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The History of Essential Oils

Updated on March 27, 2018
The Ancient World
The Ancient World

The Ancient World

Since the very beginning of early civilization, aromatic plants have played a huge role in various aspects of human life. These amazing plants have been part of various ceremonies including medicine, funeral rites, courtship, dating, religious worship, and even marriage ceremonies. The harvesting methods and the uses of these plants have evolved from century to century. Different cultures across the globe discovered and harnessed the power of Essential Oils including the Persians, Chinese, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Indians.


The creation of these aromatic oils dates back to the pre-historic ages thanks to cave paintings discovered in France within the Dordogne region dating back to nearly 20,000 years ago. These cave paintings indicate the use of medicinal plants and the oils which they produced for daily use.

The Egyptians

Recorded history from as far back as 4500BC shows the Egyptians as the first to establish a civilized and large-scale culture of using essential oils. They were well known for their vast knowledge of cosmetology, aromatic oils, and ointments, which led to them working on herbal preparations. The said herbal preparations were used for the production of incense, medicines, and perfumes for daily use. The Egyptians also used the essential oils from plants growing along the Nile to develop aromatic vinegar, spices, resins, and other compounds. One of these herbal blends known as Kyphi comprised of a combination of 16 ingredients and it could be used as medicine, perfume, or incense. Aromatic plant oils were famously used by the Egyptians for mummification of their dead because they helped with embalming and preparation of the bodies for burial. Juniper oils, cedar, myrrh, frankincense, and cinnamon were extracted from plants and used in the preparation of the bodies of Pharaohs and the wealthy for an affluent afterlife. Traces of these embalming oils can still be found on mummies to date. However, as much as the Egyptians had a rich well of resources at their disposal, they mostly imported their oils from other regions and never distilled it for themselves.

Ancient China
Ancient China


The use of Essential Oils in China was initially noted during Huang Ti or the Yellow Emperor’s reign between 2697 and 2597 B.C.E. He wrote a book on Internal Medicine, which is famous for its insight on various essential oils and their use as remedies. The book is still a point of reference today for most practitioners of Eastern Medicine. India was soon on the aromatic oils bandwagon following China and aromatic plant products have formed a big part of Ayur Veda or Traditional Indian Medicine. Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced by the Indians and assimilated by others worldwide for 3000 years now. It calls for the use of essential oils such as cinnamon, myrrh, ginger, and sandalwood for effective healing.



The Greeks borrowed and learned from the Egyptians through educational visits to Egypt, by Democrates and Herodotus. Aromatic plants were believed to have divine origin and the extracted perfume was believed to come from their gods. The hyacinth and rose were the most popular aromatic plants in their culture due to their fragrance and medicinal properties such as sedation and stimulation. In fact, Hippocrates drove the plague out of the city of Athens by fumigating it with a potent mix of aromatic oils.

Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome


The liberal Romans loved aromatic oils. They scented everything in their homes with these fragrant mixtures. They are credited with the development and implementation of aromatherapy. The most popular sighting of Essential Oils is credited to the Israelites. Most Christians are conversant with the Old Testament Bible story of the birth of Jesus. The three wise men that went to celebrate his birth brought gifts to the son of God, which consisted of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. In addition to this, the anointing oil was Spikenard.

Ancient Arabia
Ancient Arabia

Ancient Arabia

The Arabs were not left behind in this great discovery. They brought about a great spice trade between 1000 BCE and 400 BCE. This historic trade stretched 2400miles from Omar to Petra, which is located in Jordan. In fact, the trade was known as the “Frankincense trail”. At around 1000CE, an Arab physician known by the name of Avicenna was credited with the invention of the steam distillation extraction method. This method helped increase the concentration of the extracted Essential Oil. This just shows how far back essential oils date. Essential Oils are still used currently for the treatment of various cosmetic, environmental, spiritual, therapeutic, and medical needs.


Essential Oils work through tiny molecules within their composition that can be absorbed by the body through the nose or the skin. These molecules interact with your bodily systems in different ways but the main three ways include:

1) Sedation of the nervous system, easing your mind, calming the nerves, and relaxing your muscles

2) Helping to ease aching joints and muscles, reducing swelling, inflammation, and pain

3) Keeping you free from germs and killing airborne fungi, bacteria, and viruses to make sure you are healthy

Extraction of Essential Oils from Plants

Expression and steam distillation are the primary extraction methods for commercial production of essential oils. However we can take a note from our ancient ancestor and use sunlight infusion.

Infusion Method

a) If you have a garden with herbs and flowers, you can start by cutting up the ones you intend on using. 6 tablespoons of plant material is an advisable amount to go with but you can use more or less depending on your needs.

b) Fill up a small glass jar with the plant material roughly half-way and just to add more fragrance to the composition, you can add some spices like cinnamon. You can mix and match with the spices and herbs to experiment

c) Cover the plant material with a base oil, preferably one that is aromatic and light. Examples include sesame oil, olive, or almond oil

d) Cover the jar with a lid and gently shake it to make sure the oils, herbs, and flowers mix thoroughly then put the jar in a sunny place for 48 hours or more. Every few hours, ensure you gently swirl the ingredients around

e) Use fine cheesecloth to line a funnel on another glass jar through which you will pour your essential oil. You can repeat the process with your first extraction if you want to make your oil stronger but ensure you use fresh herbs and flowers

f) Pour your final product i.e. the essential oil into a tinted dark bottle with an appropriate stopper and label the container with the date and the ingredients. This is because most essential oils become less efficient after 6 months

Expression is used to extract citrus essential oils from citrus fruit peels (e.g. lemons, mandarins, and oranges). The process is machine-operated by grating or pressing the rinds, collecting the oils from the macerated cells using a sponge and then squeezing out the oil into a receptacle.

There is a world of information out there when it comes to buying, using and applying Essential Oils. Check out the other articles here on Alternatively you can check out Amazon for more books on this topic.


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