Vanilla essential oil benefits go beyond delicious flavor and uplifting fragrance. Technically not an oil, there’s a lot of confusion around this remedy.
Aromatherapy at its core is still and always will be about the scents that we love, and who doesn’t have a vanilla-scented candle or body spray still somewhere around their house? Vanilla fragrances are typically artificial, and natural options have been restricted to extracts. Excitedly, we are moving closer and closer to the health benefits of vanilla essential oil that we can use in our everyday aromatherapy applications.
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Research and Development of Vanilla
If we’re being technical, vanilla essential oil doesn’t actually exist.
So why the focus on vanilla “essential oil”?
In reality, the vanilla you diffuse or hear of others using is an “extract,” likely an absolute or oleoresin.
You might have made your own extract by steeping an herbal substance in alcohol for some time, then straining. Many people like to make their own vanilla extract in this way, usually used for cooking. (More on that in a bit!) When an oil cannot be distilled, the beneficial properties are extracted into an infusion or drawn out with a solvent. Note, this is NOT the same food grade vanilla extract that you buy at the grocery. Similar manufacturing process, but different solvent and different end product. One is for aromatherapy and the other is for your cookies!
When vanilla is used in perfumery – and isn’t a synthetic replica – it’s usually an absolute. This is achieved with a solvent applied to the substance to extract the lipids, then alcohol applied to the extraction to bring out the aroma. (1) Other essential oils are sometimes made in this way, including jasmine, rose, and neroli.
A newer method is in the works to produce something closer to an actual essential oil, extracted with a carbon dioxide pressure application instead of traditional distillation. This method, CO2 extraction, is relatively new and still undergoing studies. We aren’t positive whether the resulting “CO2 essential oil” is similar to the makeup that a distilled, true essential oil would have, but the fragrance is great and the oil dissolves into dilutions better than an absolute. (2)
Vanilla absolutes and CO2 essential oils are waxy and have to be warmed before use.
5 Vanilla Health Benefits Due to Vanillin
With those details behind us, we can get something of an idea about the health benefits of vanilla by turning toward the research on vanillin, the chemical compound named for vanilla, found in the extract, and presumably found in the oils.
Most frequently studied as a component of other substances, vanillin is known for its antioxidant properties. (3) The wide range of potential applications that antioxidant-rich substances have make them important for both research and inclusion in our plant-based preparations.
Antioxidants battle free radical damage and repair its effects, which means they make important changes at a cellular level. This implicates antioxidants in everything from mucosal healing to cancer battling to skin rejuvenation.
Application: Refresh skin by including vanilla oil in lotion and other topical treatments. For extra antioxidant power, pair with scavenging superstar clove essential oil.
In a rare test of actual vanilla oil, researchers evaluated the efficacy of vanilla oil for inhibiting certain bacteria. The testing also evaluated ylang ylang and patchouli oils. For the bacteria in question – a strain of Staph. – vanilla was able to inhibit its development. (4)
Essential oils with antibacterial benefits are extremely useful. In today’s age of chemical synthetics and overuse, we find ourselves with more harm than benefit when using commercial antibacterial products. To stop the spread of dangerous bacteria without risking our health is invaluable!
Application: Include vanilla oil in a DIY hand soap for a pleasant-smelling yet effective antibacterial. Pair with citrus for an extra boost as well as a refreshing blend of scents.
Essential oils are often used for their uplifting, antidepressant abilities thanks to their simple applications and quick results. It never ceases to amaze me that simply smelling a fragrance can so quickly and effectively reach and affect the brain!
Vanillin has been studied for its in vitro ability to relieve depression. Tracking markers of depression in mice, researchers were able to determine antidepressant activity with the vanillin compound. (5)
While every body is different and nothing should take the place of professional help for depression, news of a new compound that may help relieve depression is always welcome.
Application: Diffuse vanilla as an uplifting aroma, or use it in a personal inhaler for times when more directly rejuvenating effects are needed.
As usual with cancer and essential oils, the preface for this discussion is that more research must be executed. Thanks in no small part to its antioxidant ability, though, vanillin and substances that contain it (like vanilla!) are among the oils and compounds considered for anticancer ability. (6)
Until we know more specifically how these actions work in the body and the best ways to incorporate them for direct efficacy, we can enjoy using a substance that cancer doesn’t like!
Application: Diffuse, inhale, and use vanilla oil topically, and cook with vanilla extract.
Also in line with the effects of antioxidants, vanillin is likely to be anti-inflammatory. (7) This effect tends to happen with antioxidant substances thanks to that cellular level repair that takes place.
As a non-traditional oil, topical applications are excellent for executing this effect, massaging it deep into the muscles and joints that are inflamed or applying it to skin that is plagued with inflammation.
Make Your Own Vanilla Extract
It’s incredibly important to prioritize the source of your vanilla oil before using it in any application. Absolutes are much more readily contaminated with pesticide and other chemical residue if they aren’t organic and carefully formulated. CO2 essential oils are new to the market and will naturally be more expensive. True vanilla bean extracts must be harvested, aged, and infused before completion, so they are time consuming and costly.
So, if you find a vanilla oil that is cheap, you don’t have a deal; you have a knock-off.
- Make vanilla bean infused oil by chopping vanilla pods, removing the seeds, and infusing it into a carrier oil. Simply combine them in an airtight container and store for at least a week – longer for more fragrance – shaking periodically.
- Make a vanilla extract by scraping vanilla pods into rum or bourbon, allowing them to sit in an airtight container and dark place for a couple of weeks before use. When the alcohol is fragrant, you can remove the beans and use as vanilla extract.