A Summary of useful base and carrier oils, macerated oils creams and hydrosols
some brief notes on their properties and uses
Vegetable oils may be used internally and externally for their therapeutic properties In order to derive the best benefit it is necessary to use cold pressed and unrefined oils. Oils that are prepared in this way contain the highest levels of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and lecithins. They have not been subjected to high temperatures and chemical processes to remove their natural pigments and aromas, as is the case with refined oils.
When an oil is refined the heating encourages oxidation and the formation of free radicals and hydro-peroxides. These molecules can cause extensive damage to the tissues and cells of the body and are thought to accelerate the aging process, as well as being implicated in oncogenesis. They should therefore be avoided in the diet and in the formulation of skin preparations.
Unrefined oils are normally high in essential fatty acids. These are required by the body to build healthy cell membranes, for healthy nerve function and liver function amongst other things. A lack of these in the diet has been cited as a contributory factor to heart disease, cancer and stress disorders, as well as weak nails, hair and skin. The benefits of taking the right sorts of fatty acids into the body can include increased energy, greater resistance to heart disease, a reduction in inflammatory disorders, a stronger immune system and improved condition of the hair, nails and skin.
As well as protecting our complexions from aging, it would appear that some vegetable oils can help reduce free radical damage and therefore reduce aging inside the body. Certain groups of fatty acids can also help control/balance cholesterol levels in the body and prostaglandin production. These will be explained below.
Selecting oils for medicinal and dietary use
- Always check that oils are labelled as cold pressed and unrefined. Cold pressed oils may have been subjected to further processing to remove the colour and odour.
- A good oil should be richly pigmented and have a distinct, but fresh odour.
- Oils should not be prepared from roasted seeds or nuts. The exception is that some culinary oils are prepared from toasted seed, for example toasted sesame seed oil.
- Oils should be packaged in dark glass or metal to protect them from photo oxidation and should carry a best before date. Their natural anti-oxidants mean that they should have a shelf life of at least 9 months, but it is better to purchase small quantities to ensure that they are fresh.
- The shelf life of oils is prolonged by storing in a cool, dark place. They may become slightly cloudy, but this is the sign of a good quality oil.
- Remember that the fixed oil from a particular species will not possess all the therapeutic properties of the whole herb. It is also a good idea to check that the oil is from the correct botanical species e.g. in the cosmetic industry much of the Carrot oil sold is in fact prepared from French Marigold, which gives a similar pigmentation, but different therapeutic properties.
- Also remember that hydrogenated vegetable fats have been treated in such a way that there is evidence to suggest that they affect the body in the same way as saturated fats. It is therefore probably better to exclude them from the diet and from skin care.
The nature of fats
Fatty substances can be divided into oils, fats, waxes and lipids, which are collectively referred to as ‘total lipids’. Fats are not the same as lipids but are similar to them on a chemical level. All these substances are insoluble in water, but will dissolve in each other e.g. beeswax and almond oil will form a solution when heated together.
We tend to think of oils as a viscous material that is thicker than water and acts as a lubricant. We think of waxes as being solid and harder and butters as being solid and soft. However, jojoba ‘oil’ is in fact a wax, and cocoa butter is solid like a wax. Also, the consistency will depend on temperature, so that if jojoba is put in the fridge it will become more solid and coconut oil (which we think of as a solid) will become liquid on a hot day. Therefore we should think of fats, rather than oils, whether of animal, vegetable or mineral origins.
Oils from biological sources are produced by the organism to perform specific functions. They provide heat insulation, protect organs and are used as sources of energy and energy stores. Most of the fats that we use are energy stores laid down in the seed or nut to be used as a source of energy when the seed sprouts. Fats also provide building blocks for cells and are combined with protein to form the lipoprotein bilayer that encapsulates every cell.
Fats may come from:
1 Vegetable origins
2 Animal origins
3 Marine animal origin
5 Mineral sources e.g. mineral oil and paraffin wax
In plant medicine we only use those of vegetable origin. From the nutritional point of view we need to understand those of animal and marine origins – even if you are vegetarian many of your clients will not be, but may have enquiries about nutritional matters.
Composition of fats
All fats are made up of triglycerides. These contain three fatty acids attached to a molecule of glycerol/glycerine, which is an alcohol.
Glycerides are therefore esters, being made from an acid and an alcohol with any water removed, as you will remember from your study of essential oil chemistry.
Because glycerol is trivalent (has three hands) it can hold onto 3 fatty acids. Therefore triglycerides are the ones most often seen in natural oils. Mono and di-glycerides do exist but we do not need to concern ourselves with these at present.
In the same way that there are different types of acids in essential oils, there are different fatty acids. A triglyceride may have three of the same fatty acid or three different ones, or one of one type and two of another. The fatty acids may be saturated or unsaturated (see below) and therefore there are many different triglycerides that make up fats. This also means that it is difficult to analyse the glycerides present in a particular fat and therefore oils are normally classified by their fatty acid composition.
Saturated-these contain no double bonds, which means that the carbon molecules have the maximum possible number of hydrogen molecules attached. They are usually solid at room temperature. They mainly occur in animal fats and solid vegetable fats such as coconut.
Butyric (C4), Caprylic (C8), Lauric (C12),Myristic acid (C14), Palmitic acid (C16), and Stearic acid (C18).
Palmitic acid is used to make creams and ointments. Stearic acid is used to make candles.
