An essential oil is a concentrated, hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from 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. These do not as a group need to have any specific chemical properties in common, beyond conveying characteristic fragrances. They are not to be confused with essential fatty acids. These are generally extracted by distillation. Other processes include expression, or solvent extraction. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics and bath products, for flavoring food and drink, and for scenting incense and household cleaning products. Although highly fragrant, concretes contain large quantities of non-fragrant waxes and resins. As such another solvent, often ethyl alcohol, which only dissolves the fragrant low-molecular weight compounds, is used to extract the fragrant oil from the concrete. The alcohol is removed by a second distillation, leaving behind the absolute.
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 these 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 these 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 volatilized or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, or burned as incense, for example. Most flowers contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression and their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, a solvent such as hexane or supercritical carbon dioxide is used to extract the oils. Extracts from hexane and other hydrophobic solvent are called concretes, which is a mixture of waxes, resins, and other lipophilic (oil soluble) plant material.
Today, most common essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus, are distilled. Raw plant material, consisting of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water. As the water is heated the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel. Most citrus peel oils are expressed mechanically, or cold-pressed. Due to the large quantities of oil in citrus peel and the relatively low cost to grow and harvest the raw materials, citrus-fruit oils are cheaper than most other than these. Lemon or sweet orange oils that are obtained as by-products of the citrus industry are even cheaper.