The History of Distillation

          Cultures have been using aromas for their therapeutic properties for many years. China is one of the first documented (3000 B.C.) to explore the use of fragrance. They believed to achieve balance you need to have six harmonies, which include tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined and noble. In the early 1900’s Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, René-Maurice Gattefossé René-Maurice GattefosséRené-Maurice Gattefossé René-Maurice Gattefossé a French perfumer and chemist came up with the term “aromatherapy: the use of aromas for their healing properties” (Petersen, 2016, p. 18).

          One of the earliest ways of releasing scents into the air was through the burning of incense and oils, especially among the Egyptians during animal sacrifices to help mask the odor of burning flesh. In modern days one popular way to release aromas into the air is through burning essential oils. Essential oils are made from plant material (root, peel, bark, leaf, seed, bulb, berries, flower, resin, nut) and are extracted mainly through steam distillation. The first distillation unit is thought to be from 4000 B.C. This was a very simple make up, two egg shaped containers connected by a pipe. The plant matter was heated up in one side, then the bonded steam and essential oil would pass through the pipe and into the second container where it would become a liquid and the oil and water would then separate.

          The “distillation method improved by Avicenna (AD 980-1036) of Persia who refined the process by lengthening the cooling pipes” (Petersen, 2016, p.40). This new process allowed for more essential oil to be obtained from the plant matter. There are three main ways of distilling: water distillation (plant matter is submerged into water), water and steam distillation (plant matter is partially submerged into water and partly in steam), direct steam distillation (plant matter has no contact with water, only steam passing through). Currently, new distillation techniques are being explored to improve the quality of oil, with producing little waste from the plant material. Microwave distillation makes it more convenient to produce your own essential oil at home.

          Through research in the 1800’s it was found that essential oils contained natural constituents which were isolated and known to have healing factors. Current research is being conducted on essential oils to validate their uses therapeutically. In a study titled Aromatherapy: Using Essential Oils for Supportive Therapy, nurses use essential oils on patients with cancer to help with side effects. It was found that “lavender, peppermint, and orange are common, affordable essential oils that can help support patients with cancer who experience insomnia, nausea, and anxiety” (Reis & Jones, 2017).

            If using essential oils for their therapeutic properties it is important to know where in the plant the essential oil is stored so that when the plant is distilled the correct active constituents are taken/used. Anxiety is an emotional disorder that many people suffer from. An alternitive to pharmaceuticals to treat this disorder, one can turn to essential oils. A study titled The effect of Aromatherapy on anxiety in patients  proved “inhalation of rose water can improve the patient's emotional and spiritual condition and noticeably reduces the anxiety” (Barati, Nasiri, Akbari, & Sharifzadeh, 2016).

          Inhailing aromas has been one method used by many cultures to absorb therapeutic properties of herbs and oils. A study titled Inhalation effects of aroma essential oil on quality of sleep for shift nurses after night work showed that “the inhalation of aroma essential oil had effects to increase the quality of sleep” (Kim & Hur, 2017). The nurses in this study inhailed lavender before going to sleep, and had better quality of sleep than the nurses who did not inhail the essential oil.

          There are many studies that support the use of essential oils for therapeutic uses. This is possible because essential oils were distilled from plant matter, then looked at scientifically to validate their historical and current uses.


Barati, F., Nasiri, A., Akbari, N., & Sharifzadeh, G. (2016). The effect of Aromatherapy on anxiety in patients. Nephro-urology monthly., 8(5), . Retrieved from

Kim, W., & Hur, M. (2017). Inhalation effects of aroma essential oil on quality of sleep for shift nurses after night Work. Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing., 46(6), 769–779. Retrieved from

Petersen, D. (2016). Aroma 203 Aromatherapy 1. portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences, pp. 18, 40.

Reis, D., & Jones, T. (2017). Aromatherapy: Using essential oils as a supportive therapy. Clinical journal of oncology nursing., 21(1), 16–19. Retrieved from