High levels of saturated fatty acids in the diet may actually increase the level of low density lipoproteins in the body (otherwise known as bad cholesterol!).
Monounsaturated – these contain one double bond which is sufficient to make them liquid at room temperature. However, they often go cloudy if the temperature drops since they have a higher melting point than polyunsaturated fats. They are found in animal, fish and vegetable oils, particularly olive and palm oil.
For example Oleic acid (18C with a double bond between the 9th and 10th carbon atoms). Written as 18: 1,9 C.
Polyunsaturated-these contain several double bonds and are therefore the most liquid. They are found in vegetable oils, including sunflower, safflower and corn oil.
As well as being important energy sources, it has already been mentioned that fatty acids are used structurally in the body. They also give rise to hormone-like substances, known as prostanoids and leukotrienes. Some of the fatty acids needed for these functions cannot be produced within the human body and are therefore an essential part of the diet. Linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid are definitely in this class and arachidonic acid may also be.
A brief word about cholesterol
Polyunsaturated fats have received much coverage as being useful in reducing ‘harmful’ low density lipoprotein cholesterol (ldls), in the blood stream, which is the form that deposits plaques in the blood vessels and may lead to thromboses and heart attacks. However, there are two forms of cholesterol in the body: ldls and hdls (high density lipoproteins). Cholesterol is not bad in itself. Our bodies manufacture cholesterol in the liver and the less there is in our diet, the more we produce.
Cholesterol is used by the body to transport fats through our body fluids. It is also used as a raw material to manufacture hormones and is involved in keeping the fatty sheaths of our nerve cells in good condition. However, if our body cannot process its blood fats and cholesterol correctly, due to too many saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and refined carbohydrates or insufficient monounsaturated fats and fibre, problems occur. It would appear that damage to blood vessels is more likely to be caused by refined carbohydrates and the ldls are part of an inflammatory process and the body’s attempt to heal the vessels. Cutting down on refined carbs and processed foods is what helps.
Hdls prevent cholesterol deposits in the arteries by transporting ldls back to the liver from the body cells. There they can be converted into bile acid. In order for this process to occur there must be a ratio of 1:5 of hdls to hdls. Polyunsaturated fats appear to reduce both ldls and high density lipoproteins rather than maintaining the correct balance. Monounsaturated fats appear to maintain the correct balance, but only if they are taken in sufficient quantities. Therefore the inclusion of olive oil, walnuts and almonds in the diet is definitely desirable.
Essential fatty acids and gamma linoleic acid
In theory our bodies should be able to manufacture gamma linoleic acid from linoleic and linolenic acid. However, it is necessary to have sufficient linoleic acid in the diet to do this, and the modern diet often does not contain sufficient vegetables, oils seeds and pulses for this. Also, the metabolic process can be inhibited by too many saturated fats, or by insufficient zinc, magnesium or vitamin B6. Other inhibitory factors include diabetes, viral infections, pregnancy, menopause, old age, excessive alcohol intake and smoking.
The recommended daily intake of essential fatty acids is 3% of our dietary calories or 5-6% in children and lactating women.
Glas are involved in the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances which are produced throughout the body in response to certain stimuli, and are then rapidly broken down. They control the movement of matter between cells and control the transmission of nerve impulses.
Deficiency in essential fatty acids leads to skin disorders, hair loss and poor wound healing. Also the cell membranes become less flexible, including those of the immune system e.g. lymphocytes, so that EFAs may be necessary for a healthy immune system. They may also be useful for treating inflammatory diseases such as arthritis where cell rigidity may be a problem.
Prostaglandins are also derived from essential fatty acids, particularly linolenic acid. They act as cell regulators. The amount produced in the body depends on enzymes converting the EFAs into prostaglandins, and therefore the amount produced is regulated if there are more than enough EFAs. However, if there are insufficient the enzymes have no raw materials.
There are several types of prostaglandin, but prostaglandin 1 is especially important. It is involved in the functioning of the immune system and is also involved with other conditions, including hypertension and depression. When there is not enough of this prostaglandin there is more likely to be autoimmune disease, including multiple allergies. The body needs the natural unrefined form of linoleic acid to make it, which is called the cis form. If it is refined and hardened (changed into the trans form) as in margarine then the enzymes cannot use it and it will actually block their action. The same is also true of refined oils.
When used externally oils probably only benefit the surface of the skin. Applying oils to the skin cannot effect problems such as hormone imbalances, the liver or maybe not? See what you feel about this and what you can discover about it.
The chemistry of fats
Please note that this information is only included for your general edification, you DO NOT need to learn it, in fact you can ignore it totally.
In the same way that essential oils are not oily, fatty acids are not fatty, they only become that way when combined into triglycerides. They are known as fatty acids because they were first isolated from fats.
In common with essential oils they are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. As you will remember carbon is able to form chains of varying lengths.
You will also remember that substances that only contain carbon and hydrogen are called hydrocarbons and that the simplest one is methane:
Which is written as CH4. If two carbons form a chain then they will only be able to combine with 6 hydrogens, since they are each holding one ‘hand’ with the other carbon:
This substance is a gas and is called ethane. It is written as 2CH6. Carbons can form straight chains as above, or branched chains, or they may form rings, as they do in many essential oil components. The different structures give different activities and are therefore classed into different groups of chemicals or similar molecules.
