Years ago now, I became acquainted with the power of hydrosols. They’ve since become one of my favorite things to create and an integral component in my toolkit. I’ve devoured literature, practiced obsessively, made weird trials and errors, kept steadfast notes, and have landed somewhere back at perennial student to the waters. Witnessing the slow alchemy of matter to spirit and into water is, without using the word too lightly, total magic.
I can honestly say, my skin and spirit have both benefited greatly from the use of hydrosols. In the summer they refresh and provide relief from the heat without stripping the skin of its natural oils. In the winter, they help my skin absorb the deep hydration of a nourishing oil. All year round, I am comforted by their place in my skin-care routine, a centerpiece made from the plants I grow and am surrounded with. I’ve witnessed my love of these wholly waters being spread to friends and loved one, children, and strangers. It feels like a revelation each time, that something at once so simple, and also insanely complex. A true art.
What are hydrosols?
Hydrosols are the product of distilling fresh plant materials. Heat is used to extract and evaporate their cellular waters, essential oils, and phytonutrients and then those vapors are condensed into a complex solution of water and volatile organic compounds. Hydrosols are an energetic imprint of the plant itself, a perfectly balanced union of water and matter.
The essential oil and hydrosol relationship
I often use essential oils as an entry point to explain what hydrosols are. Many people are familiar with these concentrated extracts of plant material. However, there are many distinct differences in the safety, use, implications of, and efficacy of the two.
Essential oils are incredibly concentrated, remarkable, and potentially dangerous. Like many types of isolated extracts, they are no longer in relationship with the complexity and synergy of the whole plant. The production of essential oils is a huge industry, requiring an incredibly wasteful and resource heavy amount of plant materials. In order to produce a single pound of essential oil it takes approximately 10,000 pounds of rose petals, or 6,000 pounds of lemon balm.
In contrast to the essential oil’s industry, most hydrosols contain a safe and balanced dose of essential oils, which are gentle enough to be used on most people, including children. Hydrosols naturally contain a near perfect chemical composition for our skin. They are relatively shelf stable and, if kept properly, don’t require any preservatives.
Unfortunately, poor quality hydrosol or “fake hydrosols” are prevalent on the market. Water scented with essential oils, products made from dry plant matter, and hydrosols resulting as a by-product of essential oil production are three poor-quality substitutions I've seen.
Many of the commercial hydrosols available are a by-product of the essential oil industry. Distillations are run with the singular purpose of extracting as much essential oils as possible, and the remaining water is packaged and distributed. These waters are no longer whole and the essential oils that are removed are often dangerously concentrated. Essential oil producers favor a hot and fast approach to extracting oils, while small-batch hydrosol producers employ a low and slow technique that is more beneficial for extracting a wider range of constituents.
The difference is in the focus on the product of essential oils over hydrosols, in which there is little concern for the delicacy of the process.
FROM THE COSMIC TO THE COSMETIC
- Ann Harman
How are they made?
The process of distillation requires the heating of water and fresh plant material and the condensation of those vapors. A still is often used in this process. There are many types of stills - copper, stainless steel, and glass. There are also at-home devices you can put together using a large pot and inverted lid, to create your own hydrosols without a still.
Making a good hydrosol requires a reverence to the process. Collecting fresh plant material and spring water, slowly heating a still to the perfect temperature, keeping a stable low heat, cooling and filtering the waters. It’s an all-day affair that cannot be expedited, an intimate process that is inherently special. In an age of quick fixes and slap-job creations, true hydrosols are not something to be churned out, but something that you participate in, slowing down to the pace of single droplets dripping from the condenser.
Gathering Plants: I only use fresh plant material, which still contains the cellular water of a plant. The essential oils are highest when using fresh plants, harvested when the sun is down and it has not rained for a couple days. The dehydration process releases 90% of the essential oil content of the plants. Once harvested, I start my distillation immediately.
The Set-up: I begin by sanitizing my setup, ensuring all pieces are clean and sprayed with alcohol, especially the vessel that will catch the end-product. Any bacteria that is present can cause the final product to spoil. Once my setup is clean and ready, I will pack the still with fresh plant material. Gently layering the plants in both the pot and the steam column. I add spring water in about 3 parts by weight in proportion to the amount of plants. Once all the pieces are together I seal the joints with a simple dough made of rye flour and water. This will bake on, hardening and preventing steam from escaping. I turn the flame on my burner, gently heating the still, and begin to pack the condenser with ice and cool water.
Tending the Still: Maintaining a low temperature is key once the still gets up to boiling temperature. The hydrosol should not pour in a single stream from the condenser, but maintain a steady dripping rhythm, its frequency depending on size of still. I ensure that the water in the condenser is kept cool.
Testing and Storage: I like to test the pH of my hydrosols using a simple pH meter. In general, an ideal pH is somewhere between 3.0 and 6.5. I record the pH to determine stability and record the date of the distillation with other factors such as the weather, scent, and taste. This information helps build a repertoire of ideal conditions and factors. After a couple months, I'll often re-test the pH of the hyrodrol to gain a better understanding of the shelf-life. Each plant has a different profile, life span, and preferred set of conditions. Hydrosols keep best in a cool, dark space, or refrigerated. Any clouds, or “blooms”, that form suggest bacterial growth and the expiration of the hydrosol. Some plants produce less stable hydrosols than others.
How are they used?
Hydrosols have wide applications. Their primary use is for skincare and aromatherapy. Because hydrosols contain a unique composition of plant oils and constituents that are beneficial for, and readily absorbed by the skin, they make an ideal facial mist and cosmetic ingredient. They are naturally slightly acidic, just like our skin, helping to balance pH and restore the skin’s delicate acid mantle, which is constantly being put off balance from soap, hard city water, and the ongoing barrage of environmental impact. They provide protection, hydration, adaptability, as well as being antimicrobial, antiviral, tonifying, hydrating, anti-aging.
Some other skincare uses:
As a toner prior to applying moisturizer for deeper hydration. They act as a toner, as well as quenching the skin, allowing greater permeation of creams & oils, delivering deep nourishment.
Mix with cosmetic clay and honey for a decadent facial mask.
A gentle and soothing after-sun treatment.
As a nourishing ingredient in balms and creams.
- As a relaxing and dream-inducing pillow mist.
- A grounding and calming form of aromatherapy, especially for children. Many parents find their young children respond positively to the energetic and emotional effects of hydrosols.
- A refreshing room spray.
Hydrosols even have a place culinarily. The most famous examples of this are rose water and orange blossom water, which originally were true hydrosols, rather the derivatives you can now find in supermarkets. A small dose of hydrosols in food and beverage impart a bold, yet delicate flavor that adds nuance and can enlivens a recipe. The applications are broad, really unique, and are a special way to play with the plant world.
Think: Lemongrass hydrosol splashed into curry, sage hydrosol in a glass of sparkling water, or rose hydrosol in a matcha latte.
Who are they for?
They’re for everyone! Hydrosols are a safe and effective whole water that can be used for everyone. As a skincare ingredient, aromatherapy spray, or culinary ingredient. They are truly an integral piece in my toolkit, a multipurpose potion that I will continue to rave about and will forever be an apprentice to.
We often create small batch distillations available throughout Seasonal Wellness Boxes, these are sometimes one-off’s and not available year-round. It is my deepest pleasure to work in this way, experimenting with what's abundant on-hand and operating from a place of creativity and inspiration.
See our hydrosol availability here.
Find our list of resources for more books and materials on distilling.
Any other questions? Let me know here. We would love to hear more about your journey with hydrosols and the distillation process.