Basil Essential Oil

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Basil essential oil is a staple in aromatherapy and is quite widely used because of its refreshing, sharp aroma and its verified medicinal usage. It claims an impressive array of therapeutic effects. It is preferred by aromatherapists for blends that are useful to relieve anxiety and sleep problems. What is heartening to know is that basil essential oil is quite helpful in some skin conditions like acne and minor wounds. Apart from its medicinal usage, its aroma has a wonderful effect on the psyche.

Source

Basil is a very common household plant, ubiquitously found in small pots on terraces in Europe and North America. This is the commonly known sweet basil, with its broad, fleshy, aromatic leaves. We call it the sweet basil, but it has historically been known also as Saint-Joseph’s wort. Its scientific name is Ocimum basilicum. Basil is used for garnishing dishes and sauces like pesto. If fresh leaves are picked, washed and chewed, they taste sweet yet pungent with hints of either anise or lavender.

Although basil is grown all around the Mediterranean, it is native to the rainforests of Africa and South East Asia. Another dominant variety of basil which is used to extract essential oil is the Egyptian basil. It is the same species as the European basil (Sweet basil) but its leaves produce much higher amounts of linalool which is what makes its aroma resemble lavender. That is because lavender flowers are also rich in the very same compound, linalool.

A third variety of Basil is popular in aromatherapy for its distinctive smell. This is the Bulgarian basil which is also known by the name cinnamon basil. That is because its leaves have an added aroma of cinnamon to them, which adds another dimension to its sweetness and spicy aroma.

Perhaps the most medicinal aroma is given off by a lesser known variety called as the Reunion Island basil. This variety was created by cross breeding the common basil (Ocimum basilicum) with Ocimum kilimandscharium (camphor basil). The resultant hybrid has breathtakingly beautiful small blue leaves and when these leaves grow larger, they still retain blue veins. Its aroma is dominated by camphor which is what gives it a medicinal feel. [1]

Color and Aroma

Essential oil is dominated by yellow shade but has hints of pale green. The base yellow color is amber like but can be lighter.

Aroma is characteristic of the chemotype, that is the variety of basil.

Sweet Basil (Genoese/European) Ocimum basilicum Strong herbaceous smell with hint of basil itself and anise as well
Egyptian basil Ocimum basilicum
type methyl chavicol
Strongly herbaceous smell with hint of tarragon
Bulgarian basil Ocimum basilicum
type methyl cinnamate
Sweet, spicy and herbaceous aroma with element of cinnamon
Thai basil Ocimum basilicum var thyrsiflora Basil aroma with overlays of anise
African Basil (Reunion Is.) Ociumum basilicum x kilimandscharum Camphoraceous aroma with mild hints of licorice sweetness

We have focused mainly on Ocimum basilicum species of basil. Many may be knowing about other basil species, like the medicinally prominent Holy Basil. But these are separate species with markedly different properties from Sweet basil. Holy basil is Ocimum tenuiflorum and it is native to Indian subcontinent. Its range of medicinal effects is so diverse and concrete that it merits a separate analysis and stocktaking.

Therapeutic Properties

Some of the medicinal effects are proven by studies published in peer reviewed journals. But there are many more therapeutic effects which have been noted by aromatherapists and herbalists.

  • Anti-bacterial – Basil exerts strong antibacterial properties. It kills or inhibits the Propionibacterium acnes bacterium which is considered responsible for acne. It also kills Staphylococcus aureus bacterium which is responsible for myriad of skin infections like carbuncles, folliculitis and boils. Apart from bacteria that infect the skin, it is potent at killing Escherichia Coli, some of whose strains cause deadly diarrhea. [2]
  • Anti-fungal – Basil essential oil is effective at killing the notorious fungus, Candida albicans which causes Candidiasis. Almost all types of basil exert this killing effect and with high sensitivity. That is, it starts killing the Candida albicans fungus at low concentrations. [2]
  • Anti-viral – Basil essential oil kills the HSV-1 type of herpes virus. HSV-1 has a greater chance of causing only oral blisters, called cold sores. It is the HSV-2 virus that is responsible for genital herpes. [2]
  • Anti-dermatophyte – The essential oil kills many types of dermatophytes. These are fungi responsible for ringworm infections on the scalp, feet and groin. [2]
  • Anti-inflammatory – Basil essential oil was found in lab studies to suppress a powerful inflammatory reaction, which is commonly referred to as lipopolysaccharide induced inflammation. This is the mechanism by which consumption of sugar rich foods can lead to an uptick in systemic inflammation. [3]
  • Antioxidant – Most essential oils score well on tests that study their free radical scavenging power. Basil does not fall far behind. Its essential oil fights off free radicals and can help us to keep our skin younger. It is also helpful in rhinitis probably because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. [3]