Fatty acids are classified as carboxylic molecules, or as being in the carboxyl group. This means that at the end of each chain there is a characteristic group – COOH. This should look familiar as it is also the characteristic group of the volatile acids found in essential oils and floral waters.
It is the carboxylic group that gives acids their ability to dissolve in water. This is true of the acids found in essential oils, which is why they also occur in the floral water – they are hydrophilic [literally this means love (philos) water (hydros)]. On the other hand hydrocarbons repel water, they are hydrophobic [afraid (phobia) of water].
When you have an acid with a short carbon chain it’s behaviour is dictated by the carboxyl group and therefore it will readily dissolve in water. We are all familiar with acetic acid, which is the acid in vinegar and know that this easily mixes with water. This is because it only contains two carbons:
However, in acids where there is a longer chain of carbons (8 or more), the carbon chain starts to have an effect on the behaviour of the molecule and what happens is that you end up with a molecule which has one end that loves water and another which hates it.
If it is added to water it will form a layer with the carboxyl end sticking into the water and the hydrophobic end sticking out, trying to keep it’s toes dry. This is called surface activity and this property is used in making soaps, detergents and emulsions (that is creams and lotions). It is also involved in the way that our cell membranes are formed, but if you want to know about that look at a physiology book. Palmitic and stearic acids are the main fatty acids used in making soaps.
You will notice that most fatty acids have an even number of carbons. Most commonly they contain 16-18, but there are some with 12-24. Shorter chain fatty acids are found in milk (6-8).
J It’s time to concentrate again!!
REFINING AND PROCESSING
It would be wonderful if we could simply press our own oils from fresh olives, sunflower seeds, linseeds, rosehip seeds and so forth, but this tends not to be practical for most of us. If we were making our own carrier oils then hopefully we would use the best produce, without blemish, press it while fresh and use it immediately. However, we are limited to buying what is available. It has already been mentioned that refined oils are not ideal, but why are they produced?
Oils are used for many things, including the manufacture of food, soap, paint, varnish, lubricants and plastics. Production of such products is generally carried out by vast multinational organisations. Sometimes these companies own the production plantations, the shippers, millers and even the byproduct industries. Oil business is big business.
When oils are produced on a large scale it often means that the poor quality seeds and nuts are used, since the better quality produce are sold for eating e.g. almonds. The crop may be stored for along time and shipped large distances before being milled, so that it will already have started to deteriorate. The finished product is expected to have a long shelf life, exposed to light and warmth on the shop shelf. It is expected to be identical from batch to batch and when opened may be used slowly.
this is why oils are refined and you can see that it has something in common with the essential oils that are processed for the perfumery market, where the therapeutic applications are not under consideration. Refined oil is ‘pure’, bland, stable and uniform. When the oils are processed they are split into fractions and become very profitable for the producer.
During refining the following steps occur, from the nut/seed to the end product:
- The seed is cleaned from stones, metal and other fragments.
- The seeds are ground to rupture the cell walls.
- Steam pressure is applied to further break the microscopic cells open. The seed is in effect cooked.
- An expelbo, which may be heated or unheated (cold pressed), forces the oil out of the starting material and through a filter. This is the finest virgin oil. Other claims such as extra virgin have little meaning.
- The residual cake still contains oil. Therefore the cake is broken into flakes.
- The flakes are put into a solvent extractor. They are washed with petrol and an oil/solvent solution results. It is then distilled and the petrol evaporated off. The left over meal usually is used as animal fodder ( not exactly great food for the animals).
- At this stage the oil can then be refined. There are three stages to the process. Natural acids are removed, the colour is ‘adjusted’ and the smell/taste has to be ‘improved’.
- Caustic acid is used to remove fatty acids, including the essential ones. This is the basis of soap making.
- Fuller’s earth or carbon power is used to remove the colour.
- High pressure steam is used to remove any odour.
- When making margarine an addition step of hardening or hydrogenation is carried out. The oil is heated with a catalyst, such as nickel and hydrogen gas is bubbled through it. This alters the unsaturated fats into the TRANS form.
The human body breaks down fatty acids using enzymes. These cleave off two carbon atoms at a time to give acetyl co-enzyme A. When the carbon chain’s shape is altered from the natural CIS form to the Trans form then enzymes are unable to do this and therefore they are not broken down totally. The partially metabolised remains are treated as toxins or waste to be eliminated. Which makes you wonder whether margarine really is better for you than butter.
For and against refining
As holistic practitioners we should always use products as near to nature as possible providing they are in good condition.
Processed oils and fats are far from close to nature. However, from the moment of harvesting and milling the surface area is exposed to oxygen and the fats will start to oxidise, producing free radicals. Natural oils deteriorate faster. Acidity levels may also be altered, dropping below 5.5 which is the pH of our skin. Therefore unrefined oils should be bought in amounts that will not be left sitting around. Any oil that smell rancid or ‘off’ should be thrown away.
Unfortunately people do not expect oils to smell, even when the aroma is delightfully nutty. I have heard therapists complain that unrefined sunflower oil ‘smells nutty’. Some oils with exotic names can have rather more unpleasant odours. And I think the most amusing complaint I had was that unrefined avocado oil was dark green (the refined oil is colourless) and smelt of bacon rashers. Either this person had been a vegetarian for many years, but had never eaten an avocado, or their local butcher was selling a very strange sort of bacon.
