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What are Hydrosols and What are They Good For?

Copper Still
The Resurgence of an Age Old Tradition.
Although hydrosols have been around a long time and are well known within the natural food and botanical skincare communities, they are now becoming more mainstream. You might start seeing them around more at farmer's markets, artisan boutiques, and now they can even be found at Whole Foods grocery store. So, what is the hype? For years we have all seen plenty of facial mists, aromatherapy sprays, etc., some even called "hydrosols". But most of these are not true hydrosols and are actually pretty far from the real thing. Many of these facial, body and aromatherapy "mists" we see are usually made up of mostly water with some essential or fragrance oils mixed in. Very underwhelming as a natural herbal product, but considering the labor intensive process involved in making herbal and floral distillates, one can see why some products are prepared in this way to mimic real hydrosols.
So, What is a Hydrosol Exactly?
The name "Hydrosol" is credited to being coined by Herbalist Jeanne Rose in the early 90's for the steam and hydro distillation of herbs she had been preparing in her traditional copper alembic still. "Hydro" for water and "sol" for solution connotes the solution of essential oils and other plant compounds contained in the water. The traditional extraction vessel, the copper alembic still is a large round copper pot with a long, verticle column which holds the biomatter. The removeable top is nicknamed a "gooseneck" for it's bell shape which tapers into a narrow "S" curving pipe, which then descends into a coil, forming the condenser, and at the end is the outlet where the hydrosol can be collected. Water and biomatter is placed in the bottom pot for a hydro distillation, or for a steam distillation, the biomatter is placed above the water, in the column. The "gooseneck" is fitted onto the coulmn and sealed with a paste of rye flower and water. The water is brought up to boiling point, and at around 200 degrees farenheit, starts to vaporize into steam and pass through the biomatter. The plant acids and volatile oils are carried with the steam through the long pipe and as it passes through the condenser and begins to cool, it returns to a liquid state and can be collected at the spout.
This is where the objective determines the end product. At this point, traditionally, the liquid was allowed to settle so that all the essential oils would rise to the top and the rest could be filtered out and usually, disposed of. This painstaking, time consuming process was undertaken for the minute amounts of essential oils and the rest was considered trash. Well, it was later discovered that this plant water that was being thrown out still contained many beneficial plant compunds. It was fragrant from the micro droplets of essential oils, and with an acidic PH due to the plant acids, was found to have natural preservative effects and could last years before any sign of contamination. At the realization of this plant water's value, essential oil makers began keeping and selling the water as a biproduct of essential oil production. Soon, as hydrosols became more well known and their health benefits better understood, some artisans began distilling herbs for the sole purpose of the hydrosol rather than for essential oils. When prepared with this objective, essential oils were not filtered out, making the distillate even more fragrant and beneficial and leaving the plant essence so to speak, in tact.
So, it is important when looking for a good hydrosol and hydrosol maker that one looks for a hydrosol that is prepared not as a biproduct of essential oil extraction, but as the sole product of distillation. This ensures the highest quality hydrosol with the highest percentage of oil and water soluble plant compounds- an extraction that captures the truest and most complete herbal or floral essence possible by these means of extraction.
Lavender Hydrosol
Why is This Important and What Health Benefits Can Be Expected of a Hydrosol?
As hydrosols contain micro droplets of essential oils at percentages well under 1% (an average is probably around 0.02% according to herbalist Jeanne Rose, but varies widely depending on the plant), they are completely safe and non-sensitizing. They can safely be used as much as desired. Because of their acidic nature, with the average PH being around 4-5, (which is in the range of the skin's natural PH of about 5.5) they make excellent toners and PH balancers. Most are slightly astringent, minimizing pores and offering a light cleansing action. Depending on the plant, hydrosols can contain many different compounds, most of which are skin loving plant acids and volatile oils. They absorb easily and are great to use before applying oils and moisturizers or for a renewing facial spray throughout the day. The plant acids contained in hydrosols have shown to have anti inflammatory effects and as for the volatile oils, it goes without saying how essential oils like Lavender and Chamomile can be extremely anti inflammatory and beneficial to the skin in countless ways. Some have estimated plant compounds contained in hydrosols to be at levels 40 times higher than those found in tea, and all it takes is a taste to see the truth in that. Most are extremely bitter and strong to the taste. They are consumed by many enthusiasts and have shown many health benefits when diluted and taken on a regular basis. As most good hydrosols are distilled at a ratio of up to 1:1, the strength cannot be denied when compared to a typical 8 oz cup of tea prepared with the usual 2 grams of herbs, which equals a ratio of about 1:110.
At the very least, hydrosols are an extremely natural way to integrate more plant essences into our daily life. The spiritual and aromatherapeutic benefits are immeasurable. As we realize the vast benefits of herbalism more each day, the desire to incorporate more botanicals into our daily routine becomes more widespread and the growing availability of hydrosols is a great way to do this. Contrary to the message spread by the cosmetic industry at large, there is no miracle cure, so this type of natural extract should not be approached in that way, it will only lead to disappointment. Hydrosols should be considered one option in a holistic approach to healthy living. And the more we replace unnatural options with natural ones, we will realize a healthier, happier and more mindful existence.
References:
Jeanne Rose. The Aromatic Plant Project. www.aromaticplantproject.com
Suzanne Catty. Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2001), 10