Sweet basil and Egyptian basil contain more than significant amounts of linalool in them. If we go in detail, they contain the R form of linalool, which is the same as in lavender. Linalool bestows strong anxiolytic and sedative effects which is what makes lavender and its essential oil so helpful in subsiding anxiety and promoting sound sleep. Because of linalool, basil essential oil exerts many more therapeutic effects. [4]

  • Hypotensive – It could lower blood pressure. In fact, many studies indicate that this is a direct consequence of a reduction of anxiety.
  • Anxiolytic – It definitely helps to calm nervousness and anxiety. We all know anxiety as the crippling feeling of apprehension, often without even any reason at all.
  • Anticonvulsant – Due to its sedative effects, it lowers the chances of convulsions. This effect is brought about by the effects of linalool on our central nervous system.
  • Emotive – Essential oils rich in linalool aid in contemplation. One can take them to induce a feeling of deliberation with the mind, when we discuss with ourselves some of the most critical questions about the meaning of life. It may help to boost emotional intelligence.
  • Anti-Alzheimer’s – Inhalation of essential oils rich in linalool boosts memory function. It has a beneficial effect on cognitive tasks.
  • Insect repellant – It drives commonly encountered household insects.

Health Benefits and Uses

Basil essential oil is a handy topical oil. It can be diluted suitably in a base oil (these are generally the edible oils) and applied on the skin to heal various kinds of skin infections.

Acne

While many essential oils are only suggestive in their usage, that is, they may help with acne because of their antioxidant effects. But only a few are scientifically proven to help resolve acne. Basil’s essential oil is one of them.

A study used a mixture of essential oil of orange (Citrus sinensis) and basil (Ocimum basilicum) on acne. They were applied in a gel-based medium which was made up of acetic acid. This gel was applied directly onto acne pimples for eight weeks. People who were undergoing this study did report some redness and burning but this used to go away after a few minutes. After 8 weeks, the study noted that about 75% of the pimples were alleviated. This is really significant because there are really few such studies documenting real, noticeable improvement in acne. Such studies often translate into medicinal product patents, but they take time to enter the market. [5]

We can actually formulate a very similar gel-based acne lotion at home itself. Essential oils of orange and basil (Sweet basil) are to be purchased. Take care to buy authentic oil extracted from organic produce with minimal processing. For acetic acid, we will substitute with white vinegar (marked as 5% acetic acid). Vinegar is a diluted natural source of acetic acid. To 100 ml of white vinegar, add 10 drops each of orange essential oil and basil essential oil. Pour it in a glass bottle and close the lid or apply a tight-fitting cork. This prevents the essential oils from going rancid very early. Each day, this formulation can be applied as a spot treatment on the pimples. There would be mild burning and redness, but if the pain is persistent and redness does not subside, then you should not go forward with this homemade remedy.

Ringworm Infections

Basil essential oil is effective at killing off the fungi that cause ringworm infections. It specifically kills the dermatophytes that cause ringworm of the scalp (T. tonsurans), athlete’s foot and jock itch (due to T.  rubrum), nail infections and other types of ringworm (caused by E. flocossum). This anti dermatophytic effects is due to methyl chavicol and linalool in it. [2]

One can formulate a homemade remedy for ringworm using this essential oil. 5 to 10 drops of sweet basil essential oil should be added to 100ml of coconut oil. We have carefully chosen coconut oil because it is one of the most powerful anti-fungal oils out there. Secondly, it dissolves essential oils and spreads nicely onto the skin. It is gentle and well tolerated by most people, with a faint, coconutty aroma which is so pleasing to the senses. This remedy should ideally be applied two to three times a day. Ringworm infections do not clear off very quickly. It takes at least two weeks to heal and may take even a full month. It is prudent to be patient.