Within the oil trade the quality of the raw material is reflected by the prices it commands and the industry that uses it. For example Camellia oil comes in four grades: pharmaceutical, cosmetic, cooking and then industrial. Each grade has its price structure and obviously the first two grades will be the most expensive. As with essential oils, it is possible to get low priced versions of even the most exotic base oils, but they were originally intended for making things like paint and varnish!!
The more exotic oils are not usually available in the lower grades outside their country of origin as exporting them is not worth the return. Outside of Japan, Camellia oil is little used in cooking. Its main application is as an excipient for direct injections of minerals and vitamins.
Choosing base oils
The simplest choice is between a thin oil and a thick oil i.e. those that sink in quickly and those that do not. However, one should also consider whether the oil is being used solely as a carrier or as part of the treatment? Whenever skin damage, inflammations, immune deficiencies or plain neglect of the skin due to stress are involved it is always advisable to make informed choices and use the most appropriate vegetable oil to form part of the treatment.
The following oils are mainly produced for industrial uses and therefore should be selected carefully to ensure that the correct grade is being obtained :
Soya bean, peanut, cottonseed, sunflower, olive, sesame, coconut, palm and palm kernel. Also, if a person has an allergy to the plant that the oil is obtained from then it is not the right oil to use for them.
Almond (Prunus amygdalus) var. dulcis ) Rosaceae 100% dilution
24-26% linoleic, 65-68% oleic, 6-8% palmitic,2% stearic.
Sweet almond should be used as bitter almond may contain traces of cyanide. In fact, the fixed oil is normally produced from Sweet almond, whereas an essential oil, smelling of marzipan, is produced from the Bitter almond. Almond oilis a pale yellow colour when cold pressed but relatively odourless. It contains vitamins E,D, A , B1, 2, 6. It is used for it’s emollient properties in cosmetics and pharmaceutical ointments. It is also useful for strengthening the nails, by massaging around the cuticle and nail bed and as a hair conditioner. It may be used as a cleanser and also has a certain ability to screen out U.V.
Ground almonds can be used as a gentle exfoliant and skin cleanser.
Used internally, Almond oil actually contains more monounsaturated fat than olive oil and is therefore even more effective against cholesterol build up. The oil, ground almonds and whole nut can be included in the diet. It also has laxative properties, so be aware of this ‘side effect’ if taking it internally.
Apricot kernel ( Prunus armeniaca/ Armeniaca vulgaris) Rosaceae 100% dilution
Apricot kernel oil contains high levels of polyunsaturated fats and moderate levels of essential fatty acids. It’s vitamin content is minimal.
This oil is pale yellow in colour and is not as stable as almond. However, it has a light silky texture and absorbs easily into the skin. It can be very helpful for premature aging, sensitive, inflamed and dry skins. Peach kernel is very close in it’s properties and the two can be interchanged. They are both similar to Almond oil. In the past they were cheaper, but this is no longer the case. Therefore Almond oil is probably the best choice when looking for these qualities.
Avocado (Persea americana) Lauraceae 10-25% dilution
10-20% linoleic, 2% linolenic, 1% myristic, 60-90% oleic, 4-12% palmitic, 3% palmitoleic, 2% stearic.
Vitamins A, B1+2, D,E, panthothenic acid, potassium and lecithin.
Unrefined avocado oil is a deep green due to large quantities of chlorophyll and has a distinctive nutty aroma.
Avocado penetrates deep into the skin, making it excellent for severely undernourished or stressed skin. It is also very soothing and softening and can be used for eczema. It has a natural ability to block UV light. However, be aware that with the erosion of the ozone layer vegetable oils will probably not give sufficient sun screening, especially in regions with high ambient light levels. If it is cheap then it is likely to be a maceration of the pulp in sunflower oil. Avocado pulp produces a very thick, fatty oil (4-40%), depending on the season. The pure oil is produced by expressing the dried pulp. It has highly variable amounts of sterols, hydrocarbons, volatile acids, amino acids, and very high levels of vitamin D. One constituent, Biscatechin, condensed flavonol, has been reported to have anti-tumour activity. The pure oil is useful for arthritis and sclerosis of the skin.
Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) 10-25% dilution
45-60% linoleic, 15-20% linolenic, 1% oleic, 2%stearic, 20% G.L.A.
Traces of vitamins and minerals.
For properties see Rose hip oil.
Borage/star flower (Borago officinalis) Boraginaceae 10% dilution
31-42% linoleic, 19-25% linolenic, 10-20% G.L.A.
See Rose hip for properties.
Camellia is of Japanese origin and contains a glyceride oleic acid C3H5. This glyceride is important for the nervous tissue of the skin so may be used where contact allergy is a problem. It is very prone to rancidity.
Coconut (Coco nucifera) Palmae 100% dilution
44% lauric, 2% linoleic, 17% myristic, 7% oleic, 11% palmitic, 6% stearic.
This oil is a white solid or a translucent liquid, depending on the amount of processing.
The fat from the flesh is heat extracted and then may be deodorised. Only the unfractionated oil should be used. It has a certain sun screening ability. It is also valuable for making body oils and creams, since it is solid at room temperature.
Corn/maize Zea mays) Graminaeae100% dilution
This oil contains high levels of polyunsaturated fats and omega 6 essential fatty acids in it’s natural state. However, it is mainly produced by heat extraction. The fresh oil contains large amount of vitamin E, however, it degenerates quickly and the oil has a short shelf life.
Evening primrose seed (Oenothera biennis) Onagraceae 10-25% dilution
70-79% linoleic, 10% linolenic, 1% myristic, approximately. 9% G.L.A.
