An Aromatic Glossary of Useful Terms

We'd like to  thank Jeanne Rose, herbalist/aromatherapist extraordinaire for generously allowing us to use this glossary from her book The Aromatherapy Book.

We highly recommend all of her fine books.  They can be found at her site  Or you may call her at (415) 564-6785.

 AT = Aromatherapy      EO = Essential Oil      PEO = Pure Essential Oil

A - F

Absolute - An absolute is not a raw material, but a prepared perfume material.  These substances are highly concentrated, completely alcohol-soluble and are usually liquid.  Absolutes are obtained by the alcohol extraction of a concrete (see concrete) or from the fatty extracts of plants.  Occasionally absolutes are solid or semi-solid (Clary Sage).  Absolutes can also be obtained from the water of a distillation process, such as Lavender water-absolute or Rose water-absolute.  Absolutes from pommades are often considered essential oils; they are "volatile oils" (see volatile oil).  The part of an Absolute one can steam-distill is called as Absolute oil.

Acid - This refers to a substance with a pH below 7.0 (normally hair and skin have a pH between 4.0 and 6.0) used to control bacteria on the skin and keep the skin healthy.  Acid is the opposite of alkaline.  Even though some of the best-made soaps are slightly alkaline, this alkalinity helps to temporarily reduce skin pH so that dirt and grease can be stripped or washed away, and then the skin returns very quickly to its normal slightly acid pH.  Strongly alkaline cosmetics and strong alkaline soaps can upset normal skin pH level (especially for those who are unhealthy).

Acidophilus - There are several varieties of bacteria that thrive in acid environments.  These include Bifidus (mother's milk bacteria) and Acidophilus (healthy intestinal bacteria).  These are helpful in digestive upsets, as treatments for certain vaginal disorders, and as treatments in skin care.  For instance, yogurt can be thinned with water, certain essential oils added (such as Tea Tree), and a cleansing "skin milk" or vaginal douche is the result.

Adulteration - Essential oils are often adulterated, that is, changed, cut, diluted or mixed with synthetic scents.  Some essential oils are extended, that is, diluted with pure fruit kernel or nut oils (Hazelnut oil, Almond oil or Apricot oil).  This is done to increase the profit of the manufacturer or seller of the

product.  If a cheap volatile or synthetic oil as been added to an essential oil and called pure or PEO, then this is a case of adulteration and not to be tolerated.  Go to any store and price some Rose oil.  It should cost about $1,000 an ounce or $10 a milliliter.  If it costs less it is definitely a victim of adulteration or is simply synthetic (that is, made from non-plant sources).  [I have seen PEO Rose for sale at $15/ml=20 drops.]  As Stefan Arctander says in Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, "...Adulteration...the intention of acquiring the business [order] through a devaluation of the oil in relation to the labeling of it's container.  The consumers of perfume oils are buying odor, not certain physico-chemical data..."  Essential oils are expensive however and should probably not be used "straight" or "neat" (directly out of the bottle and onto the skin).

Aesthetician - A licensed professional who recommends and practices skin care and the use of treatments for beauty and health.

Alcohol - Usually refers to the substance produced by a fermentation of sugars, starch and other carbohydrates (Potato fermentation=vodka, Corn fermentation=bourbon, Sugar-cane fermentation=rum).  Alcohol is used in cosmetics as an antiseptic.  Since it dissolves fat it can be used as a carrier for essential oils, to incorporate them, to scent shampoo or other water-based products or to provide a medium for therapeutics.  Alcohol dissolves fat so it should not be used in products for dry skin or hair.  In the cosmetic (industry) sense alcohol refers to the hydroxyl compound [-OH] as a functional part of a cosmetic formula.  In this form it is a good emollient and is said to provide protection for skin moisture.

Algin, Alginate, Alginic Acid - These names refer to a gelatinous precipitate that is extracted from brown algae and absorbs up to 300 times it's weight in water.  Used externally it is a cosmetic thickener and stabilizer.  Used internally, algin has the capability of combining with heavy toxic metals in food in the body and allowing them to be passed harmlessly out with the feces.

Alkaline - A substance or solution with a pH of 7.0 or above.  Most soaps and detergents are alkaline.