Oral and Genital Thrush

Candida albicans is most often the culprit that causes thrush infections of the mouth and genitalia. Although it is seen that women are more at risk of getting infected with vulvo-vaginal candidiasis, it is not altogether uncommon in men. In thrush infections, a characteristic whitish residue is secreted by the fungus. It causes bad breath in the mouth and burning sensation while peeing if it afflicts the genitalia.

In recent years, we are beginning to see that candida infections are developing resistance to the commonly prescribed antifungals. Many essential oils have therefore been screened to find out whether they possess the ability to kill the fungi, without the risk of resistance. Basil essential oil is one of the essential oils that have been found to be working. But it is not safe to use it directly, in undiluted form, on the tongue or as a wash for the groin region. Instead of basil essential oil, it is recommended to go for essential oil of Lavandula augustifolia (English lavender). [2]

It is not as strong an antifungal as some of the other essential oils like those of cinnamon, but it is the gentlest. It should be applied in minute concentrations. A suitable proportion is 2 – 3 drops in 2 large tablespoons of coconut oil. For candida infection, coconut oil is again the most suitable base oil due to its gentle touch and antifungal properties.

Aromatherapy

Basil essential oil finds apt use in aromatherapy. Its aroma is sedating, emotive, cognitive and anti-inflammatory. One can easily diffuse it by placing a few drops on the water in a water-based diffuser and letting the steam carry with itself the vapors. Essential oils containing linalool should not be diffused strongly though.

Sweet basil emits a faintly sweet and spicy, coolant aroma. The sweetness resembles anise, which gives its aroma a tropical feel, but not very floral. It is helpful for those who have difficulty sleeping, even to the extent of relieving insomnia. The anise like aroma reduces inflammation and difficulty in breathing in rhinitis.

A comprehensive survey of essential oils and their utility in aromatherapy mentions that basil essential oil helps not just with anxiety but also alleviates the state of being agitated and stressed. It can calm down persons displaying a challenging behavior. [6]

It is also recommended to overcome the feeling of mental exhaustion or burnout caused by overwork of the mind. It is a serious condition in which the person affected is not just physically exhausted, but also drained out mentally and emotionally. It is essential in the interest of recovery of health that mental exhaustion should be treated with care, patience and lot of support. [6]

Blending with Basil Essential oil

Sweet basil essential oil is usually the one to be used in blends because it is the most widely available EO (essential oil) among all the basil. Within the perfumery note classification, it is a top note. Which means that its aroma doesn’t last long in a diffuser because of fast evaporating compounds like linalool and methyl chavicol. To formulate a long lasting, therapeutic blend with synergistic effects, two or more essential oils are mixed.

First, we need to choose a suitable base note, the aroma that lasts for hours and holds the blend together. Cedarwood essential oil is quite useful in respiratory infections and can be chosen as the base note. Other base notes that are blended with basil EO are the oils of black pepper or ginger.

Middle note, or the heart notes are often introduced into the mix to provide a greater richness. Fennel essential oil is the suitable middle note. Top note is provided by basil and we can add citrus essential oils of lemon or bergamot. [7]

The blend is summarized as follows:

  • Cedarwood essential oil – 1 drop
  • Fennel essential oil – 2 drops
  • Essential oils of lavender, sweet basil and lemon – 4 to 5 drops

Chemical Composition

Relative proportion of volatile compounds in essential oil of various chemotypes of basil is of great interest, medically. Research studies try to assign a particular health benefit to a particular chemical compound within an herb or a spice etc. They call it the active compound.

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is known for being rich in linalool and methyl chavicol. A sample of basil from India contained the following aromatic compounds.