The G.L.A.s in Evening Primrose oil are of a different isomer to those in blackcurrant seed and rose hip oil, but the same as those in borage. It would appear that those in Rose hip are more bioactive!! This oil is reputedly helpful for eczema and psoriasis. It is useful for all types of scar tissue. Used on dry skin, it will improve the skin’s water retaining properties. This is due to the essential fatty acids helping to regenerate healthy cell membranes.
Internally it is also helpful for PMS symptoms, including cramps, water retention, swollen and tender breasts. It may also be helpful for menopausal problems, inflammatory conditions such as osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. It has also been used to treat alcohol induced liver damage, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa, Parkinson’s disease, hyperactivity, Cystic Fibrosis and Multiple Sclerosis, where it restores red blood cell mobility and possible helps retard deterioration of the myelin sheaths. It lowers blood cholesterol. Note that the only effect from external application is benefit for dry and irritated skin. I have found it particularly useful for reducing the redness and itching of psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, and other skin conditions. It can also be used for itchy skin due to hormonal changes in pregnancy and menopause.
Grapeseed (Vitis vinifera) Vitaceae 100% dilution
The unrefined oil is extremely high in polyunsaturates. However, it is not generally available since it has a bitter taste and therefore does not appeal to the average palate. Even the refined oil has a pale green colour. Although it is readily absorbed into the skin perhaps its refined nature makes it less ideal than some other choices. Although only anecdotal I have had several reports of practitioners developing a form of dermatitis with prolonged exposure. A suitable cheap alternative is unrefined sunflower oil which is a joy to work with.
Hazel nut (Corylus avellana) Corylaceae 25-100% dilution
16% linoleic, 54% oleic, 2% palmitic, 3% stearic.
The unrefined oil is a golden yellow with a fresh nutty aroma. If the oil is dark and smells toasted it is probably from roasted nuts and is not suitable for use on the skin.
Hazelnut oil is mildly astringent and therefore useful for oily or overactive skins. It also stimulates the circulation and is useful for inflammatory conditions. It’s vitamin E content makes it fairly stable, and it is a light oil which penetrates the skin quickly. It is similar to Almond oil, but has quicker penetration.
Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) Simmondsiaceae 10-100% dilution
This is actually a liquid wax, rather than an oil which makes it very stable. It is similar to walnut oil in composition. The oil is obtained from the edible seeds of the plant is 50% wax. It is odourless and clear, which makes it ideal for use with essential oils. It also is a valuable barrier to water. Environmentally, the plant can be used to reclaim desert and arid areas and therefore by using it we also help restore damaged areas of the planet. It shot to prominence as a vegetable substitute for sperm whale oil in the cosmetic industry. It is high in sterols which gives it it’s non-greasy feel and gives a sheen to cosmetic formulae.
Jojoba is rarely subjected to any refining processes. It has a similar composition to sebum in the skin and balances the amount produced, therefore useful for all skin types. It has a mild bactericidal action which gives it a long shelf life and also means that it is therapeutically active in the treatment of acne. It also contains myristic acid which has anti-inflammatory properties.
Linseed ( Linium usitassium) Linaceae 10-100%
Linoleic, linolenic, Omega-3 and 6, same as found in cod liver oil.
This oil is valuable for boosting the immune system, treating inflammatory conditions and dry skin. It is also the fastest oil to penetrate the skin .Taking the oil internally can remove heavy metals, soothe itchy eyes, help with dryness of skin during menopause, treat constipation and reduce the risk of thrombosis. The taste is rather bitter. It should be stored in the fridge.
Macadamia nut (Macadamia integrifolia/ternifolia) 25-100% dilution
60% oleic, 18% palmitoleic, 6% linolenic/linoleic.
This is a light coloured oil with little odour. It is a highly stable oil and is rapidly absorbed. It softens the skin and is non-irritant, making it useful for dry and mature skins. Palmitoleic acid is found in the skin of prepubescent children and it’s presence seems to retard the aging process. It also seems to reduce moisture loss.
Olive (Olea europaea) Oleaceae 10-100% dilution
14-18% linoleic, 2% linolenic, 60-70% oleic, 10-18% palmitic, 2% stearic.
Good quality olive oil is dark olive green and has a fruity rich aroma. The extra virgin oil is the grade that should be used as it is unrefined and cold pressed. It has an acidity level of less than 1%. Fine olive oils are like fine wines, with specific regional oils. It’s vitamin E content makes it useful for sore and inflamed skin, as well as sunburn. It is an emollient oil that is used pharmaceutically for severely dehydrated, chapped or scaly skin conditions, including cradle cap. It is a valuable hair tonic, increasing the hair’s tensile strength and adding shine. It is also used topically for rheumatic conditions and scarring or stretch marks.
When included in the diet, 15 ml a day is sufficient to lower blood pressure. It also contains cyclarthanol, which blocks the absorption of high levels of cholesterol into the body. Its ratio of essential fatty acids is similar to human breast milk, making it suitable for small children. The vitamin E protects against free radical damage. As it contains anti-coagulating agents it reduces the risk of thrombosis. It cleanses the liver and stimulates the production of bile, thereby acting as a digestive tonic and valuable aid to detoxifying programmes. It is also slightly antiseptic for balancing the gut flora. It also protects against gallstones, promotes pancreatic secretions and may protect against stomach ulcers. Olive oil is one of the most stable oils at high temperatures.
