The trouble with Hydrosols
What could be better than a little rose hydrosol to gently cleanse and rejuvenate tired skin? Well pretty much everything as far as we are concerned and don’t take that the wrong way, hydrosol are lovely in theory but in practice they are rare, expensive and difficult to manage as we shall see below. So, what’s a hydrosol again?
Hydrosols are otherwise known as the water of distillation. Let me just give you an example to illustrate:
Lavender is picked from the fields when it is looking and smelling divine. It is gathered up and popped into a large vat where water is added to make what looks like one almighty large cup of herbal tea. The vat is then heated which boils the water and water leaves the vat as steam. Now if you have the ‘perfect’ distillation vat the design will be such that pressure can build up a little to force the boiling point of water up to past 100c to help with the essential production……
Anyway back to the nitty gritty. The water boils, steam comes off and with that steam are little molecules of oils. Essential oil manufacturers collect that steam and condense it back from a gas to a liquid (by simple cooling) before collecting it. The water goes into one pot and the oils into another.
The water from the above experiment is the hydrosol and the hydrosol contains the water-soluble aromatic components of the plant being distilled. Well, those that survive the process anyway. This hydrosol is quite different in chemistry to the oil and is prized by some skin care manufacturers IF they can get it.
Let’s just re-frame the notion of what a hydrosol is for a moment shall we. A hydrosol is the water of distillation or in other words the waste. I haven’t been to every essential oil farm in the world (I’ve seen around 10 I believe) but none of the ones I have seen are treating their waste like potential gold. Indeed when the idea of selling the hydrosol/ water was brought up with one of Australia’s largest speciality oil producers they thought I was having a laugh.
The fact that the water of distillation is waste is a huge clue to why farmers aren’t keen to invest further time in selling it:
* the water used distillation doesn’t have to be purified, filtered or otherwise ‘cleaned’ to be used. Now don’t go off thinking that they are using muddy swamp water but suffice to say, you wouldn’t necessarily drink it. This makes setting up a distillery easier and cheaper for farmers but means that any hydrosols produced could be below par in terms of water quality.
* even where the water used is purer than an angels tears many farmers distill in outdoor barns/ sheds that are semi-open to the environment. This makes things like eliminating air-borne pollutants or controlling temperature next to impossible even if they wanted to.
* for many farms the collection vessels and handling procedures used for the water waste would need a complete overhaul which may make the whole process unviable. A product which is close to 100% water provides microbes with an ideal home and so unless the production, packaging, storage and transport systems used are as clean as clean microbes could flourish.
* The end product would require very different testing and validating than the oils and would add even more costs to the process in order to ensure a quality product.
* much more hydrosol is produced than oil due to the nature of the procedure which means that if everyone kept and tried to sell their waste the price would plummet (supply vs demand) for this easy to make anyhow but tricky to standardize and preserve product.
* following on from the above it is highly likely that the hydrosol chemistry will be variable from batch to batch due to the difficulties in controlling what comes Over with the water. It is easier to monitor, measure and standardize the oily bits as much research has been done into essential oil distillation conditions. The same cant be said for the water due to its ‘waste’ classification so you could get vastly different qualities of product each time you buy it.
As if that isn’t bad enough the market for hydrosols isn’t without its cheaters. Many products are passed off as hydrosols to meet the price and quality expectations of cosmetic manufacturers and while not all are fakes some are! In order to make sure you have what you want the best thing is to check the source – are they reputable, production method and control standard – ISO, GMP certified/ certifiable if appropriate and not all farms will be but are still OK, the micro count (ask for a copy of the micro testing for the batch you are buying (it should be less than 1000 CFU with none of the usual nasties present), the plant – can you steam distill THAT? Production date – how old is it?
So, what to do??????
A good hydrosol can be a great addition to your cosmetic creation BUT a bad one can cause mayhem in terms of micro contamination and wasted time, energy and money. The key is to do your research and be prepared to get what you pay for as good hydrosols don’t come cheap (and are best bought as fresh as possible). Buying local is also great if at all possible as that helps to ensure freshness.