender and Chinese skullcap
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There is a significant difference between plant essential oils and simple plant extracts. Although both may be used in aromatherapy, it is the essential oils which carry the medicinal qualities and are used most often during massage and aromatherapy sessions. Extracts are mainly used in perfumes or even in cooking.


Although aromatherapy is often considered a new age practice in the field of alternative medicine, the use of plant extracts and essential oils dates back thousands of years. They were used for both religious and medicinal purposes in ancient Rome, Egypt, China and India. They are mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts. Plant oils were applied topically, used in incense and even taken internally for therapeutic purposes. Today, they can be found in candles, body sprays and massage oils.


There is a distinct difference between pure essential oils and simple plant extracts. To obtain an extract, the plant parts may be cold pressed, macerated or soaked in a liquid, such as alcohol, in order to isolate, or extract, a certain quality or flavor from the plant. The process of acquiring a plant's essential oil is a bit more complex. It must be obtained through distillation. The liquid that is distilled off is called the plant essence, and the very small amount of volatile liquid that is left behind is the essential oil. It takes a large volume of plant parts to obtain a small amount of essential oil, which is why they are typically more expensive than regular liquid extracts.


Liquid extracts are typically used for cooking, perfumes or as part of medicine. Examples include vanilla extract used in baking, citronella extract used as an insect repellent in lotions, and grapeseed extract used by herbalists to treat heart conditions. Essential oils are generally used for therapeutic purposes. They may be used in aromatic diffusers, in massage oils, compresses, spritzers or in therapeutic baths.


Pure essential oils are considered to have profound effects on the body. According to studies cited by the University of Maryland Medical Center, essential oils may be beneficial in treating such conditions as alopecia and post-surgical pain. Different essential oils have different medicinal qualities, and therefore, have different effects on the body. Lavender, for example, may be used to treat headaches, depression or insomnia. Extracts, although beneficial, do not appear to effect the body to the degree that essential oils do.

Expert Insight

There have been a number of studies done which support the medicinal use of essential oils and aromatherapy. In a cancer research study, found on the Internet Health Library, researchers found that patients who received massage using a carrier oil plus Roman chamomile essential oil showed a significant reduction in anxiety, and also noted improvements in their disposition, physical comfort and overall quality of life. Other studies listed showed aromatherapy to be beneficial for such conditions as anxiety and stress, alopecia, childhood eczema, depression, hypertension and insomnia.