Palm kernel (Caulophyllum inophyllum) Palmae 25-100% dilution
57% lauric, 2% linoleic, 13% oleic, 8% palmitic, 2% stearic.
Coumarins and lactones.
This oil is yellowish green and solid at room temperature. The coumarin content has the effect of thinning the blood and the lactones are mucolytic. It is a warming oil and therefore should not be used in MS. However, it is valuable for viral and bacterial diseases as it stimulates macrophage activity. It can be used for haemorrhoids, diabetic ulcers, thread veins, enlargement of the prostate, weeping acne and eczema.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) Passifloraceae 10-25% dilution
This oil has a deep yellow colour and no distinct aroma. The oil is usually warm pressed but unrefined. It is useful on dry and stressed skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis. Note that the oil does not have the same properties as the herbal preparation and therefore does not have any action on insomnia.
Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) Leguminosae 100%
Usually highly refined so avoid.
Rosehip (Rosa rubiginosa) Rosaceae 10-25% dilution
This oil is a deep golden orange/yellow. It’s G.L.A. content means that it helps restore cell membranes. It is also useful for cauterised skin, burns and sunburn. Its regenerative properties make it useful for dry or devitalised skin, dry acne, eczema, helping scars, stretch marks and thread veins. It is reputed to reduce hyperpigmentation.
Other actions of G.L.A.s make it useful for auto immune diseases, particularly M., liver congestion, insufficient digestive secretions, hypertension, thromboses, and hyperactivity in children, all of these are only with internal use. Also see Blackcurrant, borage and Evening Primrose oil.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) Compositae/Asteraceae 100% dilution
60-90% linoleic, 0.5% linolenic, 10-14% oleic, 6% palmitic, 3% stearic.
Also, Omega-6 fatty acids.
In it’s unrefined state, it is a rich yellow/orange with little odour. It is an easily absorbed oil which is nourishing for the skin and fairly inexpensive! May be especially useful for sensitive, dry, or stressed skin.
Sesame (Sesamum indicum) Pedaliaceae 100% dilution
This oil has a light odour and amber colour. Do not use the variety produced from roasted seeds except in stir fries.
It’s light texture and astringent properties make it ideal for massage and it reputedly does not stain the towels. It acts as a sunscreen, filtering out about 30% U.V. It may also be helpful for rheumatism, arthritis and psoriasis and eczema. Its composition gives it a long shelf life. Internally it is reputed to strengthen the lungs and act as an anti-inflammatory.
Soybean (Glycine max) Leguminosae
Normally refined. May also act as a skin sensitiser on some individuals. Mainly produced for the industrial market so should be avoided.
Sunflower (Helianthus anuus) Compositae/Asteraceae 100% dilution
50-70% linoleic, 20-40% oleic, 3-10% palmitic, 2-10% stearic.
This oil has a deep yellow colour with a mild nutty aroma. It is useful for skin diseases, bruising and leg ulcers. It is easily absorbed and is an inexpensive general purpose oil. Used in the diet, it is easily digested and is traditionally thought be good for asthmatics.
Tamanu (Caulophyllum inophyllum) Guttiferae 2-10% dilution
Terpenic essences, benzoic and oxybenzoic acid, vitamin F, lipids, glycerides and saturated fatty acids, calophyllolide, calophyllic acid, coumarin derivatives, phosphoro-amino acids.
This oil isprepared from the seeds and berries of the plant. The berries and the cold pressed or infused oil are used in traditional medicine in Madagascar and Tahiti. The Madagascan preparation is referred to as Foraha and is mainly used in hair care preparations. In Tahiti the oil is used for a wide range of conditions; it is said to increase the oxygen circulation to the capillaries, rejuvenating tissues and aiding detoxification. It is used to treat a wide range of skin conditions including ulcers, atonic wounds, shingles, scars, eczema, burns, and surgical wounds. However, it should be used at low concentrations since it can irritate sensitive or damaged skin. It has also been used to treat haemorrhoids and in the treatment of sciatica and rheumatism. It has also been used to treat neuritis caused by leprosy. It has an antibiotic action, but is very warming on the skin. It should not be used on people with multiple sclerosis.
Vitamin E oil is a preparation of isolated vitamin E (normally alpha tecopherol) in sunflower oil. The highest concentration available is 4% at present.
Wheatgerm (Triticum vulgare) Graminae 10-25% dilution
10% linolenic, 28% oleic, 14% palmitic, 3% stearic.
This oil is high in vitamin E (about 190 mg in 100 g), provitamins A and D, lecithin.The oil is a deep rich orange and has a strong odour. It has anti-oxidant properties that protect the double membrane of cells and help in scarring, stretch marks and aging. It is also considered to improve the elasticity of blood vessels. Because of it’s rich odour and sticky texture it is normally used diluted in another oil. In cases of people with wheat sensitivity it may be better to substitute a vitamin E oil.
Cocoa butter is emollient, highly stable, and does not easily become rancid. It is quickly absorbed. It is solid at room temperature and therefore useful for creams. It melts at body temperature and is therefore used to make pessaries and suppositories.
Carnauba wax has a high melting point, is nontoxic and dermatophilic. Used in lip balms and a useful alternative to beeswax for vegans.
Beeswax contains essential oils which give it its honey aroma. It does not get digested when eaten. It is dermatophilic and healing to the skin and is traditionally chewed like chewing gum to relieve sinus congestion.
