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The Hard pHacts - Hydrosols

Science is strong on description; we know so little that scientists make discoveries everywhere they look. But each discovery merely reveals the magnitude of our ignorance. David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance 

Science is strong on description; we know so little that scientists make discoveries everywhere they look. But each discovery merely reveals the magnitude of our ignorance. David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance. Hydrosols, unlike most essential oils, have a finite shelf life.

Although it is true that some oils, notably the conifer and expressed citrus oils, do have a shelf life of around two years, most of the oils will, if stored correctly, last indefinitely. Some like patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood, and the resin extracts like myrrh and frankincense, can actually improve with age, like fine wine. However, hydrosols are a different kettle of fish, and we must develop a new way of thinking to fully understand their needs.

Establishing and monitoring the shelf life of hydrosols has, until now, been largely a matter of experience combined with guesswork. The result has been that if a distiller or seller of hydrosols actually gives them a best-before date, it seems to be regardless of bottling standards, storage conditions, or plant-material source.

Some people say one year on everything, others say three years on everything- they can't both be right, and they're not. Each hydrosol is totally unique, just like the oil and plant from which it is derived. The shelf life of each hydrosol is also unique and is affected considerably by storage conditions, packaging, and a few chemistry factors.

When I started working with hydrosols, I wasn't much concerned with the issue of shelf-life of hydrosols or contamination. I bought only from reliable sources, and as hydrosols were even harder to find then than they are now, these were just about the only sources for most of the varieties that were of interest.

I also kept them in the fridge, bottled mostly to order, and sterilized my packaging. I figured that if any contamination was present, I would surely see it in the water. And see it I did, although not very often. But it was Bay laurel hydrosol that made me start to think about the issue of shelf life-that and the frequent questions of colleagues who wondered if I didn't have contamination problems. 

At first I put down the concern of my colleagues to the fact that one of the great fictions of aromatherapy is that hydrosols are really unstable and nearly always full of contaminants like mould. This really is a fiction. Of course hydrolates, like any natural substance without preservatives, can develop bacteria, and they do go off. But-and here is the important thing-they are not that unstable for the most part.

Take Roman Chamomile, for instance. Early on I started buying chamomile by the gallon. It is a lovely and sweet and has so many uses that I figured I could sell it quickly enough to justify buying what was then large bulk to me. Of course, I was wrong. That first gallon of chamomile did not go fast, but the second took over eighteen months to sell, and it never changed one iota during the whole time. The taste, the smell, look or pH was not altered in any way. So what was the problem with this contamination malarkey, I thought to myself. Then came bay leaf.

Whenever I get a new variety of hydrosol I always do a three-week protocol myself to see what happens and to gauge the physiological, emotional, and vibrational response within the body. Over three weeks one consumes 620 millilitres of hydrosol: 30 millilitres a day for twenty one days. So I always buy at least a couple of litres to allow for experimentation. But with bay the results seemed so good and the health benefits so palpable that I went for the gallon and then watched in amazement as it started to bloom after five months in the fridge. I called the supplier and checked the distillation date, which was around ten months previous. What was going on, I wondered, why did chamomile last and bay degrade.

I had to rethink everything, and soon I realized that I had lumped all hydrosols together as far as stability was concerned, just as we tend to lump most essential oils together in the same regard. I realized that every hydrolate was unique and probably had a specific shelf life. Eventually I realized that the individual pH was the key to understanding the whole problem.

Because of this, the easiest, most effective method to determine and monitor shelf life is to measure the pH value of the waters. Each hydrosol has a unique pH or a pH range into which it will fall. This may vary from year to year and is affected by all the same conditions that affect the essential oils: weather, altitude, harvest times, and so on. They have chemotypes: different countries of origin, and variability in yield, chemistry, taste and aroma, just as oils do, and this is important to remember. However, the pH is a reliable indicator of the potential life span of a hydrosol-it is not the only relevant parameter, but it is the easiest to measure for the home user or small distributor, and except for a few anomalies, it is a very reliable standard.  

In the future I hope that distillers will start testing the pH of the waters during the distillation process so an absolute value or range can be assigned to each and every hydrosol produced, year after year. This will be an extremely valuable sales tool for producers, distributors, and practitioners, as you will see by the end of this chapter.

It will also be fascinating to to see the differences in pH and therefore effects, aroma, taste, and so on of hydrosols produced in different years by the same distillers in different areas or countries. Until then, you can use the pH table supplied in chapter 2 as a starting point. The data are based on my own tests conducted over the last three and one-half years and are an accurate reference for good-quality organic wild-crafted therapeutic products.

Note; If you know about pH, you will know that each tenth of a point on the scale represents a factor of ten; thus some of the pH ranges presented for hydrosols actually represent quite high variables in actual pH. Chemists out there may find these ranges too wide, and in a way, so do I, but as the ratings are based on averages of hydrosols received over a four-year period, from any sources and of many species, this is accurate as I can be at the moment.

Also, as these are natural compounds, their values change from season to season, from country to country, and of course, because distillation methods. It is better to have a normal range to work from than a finite value that may not be applicable to your next batch.

Reference; Hydrosols; The next Aromatherapy: Suzanne Catty


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