Allantoin - This is an organic compound that occurs naturally in Comfrey plants, and can be synthetically made from urea.  Allantoin is a cellular regenerative, so it is useful in any product used to promote healing in cuts or burns, including sunburn.  In home-made cosmetics Comfrey root, ground or blended, or Comfrey root or leaf tincture can easily be added to your products.

Amino Acids - These make up a large group of organic compounds that represent the end product of protein metabolism.  They are necessary for growth of all parts of the body, skin, hair and nails.

Ammonia - Found in many products, especially fertilizers, cleaning products, bleaches and hair permanents.  Extremely harmful and irritating, especially to the eyes and to any mucous membrane.  Can cause permanent allergic response in some individuals.

Amphoteric - A substance that can act either as an acid or a base.  (Wool can absorb both acid and alkaline dyes.)  Proteins are amphoteric as are their building blocks - amino acids.

Anhydrous Lanolin - A=without, and hydrous=water; Lanolin is the fat from the sheep's skin that goes into the wool.   (The wool is sheared and the lanolin is extracted without harming the animal.)  Anhydrous lanolin or lanolin is very protective and absorbs water to keep skin nice and soft and is used for this purpose in cosmetics (see also lanolin).

Antioxidant - A substance that inhibits the oxidation that turns cosmetics rancid.  Antioxidants include vitamin E and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), enzymes and some oils such as Grapefruit seed extract.

Apple Cider Vinegar - A natural solvent in oils and creams.  It acidifies products.  When used in shampoos and rinses, it separates individual hairs so they can be thoroughly cleansed.  Sounds like a great addition to the shampoo of bears, hairy men and Husky dogs.

Argil - A type of clay used in products to absorb skin impurities.

Aroma - The fragrance of something; what a particular plant product smells like.  Our language does not have a real vocabulary for the 10,000 odors that we can perceive (in contrast to only 2,000 or so colors), and so we must do our best by describing aromas by other subject matter, such as "smells like ripe Cantaloupe," "Eglantine Rose leaves have the aroma of green Apples," "he eats so much sugar, he has the aroma (odor) of rotten fruit."

Aromachology - A word coined by the Dyenne of the Fragrance Foundation, Executive Director Annette Green, meaning a new science that combines the interrelationship of psychology and the latest in fragrance technology to transmit through odor a variety

of specific feelings - relaxation, exhilaration, sensuality, happiness and achievement - directly to the pleasure center of the brain (the seat of emotions, memory, creativity and sensuality).

Aromatherapy - The use of essential oils from aromatic plants to restore and enhance health and beauty as defined by the American Aromatherapy Association.  Aromatherapy uses as its basic ingredients essential oils, which represent the highest herbal energy.  Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile extracts retrieved from aromatic herbs, flowers, seeds and trees; they contain hormone-like properties, vitamins, minerals and natural antiseptics.

Ascorbic Acid - This is vitamin C.  It is used in nutrition and cosmetics.  It is often used in cosmetics to enhance acid balance of a product, to retard oxidation, as a preservative, to fix colors and to stabilize creams.

Baking Soda - This is sodium bicarbonate, a soft, ultra-fine powder used as a dentifrice with sea salt.  It prevents mold when an open box is placed in the fridge and keeps the interior sweet-smelling.  It acts as a cleansing agent, is used as a mouthwash and is sprinkled on smelly carpets to absorb unpleasant odors.  Baking soda also has use in creams and lotions to add smooth texture.

Balsam - This is a natural raw material exuded from a tree or a plant.  Balsams are either physiological or pathological products, in that they are either naturally occurring or a result of injury to the plant.  Balsams are insoluble in water and usually completely soluble in alcohol.  They act as preservatives, are used to treat skin problems and are generally sweetly fragrant.

Barrier Agents - A substance used to protect the skin from harmful agents such as detergents, irritants or even water.  These are generally oily substances derived from vegetable (oils), animal (lanolin from sheep wool) or petroleum (which is not recommended).  They are used in commercial products, industrial preparations and cosmetics.


Beeswax - A natural product made by bees, especially used to thicken creams and lotions.

Bentonite - A naturally occurring clay from volcanic ash that forms a gel when mixed with water.  It is used externally to "draw" in facials and packs.  It is used internally to "cleanse" the digestive tract and as a laxative as well.