Macerated oils and herbal creams
Macerated oils are an infusion of a therapeutically valuable plant in a bland oil such as olive, sunflower or almond. Traditionally, the plant material is placed in a clear glass container, covered in oil and left in the sunlight (or a hot press) for 2-3 weeks. If the oil is not sufficiently saturated at this point it may be filtered off and poured over a fresh batch of plant material. During this process active constituents diffuse into the carrier and the plant material can then be filtered off. They can be prepared at home, and there is an alternative hot method, where the herb is placed into a double boiler and covered with oil, then heated gently for 2-3 hours, although I feel that this does not produce such a good preparation. With some species such as Stellaria a therapeutically active oil can only be prepared from fresh plant material. Herbal creams are traditionally made from the macerated oil, but may also contain the tincture or infusion of the herb.
Uses and applications
They are usually used externally (but can be taken internally, again remember we are not allowed to prescribe internally at present), and may be incorporated into a blend or used to make ointments and lotions. Again, note that some of the properties are only from internal usage. It is particularly important to note that an infused oil does not necessarily possess all the characteristics of the whole herb, or the essential oil. As with all botanical preparations, always check the botanical name since substitutions and adulterations occur; for example in the cosmetic industry some so called carrot oil is actually made from Tagetes sp. and looks similar but has different therapeutic properties. Note that infused oils may contain wheatgerm oil as a preservative and this may make them unsuitable for people with wheat allergy.
Because they are prepared by using sunlight, they would be stored in a cool, dark place in order to get the best shelf life. Although many contain wheatgerm as a preservative they are probably best used within a year so buy small quantities, and make sure they are supplied in dark glass bottles. Alternatively make your own.
Properties and uses of specific oils
ARNICA (Arnica montana) is prepared from the flowers. Its main action is as an antiphlogistic and capillary tonic in bruising, sprains and rheumatic pain and phlebitis. This herb is highly toxic when taken internally and the oil/cream should not be applied to broken skin. Daisy infused oil is not widely available commercially but has all the same actions without the toxicity issues. We find daisy superior in action and therefore recommend making this one, especially as it is more local.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is produced from the fresh or dried flowering heads. This oil contains sterols, flavonoids and the essential oil (which is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain by distillation). Being astringent and anti-inflammatory, this oil is particularly useful for it’s healing properties on scarred and damaged skin. It is also used in the treatment of inflamed skin conditions. It is therefore used for nappy rash, chapped or cracked skin, dry eczema, varicose veins and leg ulcers, haemorrhoids bed sores, bruises, chilblains, cracked nipples, thread veins, bruises, neuralgia, fungal infections of the skin, cuts and grazes. An absolute and a CO2 extract are also prepared from this plant. The tincture is also used externally for the treatment of varicose veins and cold sores. It is not to be confused with macerated oils from other marigolds from Tagetes minuta or glandulifera.
Carrot (Daucus carota) oil is prepared from the root of the carrot, and is rich in ß-carotene, as well as vitamins B, C, D and E. It is used for burns and inflamed conditions. It is also reputed to lessen free radical damage and therefore slow the aging process. Make sure it is the true oil and not from Tagetes sp. It is very orange and will stain towels and clothes.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria recuctita) oil is prepared from the flowers. It speeds healing and reduces swelling. It is used for treating teething, allergic skin reactions (unless allergic to the Asteraceae), anal and vulval irritation and fungal infections.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is prepared from the fresh herb, using the warm method. It is excellent for itchy and inflamed skin and is therefore used for eczema of all types, psoriasis and dermatitis. It is also used for drawing splinters, for insect stings, burns and scalds.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is prepared from the leaves and contains a protein called allantoin which encourages healthy cell division. This makes it valuable for treating wounds, skin ulcers, fractures, sprains, strains of muscles arthritic joints, inflamed bunions, soft tissue damage and joints. It also relieves itchy, rough skin, including psoriasis and eczema and aids the healing of burns. As an ointment or lotion it can help relieve arthritic and rheumatic joints. Plantain leaf oil has similar properties.
Hypericum/St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is prepared from the whole flowering plant. One active constituent is hypericin, a deep red pigment. It also contains a volatile oil, glycosides, pectins and rutin. It is particularly useful for nerve tissue damage and inflammation that occurs with sciatica, neuralgia, fibrositis and Bell’s palsy. It may also help with Parkinson’s and MS. It is used for burns, ulcers, sores, bites, bruises and to ease the discomfort of rheumatic and arthritic joints. It softens the skin and keeps it supple.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is a familiar plant which grows in ditches throughout Ireland. The flowering tops are used to produce an oil which is traditionally used for arthritis and aches and pains (it was one of the first sources of aspirin). Perhaps best avoided by individuals sensitive to aspirin.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)is prepared from the tall flower spikes. This oil is antiseptic and astringent. It can therefore be used for haemorrhoids, wounds and chilblains. It may also help relieve rheumatism and arthritis.
WITCH HAZEL (Hamamelis virginiana) is prepared from the bark. Being rich in tannins the cream is strongly astringent. It can therefore be used for haemorrhoids, bruises and inflamed swellings. It also can relieve the pain of varicose veins.
