Hydrosols/floral waters are obtained via plant distillation using a water steam process. Two complementary products are a result of this distillation: the essential oil and floral water. The latter is, in fact, the steam collected, charged with certain molecules from the original plant that was distilled. Finally, once cooled, there is water condensation. The hydrolate (distilled aromatic water) is collected at the exit of the still, just like the essential oil, and it contains, in a naturally dissolved and less concentrated form, active components of the plant as its essential oil.
In conclusion, after the distillation of an aromatic plant (not necessarily floral part in some cases), two products can be obtained: the usually strong smelling essential oil and the subtle smelling floral water which will float on top of the former. This by-product offers a wide range of therapeutic and cosmetic benefits.
The quality of distillation – at a low temperature, low pressure and for a long enough duration – is reflected in the quality of the hydrosol as is the case for essential oils. It is important to verify if it is a genuine hydrosols, not to be confused with certain products presenting themselves in the form of water to which a small amount of essential oil is added, or worse, containing artificial aromas, therefore producing a product of inferior quality, without the same beneficial properties.
In some parts of the world, hydrosols have been used for centuries in home remedies and by practitioners of traditional medicine. In the western world until recently, hydrosols were often been treated as an unwanted by-product of distillation and discarded (with the exception of rose water). Their popularity and application is increasing together with the rising popularity of natural remedies and organic skincare.
Technically described as a distillate water, this type of fragrant co-product has been more recently referred to in aromatherapy as a hydrosol, hydrolate or hydrolat. Prior to this in the United Kingdom, all distillate waters were collectively known as ‘flower waters’ or ‘floral waters’, and the availability was usually restricted to just a popular few such as lavender, rose and orange flower.
The historic term of floral water is now seriously outdated since every essential oil extracted by a process of water or steam distillation produces a distillate water as a co-product. There are now a much larger selection of distillate waters produced from herbs, needles, leaves, woods, roots, barks and seeds widely available. So the term floral water is not consistent with these products and the name of hydrosol is being used somewhat inconsistently hence a more suitable name is plant distillate.
Until the Middle Ages the art of water distillation was employed specifically for the purpose of producing these precious aromatic waters, and amazingly, very little attention was paid to the precious essential oil that was produced.
Essential oils were utilised of course, but they were extracted by infusing the plant material in a vegetable oil until it had absorbed all of the healing properties of the volatile oils. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans are all known to have made great use of hydrosols for healing and aesthetic properties along with their infusions and unguents.
The precise time in history when distilled essential oils became popular in Europe is not known, but a renowned publication called ‘Liber De Arte Distillandi’ written by Hieronymus Brunschwig in Strassburg 1507 AD makes reference to only 4 essential oils.
Suffice to say that as essential oils became increasingly more popular, the use of hydrosols began to slowly decline. By the early 20th Century the healing benefits of these miracle waters were generally being ignored, with the precious hydrosols actually being thrown away after distilling the essential oil. The aromatic pendulum had now swung the other way, – but why is this, you may wonder?
It was the logistics of transportation that had caused this decline in interest, because the high shipping costs from the country of manufacture far outweighed any realistic commercial value for this relatively low value co-product.
The only exceptions were perhaps rose and orange ‘floral waters’ which were still quite popular up until the 1950’s, when they began to be replaced with cheaper synthetics in the U.K. Pharmacies had begun to sell a synthetic concentrate of rose or orange flower which was diluted at home and used in cake icing, cooking or salads.
It is only quite recently that there has been an increase in interest for these ready to use products, and this is of course great news. Unfortunately, newcomers to aromatherapy are often confused by the different terms used, leaving them unsure as to exactly what is, and what is not, a true hydrosol. And who can blame them, given the dubious practices of some less knowledgeable suppliers?
A softer substitute
Like essential oils, the aroma of a hydrosol although more subtle may vary from season to season even when it comes from the same geographical location. This is because the weather can have a dramatic effect on the plant whilst growing, and during seasons of extreme heat, rain or drought, the plants delicate chemistry is changed which in turn affects the fragrance of its essential oil.
In addition, the chemistry of a plant is affected by the soil that it is grown in, therefore the aroma of a particular essential oil or hydrosol will be different according to its country of origin. These slight variations can often be an indication that a hydrosol is natural, and not man-made.
Hydrosols are highly versatile and can be used for personal care and around the house. In skincare, Rose, Orange Blossom (Neroli) and Lavender hydrosols are great for hydrating dry skin and cooling hot and sensitized skin. If you have been out in the sun too long and got burned, Lavender hydrosol is soothing and comforting as well as healing. Used in the final rinse after shampooing hydrosols help to condition hair and add a shine.
We know of no better remedy for puffy, dark circles under the eyes than Chamomile hydrosol. Just soak two cotton wool pads with the hydrosol and cover each eye for around 10 minutes for an immediate and dramatic reduction in puffiness. Regular use can help diminish those dreaded dark circles too.
Perfect for summer
During the summer hydrosols are perfect to use as a cooling body mist, and the most cooling of all is Peppermint. Make sure you take some with you to use on holidays, on the beach and even to cool those aching tootsies when you are out shopping! Hydrosols help to revitalise you when your energies are beginning to flag, and a few sprays onto a tissue makes a handy wet-wipe for all sorts of applications including babies and grubby children.
To calm a restless baby try adding a few tablespoons of Lavender or Chamomile hydrosol into their bathwater. This can be especially beneficial if your baby is suffering from nappy rash or eczema, because the soothing properties of these hydrosols help calm the irritation and speed up the healing process.
Hydrosols are quite safe to use on young children, and since they only contain a small amount of essential oil they do not need diluting much further except as above when using with very young babies.
Hydrosols such as Rose or Neroli can be added to the final rinse water in your washing cycle as well as used as a fragrant linen spray whilst ironing since they smell much nicer than their synthetic counterparts. Around the house, hydrosols are great to freshen the air instead of using aerosols which of course are harmful to the environment.
Hydrosols are essentially used to create facial toners and other skin products. They can also be used for bathing, or as a light cologne or body spray. Some of the most commonly used hydrosols include –
- Roman chamomile
Hydrosols/floral water can all be used as toners, but each has several of its own unique perks as well. The Rose hydrosol acts as a gentle moisturizer for sensitive skin, a mist for skin and hair and even as a home fragrance. Lavender hydrosol can be applied to blemishes to reduce inflammation and, like Rose hydrosol , can also be used to refresh your home with an ultra-calming aroma. Chamomile hydrosol helps reduce the appearance of dark under-eye circles and can alleviate itchy eyes when used with a warm compress. Orange Blossom hydrosol calms blotchy, red skin with its vitamin-rich formula.
Storage of Hydrosols
Hydrosols should be packaged in dark/opaque bottles, as, like essential oils, they are sensitive to light and heat.