Benzoic Acid - A preservative derived from gum Benzoin and other substances used to preserve foods and cosmetics.  A tincture of Benzoin is used to harden sensitive skin such as the "elbows" of large dogs that become abraded and sore from lying down.  It is anti-fungal and has use in deodorants, dentifrices and other products.

Biotin - A white crystalline substance called one of the B vitamins, sometimes called vitamin H for hair, and used in creams to lend texture.  It is necessary in the body for fat metabolism, health and growth.  It has also been found to be one of the only substances that when taken consistently actually stimulates fingernail growth.

Boric Acid - A water-soluble, white crystalline substance found throughout the living and inanimate world and concentrated in certain minerals.  It is a mild antiseptic and is used in body powders, in salves and bandages for burns and wounds, and in eye lotions for soothing.  It lends a shiny glassy look to certain cosmetics.  No longer in use internally.  Acts as an antiseptic and astringent externally.  It is anti-fungal.  In years past the only commercial source of boric acid was the volcanic waters of the hot springs in Tuscany, Italy.

Calcium Carbonate (Chalk) - This is a very fine white

powder that is easily scented and used in tooth powder as a whitening abrasive.  It occurs naturally in oyster shell, limestone and in other material.  This substance is also used in nutrition as an antacid and as a cosmetic filler.  In Jeanne Rose's Herbs & Things there are several useful and well-known recipes including my favorite:

Rosemary Tooth Powder: Mix together 1/2 oz powdered Orris root, 1 oz powdered Rosemary charcoal,* 1/2 oz powdered chalk, 1/2 oz powdered Peppermint herb and 10 drops essential oil of Peppermint.  Sieve to remove  any pieces and bottle the powder in a container.


Carotene - BetaCarotene is pro-vitamin A and occurs naturally in plants and animal tissue and is readily available in Carrots.  It is used in cosmetics primarily as a coloring agent but is also considered by cosmetic makers to be a particularly good addition to nourish the skin and aid cell regeneration.

Carrageenan - A substance found in red algae that is extracted primarily from Irish Moss.  It is soluble in hot water and used as an emulsifier in cosmetic products including toothpaste.  It is found sometimes in foods, especially creamy foods such as Chocolate milk.  No toxicity has been reported.

Castor Oil - An herbal oil extracted from the Castor bean and used in masks, night creams, lipsticks and other cosmetic products.

Chalk - See Calcium Carbonate.

Chelating Agents - These are substances that can form bonds with metals.  Chlorophyll is one, as well as the "heme" part of hemoglobin.  These substances are useful when dyeing fabrics, as deactivators of enzymes and for water softening, etc.

green leaf

Chemotype - A plant that is cloned and therefore identical in every way with the "mother" plant.  It is not grown from seed.  The same plant can product its essential oil with several different chemical components, depending upon whether it is grown from seed or cloned, or depending on the time it is left in the still.  Certain chemotypes are desirable because the chemical components are different (more gentle, less toxic, softer scent, different plant hormones).  But a chemotype from one year's planting may be dramatically different from another year's because of weather changes or varying soil conditions.  Certain chemotypes are dependent on altitude and the mineral composition of the soil.  To date, chemotypes are incompletely labeled and command a very high price.

Chlorophyll -  The natural green part of a plant important in photosynthesis.  As chloro=green color is to phyll=plant, so is heme=red or iron to globin=blood.

Cider Vinegar - A sour liquid made from cider by fermentation and used to clarify and acidify hair products.  Used as well in various body-care products to preserve them.  See also Apple cider vinegar.

Cocoa Butter - A solid fat that is obtained from seeds of Theobroma cacao, the Chocolate plant.  Is used as an emollient in creams and lotions, melts at body temperature and is sometimes allergenic.

Coconut Oil - An oil obtained from the Coconut and used as a moisturizer in various products.  Goes rancid easily.  It is used to make soap but often the pure Coconut oil soap is drying and generally of low quality.  Cheap to buy.  Sometimes causes allergic reactions.

Collagen - A protein found in the connective tissue of animals and used in plastic surgery to plump up tissues so that people look young and unwrinkled.  Soluble collagens are used in all sorts of body-care products for that smooth, unwrinkled look.