Hydrosols/hydrolats/floral waters/ aromatic waters
These are produced by steam distillation of plant material and contain the water-soluble constituents. Cohobation is sometimes used, meaning that the water passes through many batches of plant material, so that the distillate is highly concentrated and contains the active water soluble components of the essence. Therefore the hydrosol has some similar properties to the essential oil, but may also have properties of the parent species that are absent in the essential oil. In some species there may be a commercially available hydrosol where no essential oil is available e.g. witch hazel and cornflower.
Hydrolats may also be prepared from non-aromatic plants such as oak, beech and fern. The main groups of molecules which dissolve are the hydroxylic alcohols and acids, which give hydrosols their anti-inflammatory and mildly antiseptic actions. It is these suspended or dissolved particles that give the hydrolat its therapeutic action, and the first 20 litres are the best for therapeutic purposes.
Hydrolats should not contain preservatives, therefore they have a short shelf life, unless cared for properly. They may last up to 2 years, if stored in a cool, dark place. If they contain small particles or ‘bloom’ it does not mean they have gone off, but need to be filtered. Home brew filters are ideal. You will be able to smell if they are ‘off’, but remember that they are ‘living’ substances, so their aroma may alter slightly after purchase.
Uses and applications
- Cosmetically as cleansers and toners
- As an alternative to water in the formulation of moisturisers, creams and lotions
- Additives to bland bases. Facial steaming and inhalations, either neat or diluted
- Foot baths, sitz baths and full body baths (1 litre is recommended by some authorities for a full bath!)
- In the preparation of compresses and poultices
- Sponging (especially in fevers, or for those requiring ‘blanket baths’ or spraying the skin and hair
- When the skin is too damaged to touch, working on the elderly and very frail e.g. in hospices and for infants
- They may also be used for washing out orifices e.g. the vagina
- They may be used in humidifying devices instead of ordinary water, or you could devise your own
- In hot weather or centrally heated environments, I keep a spray bottle of hydrolat with me to spray over the face, neck etc. to keep me cool (in every sense of the word!)
- They may be taken internally and used in cooking. For internal usage about one teaspoon is added to a cup of water
The following are the main cited applications, but try experimenting with them:-
Anthemis nobilis is soothing, antihistamine and anti-allergic. It is useful eyewash for hay fever, for dermatitis, eczema, nappy rash, healing wounds and inflammation and in inhalations to relieve swollen sinuses and catarrh. It is sedative.
Centaura cyanus (Cornflower) main uses are for irritated eyes or skin. It has a cooling action.
Citrus aurantium flos is a digestive tonic, in compresses and internally, especially nervous indigestion. As cleanser and tonic it is valuable for impure, sallow, sensitive and scarred skin. It is very uplifting and helps to treat shock and trauma and relieve nervousness.
Eucalyptus globulus – as with the essential oil, it is particularly useful as an inhalation or warm compress for respiratory infections.
Fucus vesiculosis (Bladderwrack)has been used traditionally to cleanse the system (sic. the baths at Ballybunion) and therefore good for arthritis and rheumatism, possibly cellulite too.
Hamamelis virginiana (Witch hazel) is used to treat haemorrhoids, bruises, and inflamed swellings, including varicose veins. Also used for open pores and congested skin.
Helichrysum italicum is excellent for treating bruising, open wounds, abscesses and broken capillaries. It is also used for colds, sinus inflammation and fevers and is sedative.
Laurus nobilis – may be used in warm compresses for nerve pain and is used for its antiseptic properties in bacterial skin infections.
Lavandula angustifolia is good for all skin types and problems; especially eczema, sun/windburn, and babies’ skin including nappy rash and as a wash for candida. It is used in inhalations for respiratory problems. It is balancing.
Jasminum officinale is used ininhalations for coughs and sore throatsand on eye pads for soothing itchy eyes, conjunctivitis. It is toning for mature and greasy skin and is generally relaxing and calming.
Melissa officinalis is calming for irritated and allergic skin conditions and used in compresses for digestive spasms. It is sedative.
Mentha x piperata is used in compresses for digestive disorders, including diarrhoea , cramps, indigestion and colic. It is also used to treat seasickness, fevers, migraine, sinusitis and sunburn. It is cooling and astringeing, so useful for red complexions, broken veins, inflamed and infected skin. It is also analgesic and excellent as a foot spray to cool and deodorize tirde feet. It can also be used as a spray to cool menopausal hot flushes.
Myrtus communis is soothing and healing for the skin, used in inhalations for respiratory problems and to calm the nerves.
Rosa damascena is used to treat Spider nevae, wrinkled skin, dermatitis, dehydrated, dry, broken and sensitive skin. It is also used in eye baths and mouthwashes and is considered uplifting and sedative.
Rosmarinus officinalis is a good astringent that stimulates the circulation. It is used as an aperitif and a tonic for the elderly. It is also a good antiseptic aftershave and for purifying congested skin.
Salvia sclarea is useful for congested, irritated or sensitive skin. It is especially useful for mature skin. It may be used as a toner, facial steam or mist.
Sambucus nigra flos (Elderflower)is used in eye and skin lotions. It is mildly astringent and stimulating, and therefore used in compresses for bruises, sprains and chilblains. It is useful for whitening and softening the skin and preventing blemishes and is also popular as an aftershave to astringe and close the pores. It is used in baths, inhalations and footbaths for colds and influenza.
Tilia x europea (Linden, Lime flower) is useful as a nervine in foot or full baths. It is especially refreshing and relaxing sponged over the face and neck for headaches, including migraine.
There are many other hydrosols available and this is a fascinating area of therapeutics to explore.