Macerations: The Ancient Art of Making Essential Oils

Posted by Meg Shehad on

This paper makes a distinction between fat or oil macerations and alcohol macerations. Oil macerations are similar to carriers and alcohol macerations are similar to absolutes. This paper will only explore the fat macerations.

Distillation is a relatively new process and our ancestors used various other techniques to get the healing properties of essential oilsand plants. Distillation of essential oils did not happen until the 10th century. Up until this time essential oils were used but primarily as incense. Plant material or resin was burned and the resultant smoke was used to heal or purify. Plant material would be thrown into a fire and the essential oils would be released. Essential oils could also be obtained from infusions. The herb, resin or plant material would be steeped in water, alcohol, or fat. A tea was nothing more than the plant being steeped for a few minutes in water and drank. If the plant had a high essential oil content, the oil would be floating on the top. An infusion steeped the plant material for hours or days. This process tended to yield more essential oil so the steeping process needed to be capped to stop the essential oils from evaporating. A maceration was an infusion with the plant material pressed or macerated. This process yielded the most essential oil. Distillation is not the only way to obtain essential oils and our ancestors were very capable of using and getting essential oils without it.

Essential oils are not soluble in water and only slightly soluble in alcohol. Fat was the best way to obtain essential oils. Enfleurage was a method of maceration. Two pieces of glass covered with an odorless fat spread pressed flowers or herbals between them. The fat became saturated with the essential oil was called a chassis The chassis would be cleared of the flower or herb and the process would start over. When the chassis could hold no more scent, it was called a pomade. The pomade would be treated with alcohol and an absolute would be extracted. This was a tedious process and it would take many pressings before the oil was sufficiently strong. The resultant product was also very expensive. Only the rich could afford such an oil. Infused macerations were still the best way to obtain essential oils until the discovery of distillation. This made essential oils more affordable but still out of the price range for most. Essential Oils were primarily distilled for the perfume, cosmetic, and liquor industry. The ordinary person still used infused macerations for their daily needs.

Maceration became a popular and inexpensive way to get essential oils and other plant healing properties to the people. With the appearance of pharmaceutical drugs in the late 1880’s, homemade preparations like macerations fell out of favor. Little was written down and much of the process was lost. The 1960’s saw a questioning of “modern practices” and a turning to more natural ways of living. The pharmaceutical industry was held in suspicion and making your own herbal preparations were revisited. Many looked to the Native Americans and other ancient cultures to relearn or regain information about making these preparations. The old ways of producing essential oils inexpensively were lost, but are now being rediscovered.

Aromatherapy started in France at the beginning of the 20th century. Healing with scent began to be researched and essential oils were considered pharmaceuticals. In France, doctors prescribed them. Essential oils although not as expensive as they once were are still expensive. Vast amounts of organic material are used to yield a little oil. Essential oils are only the very light or scented portion of the plant and often lack many of the qualities that the whole herb possesses. Many herbs if distilled will not have the same healing properties as the herb because the healing properties of the herb do not distill.

Fat macerations allow you to obtain essential oil and other healing chemicals from the herb. Fat macerations have a delicate scent and can be used just like essential oils. It takes twice as much maceration as essential oil to do the job, but maceration are generally less expensive and can be made in the home. Another benefit of macerations is they are more complex than essential oils and have other healing properties.

Oil macerations being more complex than essential oils contain flavonoids and glucosides. Flavonoids and glucosides are soluble in fat just like essential oils but they are too heavy to be distilled. Flavonoids give the plant its color especially the color yellow which means flavus in Latin. Dyes are often flavonoids. They are also very powerful antioxidants and metal chelators. Glucosides can be powerful healers and pain killers.

Flavoniods are polyphenolic compounds possessing 15 carbon atoms, two benzene rings joined by a linear three carbon chain. The chemical structure of flavonoids are based on a C15 skeleton with a chromane ring bearing a second aromatic ring B in position 2,3, or 4. Flavonoids are a major part of flowering plants as flavonoids create the color of the flower or flower pigments. Flavoniods are not restricted to the flower and can be found through out the plant.

Flavoniods are antioxidants. Antioxidants naturally occur to protect the body from harmful free radicals. Free radicals are thought to promote aging and disease. Flavoniods are often the major component of an herb’s ability to heal. The herb produces flavoniods to protect themselves from parasites, bacteria, and heal cell injury. There are more than 4,000 flavonoids documented. Certain flavoniods in fruits and vegetables have much greater antioxidant activity than vitamin C and E. Antioxidants help to heal and protect the body from exposure to radiation, sun, toxic chemicals, cigarettes, and air pollution. When the body breaks down fat in the body, free radicals are often produced. Flavoniods help the body defend against these free radicals. Flavonoids are strong antioxidants.

Some flavonoids are called bioflavonoids. They can also be called vitamin P. Bioflavonids strengthen the capillary walls and increase the body’s ability to make use of vitamin C. Some times you will see flavonoids grouped with glycosides or a sub group of glycosides.

Flavoniods are also known as antispasmodics and diuretics plus they can stimulate the circulation and heart. Flavonoids are thought to lower blood pressure. Essential oils have long been noted for their ability to soothe and reduce stress lowering blood pressure. An oil maceration with added essential oils could prove to be quite desirable for massage especially with urban populations dealing with the cities’ pollution and high stress. One only has to stop a minute and consider the benefits for the work out enthusiast to help relieve their tired aching body.

