Today we are looking at a product that is becoming increasingly more popular, yet many people do not know what it really is, or how to use it properly. What am I speaking about? A hydrosol, that's what! Hydrosols are not essential oils, but they were originally solely made by the process that collects the essential oils of various herbs, plants and shrubs. Although they were not called "hydrosols" until this century, these floral waters were a byproduct of the distillation process used to make essential oils for centuries. As the essential oil is distilled, the essential oil floats to the top of the vat where it is poured off, filtered and bottled, which leaves behind the watery distillate, which is now called the hydrosol. Although essential oils have been around for thousands of years, the hydrosols have not been utilized that long. Although, up until the late 1500's to early 1600's, there was no such thing as rose otto (otto is the Bulgarian word for oil and is used to differentiate the steam distilled essential oil from the absolute. Instead, they used a rose water, really a rose tea or infusion, as their perfume until the wedding of a princess led to the discovery of rose essential oil. (Read more about the history of rose essential oil here.) Historically speaking, not much is mentioned about hydrosols or their introduction into the market place, except for the lavender hydrosol. At one time, Frech lavender EO was extremely expensive. In fact it was traded just like gold. During this time, someone with an entrepreneurial spirit saw the hydrosol as a low cost alternative to the EO., and began selling the distilling by-product. Today, the hydrosols are much less expensive than the essential oils, still, they have not really been too popular until recently, and even now many don't fully understand what this product is.
There are a few things that you need to understand before delving into the world of hydrosols. First off, these products have developed into their own industry now. As such, there are several levels of quality. In fact, the best hydrosols come from a distillation where the hydrosol is the product being produced, rather than an essential oil. And, even when it's from an essential oil, usually the best will come from the earliest part of the distillation, rather than the body of the distillation. The pH will be low, about 3.5-4.0. This will usually smell bright and very fragrant to the nose. Although, some of the therapeutic part of the hydrosol is also produced at the very end of the distillation, and it usually has a rather grassy or vegetative note. As the plants are being distilled, micro-particles of the essential oil are in suspension, and they give the aromatic distillate its scent, and will separate out as the hydrosol cools. There is approximately .02% essential oil in the hydrosols, and they have a strong taste, as well as a strong smell. Normally they will be acidic and clear, like water. But you need to know that not all of the water from the distillation of essential oils can be considered a valuable hydrosol.
While hydrosols do contain the same properties as the essential oils, they are in a much less concentrated form. Because of this, they can be used in instances where the essential oil can't. One good example is in pet care and pet care products, especially those for cats. Since cats cannot metabolize essential oils (using them can lead to death), using a hydrolsol (it still needs to be diluted) offers the beneficial properties of the EO without the negative effects.
Additionally, since the hydrosols are much less expensive than their EO counterpart, you can afford to use them where you otherwise would not have been able too use that particular EO. A couple of good examples of this are rose otto and jasmine EO. Both of these EO can run in the several hundreds of dollar range per ounce (as in almost a thousand dollars), but the hydrosols can be found for under $20 a pound. Of course, even an moderately priced EO can be expensive in large batches of certain products, so using a hydrosol or a mixture of the EO and the hydrosol can give you the perfect blend for benefits and your pocketbook.
When creating recipes, you do need to keep in mind that the hydrosol and the essential oil, as well as the plant extract, may all have different properties. So research is key. An herbal extract may have certain therapeutic properties and uses, while the hydrosol of that same herb and the essential oil of that herb may have entirely different properties. For instance, the herb oregano is quite tasty in spaghetti. It can also be used as a compress to relieve pain in aching muscles, while the herbal extract is used in capsules to cleanse the digestive system. The essential oil, since it has high levels of phenols and thymol, make it an effective anti-infective by inhalation methods, while the hydrosol is an antiseptic by application only. Since we are still discovering all of the therapeutic properties of the various herbs, and aromatherapy is still a science in its infancy, it is safe to say that hydrosol therapy is a new baby that will grow in the coming years.
So what can you do with hydrosols? Let your imagination run wild! Since hydrosols contain many of the plant acids, they are by nature very "skin friendly." Additionally, since they tend to have a PH that is between 3.5 and 6, they are great as stand alone (facial) toners, as well as a primary ingredient in other skin care products. Historically, they have frequently been used as flavorings, room sprays, and body sprays.
When looking for hydrosols to purchase, make sure that you also look for essential waters and/or herbal waters, as these are other names for hydrosols. Some of the more common, and easily found hydrosols are; rosewater, lavender, lemon balm and chamomile.
If properly handled, hydrosols will have a shelf life of one year and more. Properly handled means that they have been deeply chilled at the distillery and that they are bottled in sterile containers directly at the still. Assuming these criteria have been met, the hydrosols should have a shelf life of at least 1 year. It is important that no water should be added until the hydrosol reaches the consumer, and that the consumer should dilute the hydrosol with distilled water just prior to use. Any water added before this will not only dilute the hydrosol, but will enable contaminants such as mold and mildew to enter the product. Unless you make your own products, you need to make purchases through a reputable and knowledgeable company to ensure high standards and quality.
If you do make your own products, know that any container that will receive the hydrosol should be rinsed with a 10% Clorox solution. Do not use peroxide or alcohol, as they do not work as well. Then, after rinsing with the Clorox, carefully rinse with boiling water to remove the bleach odor. They should then be filled and sealed immediately, and shipped right away. Once received by the marketer, they should store the hydrosols in a cold room, at about 55° F. (like wine) to extend the shelf life.
There is some debate about my next statement. But according to experts in the field, hydrosols do not need a chemical preservative because bacteria do not live well in acidic environments (this is why acids like vinegar make good preservatives for pickles), and hydrosols are on the acidic side. Of course, once you introduce water to the hydrosol this changes, in my opinion, and a preservative becomes necessary, unless you are storing it in the refrigerator and using it soon after you introduce the water. By soon, I would recommend using it within two weeks, but I would not sell any product that I made with it, without a preservative. It just isn't worth the risk. Think about it, you have no control over temperatures during shipping, you don't know how long a package may sit in a truck with the sun beating in on it, or in a mailbox, and you never know if there are other factors (such as germ-filled fingers contaminating the product) that may influence the growth rate of bacteria, cutting short your expected shelf life for a non preserved product. Better safe than sorry!