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.
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.)
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.
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.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus): That’s right, hydrosols can be made from fruits, including cucumbers, lemons, and limes! Cucumber hydrosols have a refreshing, cooling aroma that makes a lovely and crisp natural perfume. Use cucumber hydrosol as an after-sun spray, particularly in the heat of summer months, or as a cooling mist during menopausal hot flashes. Try soaking a few cotton pads in cucumber hydrosol and then placing them over your eyes for a luxurious home spa. In the kitchen, mix a few tablespoons with a splash of gin or a few cups of sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink. You could also spritz it on a garden-fresh salad to add a crisp and refreshing bite.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Lavender hydrosols are calming and soothing, which is why many people spray them on bedding or add them to bath water to help unwind after a long day. Lavender helps soothe headaches and insomnia, and the hydrosol can be used topically to ease itchy bug bites or painful burns. In the kitchen, lavender hydrosol goes well with fruit salads and desserts, including sorbet and flan.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): Lemon balm hydrosols help calm the nervous system to ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s particularly effective for soothing anxious, worked-up children. It also aids digestion and helps relieve both cramps and flatulence. Because it’s an antiviral, you can apply lemon balm hydrosol to mouth sores related to the herpes virus. Lemon balm’s gentle anti-inflammatory properties make it a versatile topical spray for skin irritations, ranging from bug bites to razor burn to cradle cap. Lemon balm hydrosol has a slight citronella-like scent that works well when used as the base for homemade bug sprays.
Pine (Pinus spp.): Which pine species are available will depend on where you live, but no matter which species you use, it’s wonderful that this evergreen is available to distill year-round. Energizing and uplifting, pine hydrosol is an excellent expectorant and decongestant that can help ease coughs, asthma, and bronchitis. Try adding pine hydrosol to a sinus steam or neti pot. It can also help ease muscle pain and stimulate circulation, making pine hydrosols great additions to warm bath water or topical compresses. For culinary use, see Douglas Fir Cocktail Recipe. Pine doesn’t grow in the wild near my home, so instead I distill Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) foliage and use the hydrosol externally. You can distill a number of conifers, but research their safety before diving in.
Rose (Rosa spp.): Spritzing rose hydrosol directly on your face may be one of the greatest joys in life. This floral water smells almost exactly like a fresh rose, and its uplifting, joyful, and heartwarming scent makes it an ideal ally for those dealing with depression and grief. After you taste a true, steam-distilled rose hydrosol, you’ll instantly question why you ever dealt with the low-quality and artificially flavored rose waters available in most stores. Rose hydrosol is a hormone balancer recommended for all ages; I dilute a few teaspoons in water to help ease cramps and other symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Topically, rose hydrosol is ideal for dry, mature, and sensitive skin (see Rosemary’s Perfect Homemade Face Cream Recipe). Add it to clay face masks, or use it to replace your store-bought toner. Rose water has a long history of culinary use and is divine when stirred into dairy products, spritzed on fruit, or mixed into desserts and pastries, such as baklava. Instead of making a mimosa, try diluting a few teaspoons of rose hydrosol in champagne.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): You can also use hydrosols made from non-aromatic plants, including yarrow, plantain, and nettle. Although they lack the scent profile associated with other plants, they still carry physically and emotionally healing properties. Yarrow is a particularly effective wound healer that can be sprayed on cuts and bruises, varicose veins, eczema, and hemorrhoids. Mentally, yarrow hydrosol is stimulating and energizing; it’s considered a protective hydrosol that you can use in a similar manner to sage or cedar smoke cleansing sticks. Rather than burning sage to cleanse a space (especially as some species are at risk), try spraying yarrow hydrosol.
These descriptions barely scratch the surface of hydrosols. Home gardeners who are interested in making their own can also experiment with basil, holy basil, clary sage, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, oregano, calendula, comfrey, elderflower, and rose geranium.
The Circle H Institute offers analysis and abstracts of hydrosol studies performed worldwide. The information is only available to paying members, and the website is run by Ann Harman, author of Harvest to Hydrosols.
Hydrosol Video and Podcast
We sat down with Liz Fulcher, owner of the Aromatic Wisdom Institute, to record a podcast about hydrosols. Liz also filmed a video about how to use a copper still for hydrosol production with her husband, James Fulcher, owner of Copperstills.
Listen to the podcast, watch the step-by-step video, and explore more of our hydrosol resources at All About Hydrosols.
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