Hydrosols: Where Aromatherapy and Herbalism Meet

Use homegrown plants and a simple stovetop method to make steam-distilled aromatic waters that can be used for cooking, healing, and cleaning.

| July / August 2018

  • Hydrosols are more sustainable than essential oils, more potent than herbal teas, and easy to make at home.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Pavel
  • Hydrosols are made by distilling fresh plant material in water.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/moeyan
  • You can easily make your own hydrosols at home using a small still, such as the 10-liter copper alembic pictured here.
    Photo by Queren King-Orozco
  • Hydrosols have been called "the quiet revolution in herbal medicine."
    Photo by Adobe Stock/natali_mis
  • Copper stills are a top choice for hydrosol distillers because they tend to create sweeter hydrosols that don't need to age before using.
    Photo by Queren King-Orozco
  • Home gardeners can experiment with a variety of plants to add to their homemade hydrosols.
    Photo by Queren King-Orozco
  • Stills can be made from copper (pictured here), glass, or stainless steel.
    Photo by Queren King-Orozco

Hydrosols are making a comeback, and for good reason. Safer and more sustainable than essential oils, more potent than herbal teas, and easy to make at home, these steam-distilled aromatic waters offer a nearly unlimited number of benefits and uses. The most common commercially available hydrosols are rose water and witch hazel, although store-bought versions are often diluted with alcohol or other preservatives to extend their shelf life. By making your own hydrosols — or buying high-quality bottles from artisan distillers — you can experience an incredible array of pure aromatic waters, including chamomile, lavender, mint, cinnamon, and myrrh. These liquid aromatics can be used as a natural room freshener or perfume; incorporated into a vast array of recipes, including pastries, sorbets, syrups, and cocktails; mixed into homemade body care products; poured into baths; added to neti pots or sinus steams; and even used in a cleaning regimen to spray countertops and freshen linens.

What Are Hydrosols?

Hydrosols (called “hydrolats” in Europe) are made by distilling fresh plant material in water. This is the same general process used to make essential oils; however, industrial essential oil distillers use much larger stills and much more fresh plant material than what’s available to home gardeners. Of equal importance, essential oil distillers perform a hot and fast distillation and then turn off their stills as soon as they’ve captured enough product. 

Hydrosol distillers, on the other hand, favor a long and steady distillation so the hydrosol’s top, middle, and low notes all have a chance to come through the still and merge into a complex finished product. This is why you shouldn’t buy hydrosols that are a byproduct of essential oil distillation; they won’t include as wide a variety of notes and complexities as those hydrosols distilled solely for their own purpose. When purchasing, favor “steam-distilled” hydrosols or floral waters sold by companies with a close relationship to their producers; avoid products labeled as “floral water” that are only essential oils added to water. (See “Hydrosol Resources” below for a list of reputable hydrosol vendors.)

Therapeutic Uses of Hydrosols

Hydrosols not only smell divine, they also carry a wide array of physically, mentally, and emotionally healing constituents. I approached hydrosols from an herbalism background and was pleasantly surprised to learn that a plant’s benefits are similar in hydrosol form to what they would be in a tea, tincture, or compress. For example, plantain poultices work wonders on bug bites and stings, and spraying a plantain hydrosol on a bug bite provides similar relief. Chamomile tea is a relaxing nervine that makes a soothing bedtime drink; diluting a few teaspoons of chamomile hydrosol in a cup of warm water or herbal tea (or adding a few ounces to your bath water) lets the plant’s relaxing properties wash over you. 

Unlike essential oils, most hydrosols are safe to ingest, if diluted. They’re also safe to use with and around young children. When changing a baby’s diaper, for example, you can dip cleansing wipes in a 50-50 solution of hydrosol and water. Alternatively, you can spray a few mists of hydrosol on a baby’s bum between diaper changes. During bath time, add 1 to 3 teaspoons of chamomile hydrosol to an infant’s bath water to help encourage restful sleep.

Hydrosol Monographs

Dozens of hydrosols are available, and all of them lend unique properties and benefits. The following hydrosol profiles focus on plants that gardeners in the United States and Canada can grow at home and process themselves using either the stovetop method or a small still. 

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