Table of Contents


See also the “Herbs and Spices” chapter.


1. Overview

An essential oil is any concentrated, hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants, which are called aromatic herbs or aromatic plants. They are also known as volatile or ethereal oils, or simply as the "oil of" the plant material from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An oil is "essential" in the sense that it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant.

Essential oils do not, as a group, need to have any specific chemical properties in common, beyond conveying characteristic aromas. They are extracted from flowers, grasses, stems, seeds, leaves, roots, bark, fruit, moss and tree secretions using various means including distillation, expression, extraction, enfleurage, maceration and head space technology. They are used by the flavour and fragrance industry to create, and then manufacture, flavourings for food and beverages, and perfume compounds for cosmetics, household products and fine fragrances, amongst other items.

Various essential oils have been used medicinally at different periods in history. Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer, and are often based on historical use of the oils for these purposes. Such claims are now subject to regulation in most countries, and have grown correspondingly more vague, to stay within these regulations.

Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades, with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine which claims that the specific aromas carried by essential oils have curative effects. Oils are volatilised or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, or burned as incense, for example.

Carrier oil, also known as base oil or vegetable oil, is used to dilute essential oils before they are applied to the skin. They are so named because they carry the essential oil onto the skin. Carrier oils do not contain a concentrated aroma, unlike essential oils, nor do they evaporate like them. There are a range of different carrier oils each with their own individual properties and suitability towards different treatments in aromatherapy. Infused oils are a combination of a carrier oil and various herbs. True carrier oils are generally cold-pressed vegetable oils such as: Sweet almond, grape seed, avocado, olive oil, sesame, evening primrose, sunflower and Jojoba oil.

Source: Michael Gristwood, SAAFFI;; NEDLAC / Fridge report (details under heading 10) 
Sector Segments Essential oils

Personal care

Soap and detergent

Dental care 








Eucalyptus and derivatives 

Food industry

Soft drink




Processed and canned products

Chewing gum 


Spice oleoresins


Flavour and floral oils



 Pharmaceutical industry 


Health-care products







Source: Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) as cited by DAFF in its A Profile of the South African Essential Oils Market Value Chain 2015 (see heading 10).

Find the excellent introduction to essential oils and user notes in Dr Axe’s The King’s Medicine Cabinet. Download the eBook for free (see heading 10).