Aromatic Waters


Kathleen McKeehen

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For fragrances and gentle healing that make cents as well as sense, try the light touch of hydrosols.

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Once discarded as mere byproducts of the distillation process, fragrant floral waters, called hydrosols, are now recognized by many aromatherapists for their therapeutic value. These waters are used not only in creating a relaxing and fragrant environment but also in the treatment of minor physical and emotional problems.

Hydrosols are created by the same process used to extract essential oils from plants. They are not simply a mixture of water and a few drops of essential oil. They have found a significant place in the fragrance world.

You may have heard of two well-known aromatic waters but never realized they were hydrosols. Witch hazel has commonly been used as an astringent for years and is still sold in drugstores; rose water is used in several cosmetics and in ethnic recipes.

Hydrosols are gentler than essential oils, making them safer for small children, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems

The making of a hydrosol

Hydrosols are one product from the steam distillation of plant material such as leaves, bark, seeds, roots and flowers. The other product, essential oil, is generally the primary reason for distillation. During the process, steam is injected into the body of the still. The steam releases the volatile plant components and then enters into a condenser that is cooled by water. This process converts the steam back into a liquid state, from which the essential oil is then extracted, leaving behind the hydrosol.

Putting the excess to good use

Some hydrosols are used in the flavor, fragrance and chemical industries. But in most distillations, the water is drained and disposed of or allowed to run off into the terrain. The demand for hydrosols used to be low, and distillers were unable to make a significant profit. As awareness and demand for hydrosols increase, they are becoming more readily available.

Why would anyone want to use a hydrosol instead of an essential oil? Hydrosols are gentler products, which make them appropriate for small children, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems. They do contain small amounts of essential oils (as well as the water-soluble parts of the plant that are not found in the oil), but at a more affordable price. In addition, according to Suzanne Catty in her book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy (Inner Traditions, 2001), analysis shows that some chemicals are “too lipophilic (oil loving) to stay in the water and others are just too hydrophilic (water loving) to stay in the oil; therefore, [some chemicals] are found only in the hydrosol.”

Contamination cautions

Contamination is one concern regarding the production and use of hydrosols. Some people in the aromatherapy community believe caution is necessary because of the potential for bacteria and mold development. However, producers of essential oils and hydrosols claim the distillation process eliminates much of the bacteria, though small amounts of botanical residue may remain. Proper bottling in sterilized containers, preferably glass, helps eliminate contamination, and refrigerating hydrosols may help prolong shelf life.

A cloudy hydrosol is a sign that bacteria are present. When in doubt, it’s best to dispose of the product. In my experience, many hydrosols exhibited a shelf life of more than a year when stored at room temperature. Perhaps this was due to the addition of a preservative. But after about 18 months, only the neroli hydrosol developed mold. The scent was as wonderful as always, perhaps even better than when I first purchased it, but the mold was significant enough that I disposed of the product.

Know your source

Knowing your hydrosol source will help when you are searching for a quality product. Ask vendors about distillation procedures, how the hydrosol was stored, if the product was tested for purity and when it was distilled. Keep in mind that most distillations occur in mild temperatures between April and September, when plant material is prolific. The fresher the product, the less chance there is of bacteria and mold forming.

Hydrosols should be labeled with the botanical name and whether the material is organically grown or harvested from the wild. The label may also specify country of origin and method of distillation.

Most floral waters found on store shelves are derived from synthetic rather than natural sources. Sometimes, essential oils are added to distilled, spring or tap water and then bottled and sold as floral waters. These products may also have preservatives, synthetic fragrance oils or alcohol added. While they may have a pleasant scent, fragrance alone doesn’t provide the therapeutic benefits of a true hydrosol.

Homemade hydrosols

If you truly want a fresh hydrosol, consider producing your own. Home distillation units are available in sizes as small as 2 quarts. The vessels are made from stainless steel, glass or copper. Glass and stainless steel clean up easily and in most instances don’t affect the final product. Copper is easy to transport for field distillation, but it may leave behind residue in the hydrosol that can cause an allergic reaction. Advocates of copper distillation units say this method enhances the scent of the final product. Prices range from $345 for home distillation units to thousands of dollars for elaborate professional units.

Fred Brittle of FloraGenics, a producer of distillation units, notes that the most popular still sizes are from 2 liters (about 2 quarts) to 12 liters (about 3 gallons). Many of his company’s customers purchase the stills to produce small quantities of essential oils and hydrosols for use in therapeutic practices such as massage. Others want to educate their customers about aromatherapy and how products are produced.

A consideration for home distillation is proper plant material and appropriate quantities. Correct plant identification is a must. The species and variety can strongly affect the fragrance and therapeutic value of both the hydrosol and essential oil. As a general rule, 2 1/4 pounds of plant material are required for every quart of hydrosol.

The art of distillation

Distilling for essential oils and hydrosols is more than a science; it’s also an art. Conditions such as weather and soil can alter plants’ scent and therapeutic properties. The stage of a plant’s growth at harvesting time, when and how it’s harvested and whether it’s used fresh or dried, all affect the end product.

Keeping detailed notes about each distillation will help with future distillations. For home distillers, the process requires much trial and error. Seek support regarding yields and proper operating procedures from the seller of the distillation unit. Many companies (see list on Page 23) offer manuals or instructional videos with the purchase of a unit.

Useful in creating a relaxing and fragrant atmosphere, hydrosols also have value in the treatment of physical and emotional ailments.

Hydrosols for health

Knowledge of the therapeutic value of hydrosols is still in its infancy. Limited research is available, but some suppliers are willing to share their experiences and those of their customers. One primary use of hydrosols is for skin care — as a toner or astringent. Some people use hydrosols as room sprays or sprays for freshening linens. Peppermint hydrosol is used as a cooling and refreshing spray in the summer. Rose geranium or lavender hydrosols have been known to help alleviate menopausal hot flashes for some women.

For sore muscles and aches or for eyestrain, hydrosols can be used with compresses. Catty recommends diluting 3 to 5 tablespoons of hydrosol in 1 quart of water as a compress for adults.

For aches and pains, black spruce or pine hydrosols are good choices. Soak a cotton cloth in the mixture and apply to the sore area for 30 minutes. For eye compresses, a German chamomile, rose or clary sage hydrosol will ease eyestrain. Soak a cotton pad in the diluted hydrosol solution and leave on the eyes for 10 to 15 minutes.

While most essential oils are too strong for children, hydrosols can be used safely. To create a relaxing or soothing bath, add 1 teaspoon of lavender, lemon balm or German chamomile hydrosol to a bath for babies up to 6 months old. One teaspoon may be added for every year of age for children up to 12 years, with a maximum of 8 teaspoons. For adults, 2 tablespoons of hydrosol may be added to a standard-size tub (add up to 1 cup for larger tubs or hot tubs). Hydrosols, like essential oils, should not be used internally.

Hydrosols are finding their place in the world of aromatherapy. Essential oils may be the bold, highly concentrated scents, but hydrosols, still fragrant and therapeutic, work their magic with a light touch and gentle wisp of fragrance.

Cathy Manus-Gray wor­ks and plays at Herban Gardens, an oasis in the city of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. She celebrates the seasons and wonder of nature through her work as an herbal educator, writer and artist.