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Episode 230: What is an Essential Oil?

In this episode we sit down with Dr. Scott Johnson to discuss what an essential oil is. He'll talk about why some plants give us essential oils when others don't, how long people have been using essential oils, how we get essential oils, and more. Plus he'll share some excellent resources like, the doTERRA Essential Oil Specialist Certification course, the doTERRA Essential Oil Safety Course, and the AromaTouch Technique Certification course, to help you learn more about essential oils.

This episode is sponsored by MetaPWR System, learn more about how you can get a free, exclusive copy of the doTERRA MetaPWR: The 3-Step System for Metabolic Health audiobook by purchasing a the MetaPWR System.

If you'd like to enroll to be a doTERRA member and receive a 25% wholesale discount on all products click here.


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doTERRA: We talk about essential oils every week on this podcast but, what is an essential oil? Today we'll break it all down for you.

Welcome back to Essential Oil Solutions with doTERRA, the podcast where you'll hear exciting, useful, and simple everyday uses for essential oils from experts in the field.

Today’s episode is brought to you by the MetaPWR System. Designed to help you live your most powerful life, this three-step system will be a game-changer in your daily routine as you embark on your journey to supporting a healthy metabolism.

Right now, as a podcast exclusive if you buy the MetaPWR System and enter the promo code PODCAST at checkout, we’ll send you an exclusive audiobook, doTERRA MetaPWR: The 3-Step System for Metabolic Health.

Check out the link in our episode description or visit to learn more. Open to US orders only.

Today we're excited to talk to Dr. Scott Johnson, Director of Product Management and author of multiple books and hundreds of articles about health, wellness, and essential oils, all about what an essential oil is.

Scott, thank you so much for sitting down with us today.

Scott Johnson: My pleasure. I'm glad to be with you again.

The Basics

doTERRA: We are so excited to have you here to talk about this basic foundational level of, what is an essential oil? So, to start, can you tell us what is the basic definition of an essential oil?

Scott: You know, the funny answer to that is that it really depends on who or what organization you're asking to define it.

But the basic definition of an essential oil is a highly aromatic, volatile and concentrated plant extract, which are most commonly extracted by steam distillation, hydro distillation or mechanical extraction like cold pressing.

So, anything extracted by a solvent would not technically be an essential oil. Others want to exclude cold pressed essential oils like those we get from citrus because of the different extraction method which can change the chemistry.

And then some organizations and research papers use a broader definition of essential oils that focuses on the chemistry of the end product. In this way, they include aromatic extracts from supercritical carbon dioxide as essential oils, because certain extracts from this process can very closely mirror an essential oil. However, from a regulatory perspective, essential oils are only obtained from distillation and cold pressing processes.

Plants Used for Essential Oils

doTERRA: That is fascinating. And looking at those plants, why is it that some plants give us essential oils and others don't?

Scott: It largely has to do with which plants contain the necessary structures and enzymes to produce them. Essential oils are produced by glandular trichomes and other secretory structures through isoprenoid pathways.

A large group of enzymes called terpene synthases create essential oils that are stored in the glands of the plants until they diffuse through the wall of the gland and evaporate to produce their characteristic aroma.

So, only plants that have these structures and enzymes and pathways will produce essential oils.

History of Essential Oils

doTERRA: And it sounds like probably in the beginning there was a lot of, you know, testing to see what you could get from different plants. When is it that people started to be interested in essential oils and how did they get them back then?

Scott: Yeah, there has been a connection with aromatics and humans as as long as recorded history, historical and archaeological record suggests that aromatic essences, not true essential oils as we consider them today, but aromatic essences have been used throughout history.

Early civilizations across the world extracted aromatic, volatile molecules through crude processes that involved animal or vegetable fats. It wasn't until about the 10th or the 11th century that true essential oils obtained via distillation were produced.

Since then, scientists have explored their chemistry and properties, and clinicians and individuals have experienced their benefits, making them grow in popularity.

Distillation Methods

doTERRA: And you mentioned this briefly, but how is it that we're getting those essential oils today?

Scott: This kind of goes back to our original question of what an essential oil is. Essential oils are obtained mostly through steam distillation, but some essential oils like Frankincense, are obtained through hydro distillation. The difference between steam and hydro distillation is that in hydro distillation, the plant materials are directly immersed in the boiling water, whereas in steam distillation, the boiling water is below the plant material. So, the steam comes up and passes through the plants and then ruptures the glands that contain essential oils.

