What Is the Definition of An Essential Oil?

I can write a long essay about what defines an essential oil, going into scientific jargon and such. But let’s keep it simple, shall we?

Below are the main characteristics of an essential oil. Or if you prefer to skip the story and just know what the ending is, jump to the summary right at the end.


Per the International Organization for Standardization (“ISO”), an essential oil is “a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase”.

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

To make it easier to remember for ourselves, here’s another way to put it:

An essential oil is a natural oil that is extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots or other parts of a plant. It is extracted by physical means (distillation or cold pressing), and nothing should be added to or removed from the oil.

What the “essential” refers to

The word “essential” refers to the “essence” of the plant, which is made up of the volatile aromatic compounds that together, give the plant its unique aroma and properties. Every essential oil can contain hundreds of compounds, each of which provides specific properties. That is why a single oil can have many uses.

Essential oils are also very potent because you’re extracting only the essence from hundreds of leaves, stems or other parts of a plant and putting the concentrated result in a little bottle. So a little goes a very, very long way!

It is from Nature, so…

Essential oils are extracted from plants, so the composition and quality of the oils can vary depending on the environmental factors. For instance, where the plants are grown, what the weather is like, when the plants are picked etc. can all affect the oil extracted.

This is why every step of the production process, from the growing to the picking to the distillation to the bottling to the storing, needs to be carefully monitored and controlled to create a high and consistent quality of essential oils. It’s also why you should buy from reputable manufacturers who fully disclose where their plants come from, how they are picked, distilled and bottled and so on.


An essential oil:

  1. Is obtained from a plant
  2. Is extracted using physical means (distillation or cold-pressing)
  3. Does not have anything added to or removed after it’s extracted
  4. Is concentrated and therefore very potent
  5. Has many uses
  6. Requires the production process to be very tightly controlled from start to finish to ensure consistency and purity of quality.

Now that you’ve an idea what an essential oil is, how about heading over here to learn how they are made?

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