Concrete - A French word referring to a particular perfume basic material and how it is prepared.  For example, with Jasmine the freshly picked flowers prepared by the cold-process method of enfleurage becomes a pommade that is extracted with alcohol and the alcohol then evaporated.  The perfume material is now called the concrete pommade of  Jasmine.  Concretes are also produced by extracting plant tissue with hydrocarbon solvents or petroleum ether and then removing the solvent.  Pronounced con - cret (rhymes with fret)

Cordial - An invigorating medicine, food or drink that comforts, gladdens and exhilarates.  Often made with herbs and spirits, or can be made with herbs, essential oils and spirits.  Try making a Peppermint herb tea and adding 1 cup tea to 1 cup of white wine in which you have dissolved 1-2 drops of Peppermint oil.  This would be called a digestive cordial.

Decoctions - A liquid extract of the hard parts of plants such as the bark, root, rhizome or seed.  One to four ounces of the plant material is added to twenty ounces of water and then boiled or simmered for five to twenty minutes.  This is then cooled and strained and used for cosmetic or medicinal purposes.  Makes 16 ounces decoction, with the herbs left over to be used in poultices or baths.

Demineralized Water - Water that has had the minerals and ions removed.  Considered necessary for high-end body-care products.

Detergent - A type of cleanser, usually synthetic, that reduces water surface tension and emulsifies soil or dirt so that they can be removed.  Some detergents are bio-degradable.

Diatomaceous Earth - A type of earth made up of the fossil deposits of siliceous skeletons of diatoms.  This earth has an irritating surface (glass-like and sharp) and can be used to clean carpets and rid them of fleas and mites.  Absorbs oil and water and is used in abrasive agents, cleansers for the face or for environmental uses.  Very cheap.  Irritating if inhaled.

Distillation - The process of driving off gas or vapor (water) from liquids or solids by heating.  In aromatherapy, water and herb or plant material are heated, the water turns to steam, and the steam passes through the plant cells or glands that contain the essential oils, bursting them and releasing the volatile oils.  The steam and volatile oil are then passed through a cooling chamber where the steam turns to water, releasing the essential oil, which remains on the surface of the water.  This is then decanted or poured off.  Distillation usually occurs in a still (see still).

Diuretic - Something that causes an increase in the production of urine.

Dolomite - A mineral that contains calcium magnesium carbonate and is used as an abrasive and whitener in products for the teeth.  Occasionally used in skin cleansers.

Emollient - A substance that is soothing to the external surface of the body and moisturizes by preventing water loss.  Some emollients are Comfrey root, Marshmallow root, lanolin, etc.  Some emollients cause allergic reactions.

Emulsifier  - A substance that allows two disparate substances to merge, such as the egg in mayonnaise that binds the Lemon juice to the oil.  Emulsifiers are useful in cosmetics to create smooth creams and lotions.  Sometimes allergenic.

Emulsion - A mixture of oil and water.  Most creams and lotions are emulsions.  "An emulsion is a colloidal system in which one liquid is dispersed in the form of fine droplets throughout another liquid with which it cannot evenly mix..." from On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, Charles Scribner, 1984.

EO - These initials refer to Essential Oil.  It is usually identical with PEO.

Essence - Has various meanings depending on context: (1) a substance considered to possess in high degree the predominant quality of the plant, (2) the basic underlying quality, (3) the essential oil, (4) the volatile matter that constitutes a perfume, and (5) also an alcoholic solution of an essential oil such as 1 ounce of vodka in which has been dissolved 1 drop of Peppermint oil.

Essential Oil - A volatile material that is contained within plant cells and derived by physical process (such as distillation) from the plant.  Some essential oils are not in the living tissue but are formed during destruction of the living tissue.  Certain botanical species have little scent buy they produce a volatile or essential oil when macerated that starts a fermentation (destructive) process - the macerate is then distilled and the volatile oil comes off. 

Expectorant - Something that causes one to cough up or spit up phlegm.

Extract - A prepared perfume material or the alcoholic solution of the odorous part of a pommade or something that is obtained by distillation.

Fixative - Something that holds or "fixes" the scent.  It usually slows down evaporation of the odorous material.  Some fixatives exalt or improve the scent; some are odorless and simply "hold" the main scent intact.

*To make Rosemary charcoal, char several cups of dried Rosemary in a dry cast-iron skillet.  When it begins to char or blacken, turn off the heat and stir vigorously.  If you toast it too long, it begins to gray and you will have ash instead of charcoal.



An Aromatic Glossary G - Z (Continued)







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