A third way is through mechanical expression, like cold pressing, which is used for citrus essential oils. I should mention that citrus oils can also be distilled.

Aromatic extracts are also obtained through solvents like alcohol, which eventually produces an absolute or carbon dioxide which produces an aromatic extract.

Advances in Distillation

doTERRA: All of the science behind that is just so incredible. Now, with such a long history behind essential oils, it kind of feels like everything should be done and discovered already. But are we still learning how to distill new essential oils?

Scott: I wouldn't say we are still learning how to distill new essential oils. We are more refining and perfecting processes that have been used for centuries to produce the most desirable essential oils with true aromas and a balance of key volatile molecules.

The way you extract essential oils can significantly impact chemistry, and fortunately, we have hundreds of years of experience to help guide us in using the best methods for each botanical.

What Makes doTERRA Different?

doTERRA: Now, along those same lines, there are hundreds of different brands of essential oils on the market. What is it that is making doTERRA's essential oils different and separated from those other brands?

Scott: Well, how long do we have for the podcast? You know, that can be a really long topic, but I'll give you several things. But it really begins with our sourcing model. Our unique Co-impact Sourcing model allows us to have greater visibility in the supply chain and simultaneously empower small stakeholder farmers to make a fair and living wage for growing the plants we distill. This makes our supply chain sustainable and responsible, generates jobs, provides fair on time payments, expands supply, ensures fair conditions for all involved in the process, promotes cooperatives, furthers environmental stewardship, and facilitates community development.

We also have the most meticulous and robust testing process to confirm the purity, authenticity and efficacy of our essential oils. We layer test upon test upon test to confirm each bottle of doTERRA essential oils is pure free of contamination and contains the right ratio of volatile constituents to produce reliable benefits. Even more importantly, we are transparent in sharing these test results with the public so they can see the results for themselves.

Wellness Advocates and customers can enter the lot code on the bottom of their bottle at To see the full DCMS report for the bottle that they're holding in their hand.

Science is another thing that really sets doTERRA apart. We have teams of dedicated scientists that review existing literature during formulation and those that perform additional tests on essential oils for further discovery and confirmation of their perceived benefits.

In fact, doTERRA has gathered probably the greatest collection of the world's leading scientists and experts in essential oils, from chemistry to research and, of course, clinical application.

One other factor I'll mention is our goal to help heal the world. One way we do this is through our Healing Hands program that helps support community development projects, provides disaster relief, aids anti-human trafficking organizations, and delivers feminine hygiene education.

So, you can really see that's just a few, I'd say several of the things that set us apart. But that's even in and of itself is a huge list.

How to Learn More

doTERRA: Absolutely. Listening to that, it is just so incredible the effort that doTERRA puts in to make sure we are not only producing the most pure essential oils, but like you said, helping the world heal, helping the people we work with, and making sure we're leaving a good impact on the world.

Scott, before we end, what resources would you recommend if people are looking to further boost their foundational, essential oil knowledge?

Scott: Yeah, make sure that you take the doTERRA Essential Oils Specialist Certification Program that teaches the basics of essential oils and some key doTERRA products. It can be found at

You can also take a safety course there that shares best practices for using your doTERRA essential oils safely or learn the AromaTouch Technique.

I would also highly recommend attending any doTERRA event that is near you. We have events across the world which provide product education and there is just something about gathering with like-minded people who share similar passions for the natural solutions that doTERRA provides. It's an energy and excitement you won't want to miss.

doTERRA: I absolutely agree. There are so many resources that people can reach out to learn a little bit more, to dive a little bit deeper, and you can go as far as you want. There are so many studies and so many things that we have access to. There's no reason that everyone can't be an essential oil expert.

Scott: Absolutely.

doTERRA: Scott, thank you so much for being here with us today. We love learning from you and being able to take advantage of all of the essential oil knowledge you have.

Scott: Thank you. It's always fun to be sharing and have the opportunity to talk with you.

doTERRA: Thanks for joining us and congratulations on living a healthier lifestyle with essential oils. If you want to try any of the products you learned about, click on the link in the episode description or find a Wellness Advocate near you to place an order today. And remember, if you liked what you heard today, rate review and subscribe wherever you listen.

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