Distillation produces both essential oil and the watery hydrosol. Depending on the plant that is distilled, only about 10 percent of the product of distillation is oil and it floats to the surface of the hydrosol. Typically, the oil is removed from the top and considered the main product. The 90 percent that remains is the hydrosol or essential water. This hydrosol contains the water-soluble aromatic components of the herb.
Although people have been making herbal distillates for thousands of years, in modern times, their use has waned and they have been discarded, considered by many to be an unusable byproduct of the essential oil industry. When distilling primarily for the essential water rather than the essential oil, the quality of this portion of the distillate increases. Distilling for the aromatic water means using less pressure and more time than one would for distilling essential oils.
ESSENTIAL WATER AND ESSENTIAL OIL DIFFERENCES
Understanding these differences will clarify why they are not used as often and why they are perfect for use on the skin. The watery portion of a plant distillate is bulky compared to the essential oil portion, so they take up more space. Ideally, an herbal distillate should be refrigerated. As a fresh product composed mainly of water, they are prone to bacterial and fungal growth; they must be handled carefully to keep microorganisms out of the product. They can be purchased with added preservatives to help prevent microbial growth. This addition can be tricky as some preservatives change the color, aroma, and other properties of the hydrosol.
Science has studied the chemical components of essential oils, so much is known about their makeup. The same cannot be said about hydrosols. They do contain some of the same aromatic molecules as essential oils, but in a lower concentration. They also contain many water-soluble, volatile organic compounds that are not found in the essential oil. For this reason, their aroma is often more like that of the actual plant than the essential oil. These water-soluble, organic acids help make them skin friendly.
Hydrosols are typically clear and colorless to slightly yellowish. They are watery and soluble in water (hydrophilic). Essential oils range in color from clear to brown and have an oily feel; they are soluble in oil (hydrophobic).
Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts and, as a result, are not safe to use directly on the skin. They should always be diluted in a carrier oil. Hydrosols are more dilute, making them skin-friendly; they can also be used directly on the skin. Their aroma is lighter and slightly different from the essential oil. In fact, the aroma of a lavender distillate is quite reminiscent of honey.
Although it is known that essential waters are therapeutic, these properties are also less documented than the therapeutic properties of essential oils; this lack of documentation, however, is changing with their increased use. Hydrosols are considered to be the original method in which aromatherapy was practiced and have a long history of safe use. They are considered to be safe to ingest, but more information should be obtained before they are used in that manner.
WHAT ISN'T AN ESSENTIAL WATER?
Unfortunately there is quite a bit of confusion about these products. Many people will add a few drops of essential oil to water and try to pass it off as an essential water or plant distillate. This mixture, however, is not the same thing. There are also many other types of water-based herb extracts, such as teas or tisanes, that are also different. When buying an essential water or hydrosol, make sure it is a distilled product. The term 'herbal distillate' usually implies that it is.
THE USE OF HERBAL DISTILLATES
All distillates are useful for hydrating and refreshing the skin. Because they have a pH between 4 to 6, distillates are also helpful for restoring the skin's natural pH; as a result, they are popular as toners. Each distillate has its own unique aromatherapy benefits.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – The anti-inflammatory properties of chamomile are great for the skin. Sometimes, the distillate can have a somewhat bittersweet aroma.
Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) – This water has a somewhat sharp, musk-like aroma, but is very pleasing. It is calming yet stimulating, balances the nerves and hormones, is analgesic, decongestant, and eases PMS and moodiness. Clients should try it for hot flashes and congested skin.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus) – Cucumber is cooling and soothing to the skin. Its tannins can help tighten the skin.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Lavender water is ideal for the spa primarily due to its relaxing and anti-anxiety properties. Lavandula angustifolia is the species to use for the most relaxing qualities and is typically readily available. It also pairs well with other waters, such as rose geranium or rose. It is beneficial for all skin types and nice easing the heat of summer or a sunburn.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) – Lemon balm has a lovely smell, although it is very faint. Use lemon balm as a mild nervine to help with stress. It is both a sedative and stimulant, which means it can calm stress without making one sleepy.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) – Mint hydrosol has a nice smell of mint and menthol. It is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, decongestive, and sedative/stimulant. It is good to use mid-day to clear the mind and emotions during work. It is also good to keep in the car to stimulate alertness.
Rose (Rosa damascena or other species) – Rose distillate is a great way to enjoy the scent of rose without the heavy price tag of rose essential oil! Also known as rose water, the rose distillate has a beautiful floral scent that smells just like roses, much more so than the essential oil. It is cooling, great for dry and mature skin, anti-inflammatory, comforting and heart-centered. Clients can use it to promote peace and contentment in the spa.
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) – Tulsi is an adaptogenic herb that helps reduce stress and support the nervous system. Its fragrance can be very uplifting and can put the mind back on track when it is tired and wandering.
Different hydrosols can be combined to give the effects of both, offering professionals a great opportunity to experiment and have fun!
HOW TO USE HERBAL DISTILLATES
Essential waters are less aggressive than essential oils, but are still potent. They are safe for babies and the elderly. They are particularly good in a bath because, being water soluble, they dissolve well in the water. They are also rich in antioxidants that help repair skin and anti-inflammatories that calm skin. These qualities make them perfect for use in the spa, particularly a holistic spa.
Here are some additional ways professionals and clients can use hydrosols or herbal distillates:
Use them in a facial steamer. Unlike an essential oil, the water-based hydrosol will not clog the steamer. Use about three to four tablespoons in the reservoir of water. A few tablespoons can also be added to a towel steamer.
Use hydrosols in a clay mask. Hydrosols are perfect for mixing with dry clay to achieve the proper consistency to apply as a mask for the face and body.
Use distillates in bath water. For adults, use two to three cups per bath; for children, use half a cup. Aromatic waters can also be added to a sitz bath or a foot bath and hand soak. Use about one cup of distillate in the soak.
Use on cosmetic eye pads. Distillates can be used on either cooled or heated eye pads.
Spritz some on the face between each step of a facial.
Put one tablespoon in a glass of water to drink. Be sure that, if it contains a preservative, it is safe for ingestion.
Try to develop a ritual that goes along with the spa. Water, in general, is symbolically good for purification, so hydrosols fit nicely into that category. Through distillation, the plant itself has gone through a purification and a transformation; this process can be symbolic of clients being purified and transformed.
It is important for professionals to know that they are getting a good quality product when buying a hydrosol. Be sure to buy a product that is obtained from distillation and not another process; there are imitations on the market. Many good distillates are sold by the farms that grow and distill the herbs. Know the botanical name of the desired distillate and be sure it is labeled in that way, not just with the common name. This specification is especially important when buying lavender as there are multiple types. Being water-based and a fresh product, hydrosols are prone to bacterial and fungal contamination. They should be refrigerated or contain a preservative. Alternatively, buy hydrosols in small quantities so that storage is not an issue. Be very mindful of examining the product for signs of contamination. For this reason, hydrosols should be stored in a clear container.
Cindy Jones, Ph.D. is formulator and owner of Colorado Aromatics Cultivated Skin Care, a farm-to-skin line that uses the power of herbs and science. Jones has been distilling herbs on her farm and using hydrosols for 10 years. coloradoaromatics.com