Everything is a chemical.

There’s no avoiding it: absolutely everything that exists – and thus has mass and occupies space - is matter. And all matter consists of particles (think molecules, atoms, electrons) and therefore is a chemical by definition. So when you hear that something is “chemical-free” you should have a hearty laugh, unless that person is talking about something entirely made of energy, like a beam of light or thoughts.

We can’t make perfume out of beams of light or thoughts (yet, though the mind reels to think of it), so we make them out of chemicals. And this is why defining “all-natural” perfumes can become a big fuzzy. 

But there are no chemicals in essential oils, right? 

If you saw the following chemicals listed in one of your beauty products or fragrances, what would you think?

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Looks pretty suspect, right? 

But, in fact, these are all of the naturally occurring aromatic chemicals in lavender essential oil. While I haven’t included the percentages of each chemical, it’s the combination of each that makes lavender smell like lavender. If a few of these chemicals were missing or in altered proportions, the lavender scent you’re likely familiar with would smell kind of…off. 

Whenever you purchase an essential oil, it should come with a certificate of analysis (COA) sheet. A COA lists an essential oil’s chemicals with their final concentrations, identified and measured through laboratory methods called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. These analyses quantize similarities and differences between batches of essential oils distilled from the same plant (which is important for batch consistency), the amount of a beneficial or harmful chemical (in the case of lavender, 1,8 cineole is stimulating, linalool is an allergen), and if an essential oil has been adulterated/cut by the supplier. 

Lavender (Lavendula spica); Woodville’s Medical Botany, 3rd Ed. (1832)

Lavender (Lavendula spica); Woodville’s Medical Botany, 3rd Ed. (1832)

Why do plants create these chemicals?

The short answer is that we don’t have all of the answers yet. But recent scientific research points to the following reasons:

  • To attract pollinators and dispersal agents
  • To play a role in allelopathy, a type of plant-to-plant competition
  • To serve as defense compounds against insects and other animals
  • To protect the plant, since essential oils are often antifungal and/or antibacterial
  • To signal to other nearby plants of impending attack by herbivores or pathogens

The term “essential oil” is a contraction of the original term “quintessential oil,” coined by Aristotle to describe the fifth element, or quintessence, meaning the spirit or life force of a plant. The physical extraction of a plant’s “spirit” happens through violent means: steam distillation, maceration, solvent extraction, or pressing. Plants store essential oils either in external secretory structures, which are found on the surface of the plant, or internal secretory structures, which are found inside the plant material. An example of a plant with an external secretory structure is mint – a light rub of its herbaceous leaf imparts the aroma to your skin. An example of a plant with an internal secretory structure is bay – the essential oil is released when you break the leaf.  

Plants are living things and so the amount of aromatic chemicals they produce can change from season to season and from year to year. 

Woodcut engraving from the mid-16th century depicting the process of distilling essential oils from plants with a conical condenser. Wellcome Library, London.

Woodcut engraving from the mid-16th century depicting the process of distilling essential oils from plants with a conical condenser. Wellcome Library, London.

At Home Scent Experiment

If you’re interested in experiencing for yourself how differences in chemical constituents change the scent of the “same” essential oil, I recommend purchasing this lavender sample pack from one of my favorite suppliers, Eden Botanicals.

You can download the COA sheets for every lavender included in the sample pack on Eden’s website. While you smell each lavender, refer to its associated COA sheet and pay attention to percentages for each chemical, in particular, the amount of linalool each one contains, which can greatly impact if the essential oils smells more floral, sweet, or powdery. 

I promise you’ll be shocked by how essential oils extracted from the same species of plant can smell so dramatically different!