A more subtle branch of the subtle. Hydrolates were probably the first fragrant obsession, perhaps even before the essential oils themselves. Low dose of active substances but also low harmfulness are the characteristics of hydrolates. Favourite as tonics and water phases in creams, some like to use them as an oral therapy as well. Not a correct term at all, but hydrolaterapy is sometimes called homeopathy of aromatherapy.
Definition and use of hydrolates
Hydrolates or floral waters are formed as a by-product in the production of essential oils. During the distillation of essential oils, water vapor is cooled (condensed) together with the essential oil. Because essential oils are very poorly soluble in water, they usually remain floating in the layer of water that is saturated with substances from essential oils. This finely scented water, hydrolate or flower water, has healing properties.
Legend has it that at first people did not want to produce essential oils but floral waters. During the distillation, it was seen that fragrant water, hydrolate, was formed, which would smell finer and be unusually transparent and clean, completely different from “tea” of the same aromatic plant. It is impossible to fully confirm this story, but it can certainly be true. Hydrolates have been part of the culture of many ancient nations for centuries: the original Lebanese baklava is made with rose hydrolate.
We say that hydrolates are silent companions of aromatherapy, of almost poetic similarities to ideally pure water with a hidden and invisible “soul” of the plant’s scent. In the introduction to aromatherapy it has already been said that therapy using only hydrolates is called hydrolaterapy. This type of therapy has a homeopathic tone. Although much literature has been written about hydrolates, it does not have as much of a medical connotation. This does not mean that they are not present. The most medically used hydrolate is witch hazel hydrolate (Hamamelis virginiana). It is the only hydrolate on ESCOP’s list of herbal medicines that has also been tested clinically. One of the better known studies was published by Korting et al..
Hydrolates are very popular in cosmetics and, depending on the type of plant, are probably the best and most gentle skin tonics we have come up with in our history. But hydrolates are not without their own “but”… Recently, a French cosmetics manufacturer said that he does not like hydrolates because of their instability. And this is true, because most hydrolates are easily “spoiled”, and some relatively easily and quickly lose their olfactory properties. For example, rose hydrolate can take on a scent reminiscent of vinegar, and given the price of the hydrolate, it can be an unpleasant surprise.
Once upon a time, domestic distillers literally threw away hydrolates because they were focused on the essential oil as the final product. Smaller distillers are coping with it as they know how. The wife of a local distiller still irons laundry with her own hydrolates. Over time, they realized that people like these fine natural fragrant waters, and we find them in tourist destinations in sprays, along with essential oil. Needless to say, personally I am extremely happy about this. Not all herbal extracts have to be for medical purposes, sometimes nature rewards us with something for personal enjoyment.
Unlike essential oils, which are highly “concentrated”, hydrolates are mild and harmless. For example, you could not take a single drop of the essential oil cinnamon bark in your mouth without the appearance of strong irritation. A teaspoon of cinnamon hydrolate is just aromatically stinging. Hydrolates are therefore of interest to people who prefer safer and less irritating preparations. In this context, they are useful in cosmetics for all those who are very sensitive to essential oils, and in emulsion systems they give a pleasant scent without the use of essential oils.
As with the essential oil, there are doubts about taking hydrolates orally. Hydrolates due to their harmlessness can be taken orally, but it is important to know whether the hydrolate is microbiologically pure and whether any preservative is present in it. Preservatives in hydrolates, even when they are “eco”, i.e. in accordance with the regulations for organic cosmetics, may be completely unsuitable for oral use. In my experience, there have been examples of hydrolate causing nausea, probably due to the presence of preservatives (see section on obtaining and quality control of hydrolates).
Hydrolates should never be conceptually confused with aqueous extracts of plants. Aqueous plant extracts contain a whole range of water-soluble substances (flavonoids, coumarins, phenolic compounds, mucilage…), which are not present in hydrolates.