Glycosides have sugar as a part of their chemical structure. Glycosides are molecules containing a carbohydrate (sugar) and a noncarbohydrate residue. The carbohydrate residue is attached by an acetal linkage at carbon atom 1 and is called an aglycone. The aglycone is the noncarbohydrate part of the glycoside. The sugar or carbohydrate part is called a glycone. When the sugar is glucose, the molecule is called a glucoside.

Glycosides are powerful healing compounds and they are grouped in many subgroups. One of these groups is called a cardioactive group because of plants like foxglove, lily of the valley, and squill that produce a glycoside called digitoxin. This plant chemical was found to help heart disease. It had the ability to increase the force and power of the heartbeat without increasing the amount of oxygen needed by the heart muscle. Digitoxin can increase the efficiency of the heart and the same time steady excess heartbeats without strain to the heart. Digitoxin was synthesized into digitalis.

There are also other powerful glycosides like prussic acid found in bitter almond oil. Prussic or hydrocyanic acid has been used in cough medicines and tonics. Prussic acid is also thought of as a poison and in high doses can kill. Bitter almond oil usually has this removed but still has powerful components in it and it is usually not recommended for aromatherapy use.

Glycosides if taken internally tend to act as laxatives. Rhubarb and senna have laxative effects and it is thought that the glycosides in them cause this. Glycosides can have many different healing properties.

Another glycoside, salicin, is found in willow bark. It was shown to relieve fever and pain in the body. Salicin was synthesized into aspirin. This is a product used daily by many to promote a healthy heart and circulation. Some glycosides are very powerful and must be used with caution while others seem to be safe enough to use daily. Therefore if the maceration contains glycosides, they need to be identified as to their safety.

Fat Macerations can be used in place of essentials or used as carriers for essential oils. If used in place of essential oils, more will need to be used. If you were using two drops of essential oil, you will need to use at least four drops or more to get the desired results. Fat macerations can also be used like a carrier and essential oils are added to the maceration. This makes a more powerful or broader spectrum product. Macerations can be used more often as they are not as caustic to the body and so there is usually not a need to dilute them. Cayenne maceration would be a noted exception

They can be used like massage oil. For massage therapists who wish to give their clients a little more, the macerations are great. The therapist can add the maceration to their normal massage oil in drops like an essential oil or in ounces like a fixed oil. You can also add essential oils to the maceration and use the maceration like a massage oil. Another way is to add drops of essential oil to a maceration combined with other fixed oils. There are many ways to work macerations into your massage protocol.

The macerations can be created into ointments, balms, lotions, creams, salt scrubs, bath salts, bath oils, scalp conditioners, dry hair conditioner, suppositories, and lip moisturizers. Recipes can be found in many aromatherapy and herbal books. Try a few and see what works best for you.

Ointments and balms are easier to make than lotions and creams. Here is an ointment recipe.

4 oz Ointment 
Create your maceration or purchase
2oz Shea Butter
1 Tablespoon beeswax
2oz Maceration 

Heat the Shea Butter and beeswax until it melts. Cool to room temperature. Pour in the maceration and any essential oils or dry herbals that you want to add to your ointment. Pour into clean 1oz jars. Cap. Put into freezer for 30 minutes. Check to see that it has set. Allow to come to room temperature. Wipe the jar for moisture and label.

Making Macerations
There are several ways to make macerations. Recipes will differ on the amount of plant material, whether the plant material is dried or fresh, processing the maceration in the light or the dark, the amount of fatty oil used, and the kinds of fatty oils used. This recipe is as simple as it gets and you are free to change it as you see fit.

Cut the herb or flower and add it to a jar or hang it to dry. The leaves may need to be chopped or pressed before adding to the jar. Flowers should not be pressed until they are ready to be discarded. When the herb is in the jar, cover it with a fixed oil. We prefer fractionated coconut oil as it is sterile and will not go rancid for a long period of time. Jojoba is also another good choice as is olive oil. Your maceration is only as good as the oil you use to capture the herbal properties. Sweet Almond is to be avoided as is Borage and Evening Primrose as they go rancid very rapidly. Other fatty oils can be used like avocado and pecan depending on how fast you will use the maceration. Set the clear jar of herb and oil in the window and let the sun heat the oil. If the oil goes cloudy, there is water present. Add salt and it will absorb the water. After days or weeks, strain the plant material and salt off. Press all the oil out of the plant material before discarding. You can add more plant material and repeat the process or put the jar on the shelf and let it sit for several weeks. Incorporating Macerations into Aromatherapy You can use macerations the same way you use carriers. You can grow your favorite herbs and plants and make your own macerations. It can take up to a year or longer to get a good maceration, although some practitioners use them after two weeks. I have found that if aged properly they have a better scent and they are stronger so you do not need to use as much.

This is a new field or a newly rediscovered field. The study of macerations can easily be shared with other aromatherapists in the form of seminars and lectures. Lastly you can create some new products with your macerations. This allows you to totally personalize your personal line by the plants that you can grow in your garden or plant containers. This is a new area of study so it is wide open as to its applications. It is great fun making the macerations and with time much valuable information will come forth. Aromatherapy is a very exciting discipline. So much is yet to be discovered and learned. You may be part of this great adventure. I look forward to hearing from you.


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