Volatile compound Type Percentage of essential oil
Methyl eugenol Phenylpropanoid 39.3
Methyl chavicol Phenylpropanoid 38.3
Terpinolene Monoterpene 7.7
Eugenol Alkylbenzene 4.5
1,8-cineol Monoterpenoid 2.1
cubenol Sesquiterpene 1.9

Source: 8

This oil is very rich in methyl eugenol and methyl chavicol (estragole). However, this chemical composition does not hold for sweet basil oil sourced from Europe or America. For example, basil essential oil (Ocimum basilicum) from Poland is dominated by linalool and 1,8 – cineole. This demonstrates that the same species can have different chemical compositions when climatic conditions and soil profile are changed. Contrast this with basil essential oil from USA. This is rich in linalool and methyl chavicol (estragole). Most of the sweet basil essential oil in USA is sourced from within the states itself and there is high likelihood that it is rich in linalool and methyl chavicol. A similar chemical composition for basil oil from USA is mentioned by the highly accomplished horticulture division at Purdue University. High concentrations of linalool are necessary to achieve a state of sedation and relaxation.

It is so important to accurately quantify various compounds in sweet basil essential oil. That is because basil essential oil is the main source for synthesizing estragole in laboratories. This strongly aromatic compound is widely used in perfumes and food flavorings. But it is recently being studied for possible carcinogenicity and genotoxicity. However, the opinion of food regulators is that in normal doses, it does not pose any risk, as of current information available. Egyptian basil is richer in estragole.

Bulgarian basil is rich in methyl cinnamate. This aromatic compound has usefulness in treating periodontal disease. Basil oil rich in methyl cinnamate (70%) was found to be effective at killing cervical cancer cells and larynx carcinoma cells in vitro studies. It plays a role in alleviating neuropathic pain linked to hypersensitivity of nerves. [9] Methyl cinnamate is also very common in food flavorings.

Side Effects, Safety and Toxicity Concern

With basil essential oil, concern is higher because one of its constituents, methyl chavicol (estragole) has been known to be carcinogen and a genotoxin. However, on careful analysis, the European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products has summarized that in the normal dosages that are used in food additives, it does not pose a serious carcinogenic risk. [10] The same goes for essential oils because we are supposed to use only a few drops of essential oil per day. But there is a rider. It should be used only by healthy adults and that too for short periods at a time. It should not be used continuously, throughout the year, as a sort of a regimen. It should never be used in the vicinity of children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Linalool is also not entirely safe. It is a known stimulant of the central nervous system and an anticonvulsant. It should not be used in the surroundings of someone who suffers from epilepsy. Secondly, it lowers blood pressure and heart rate due to its sedation effects on the nervous system. At high concentrations, it can lead to dangerously low levels of blood pressure. This usually happens if people put in large amounts in the diffuser and use it in confined rooms with no ventilation. As a result, concentration of linalool in the air keeps on rising. Our body keeps absorbing it through the breaths that we take. It is recommended to diffuse it only for a few hours in a well-ventilated area and the diffuser should be shut off before sleeping. [4]

People who are taking medication for epilepsy or hypertension should take advise from a doctor whether they can use basil essential oil of a certain kind. Basil aromatic compounds can interfere with these medications.

As with any essential oil, there is always the risk of skin sensitivity, allergic reaction and irritation of the respiratory tract. They should never be used undiluted on the skin. They should be kept far away from the reach of children.

Buying and Storage

While buying basil essential oil, make sure to check the species of basil that is used to extract the EO. Also check for products that display chemical composition of their product done using state of the art GC-MS analysis. One should prefer to buy from firms that have a history of environmentally sustainable practices and employ modern scientific methods of extraction, bottling, storage and transportation.

Since it has a short shelf life, it is best to purchase smaller volumes. It should be kept in an amber tinted thick glass bottle with an air tight wooden (not plastic) lid or cork. Essential oils should not be kept in the kitchen for they can catch fire when exposed to strong heat. They should be kept in the chiller or in a cool but dry place. Damp, humid places and direct sunlight increase oxidation, which leads to rancidity of the oil. Then it becomes not only useless but quite harmful.

References

  1. Basil – new Crop fact sheet. Purdue University.
  2. Commercial Essential Oils as Potential Antimicrobials to Treat Skin Diseases. Ane Orchard and Sandy van Vuuren, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017; 2017: 4517971.
  3. Evaluation of the chemical composition, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of distillate and residue fractions of sweet basil essential oil. Hailong Li et al, J Food Sci Technol. 2017 Jun; 54(7): 1882–1890.
  4. Linalool – OilHealthBenefits.com
  5. [Effectiveness of antimicrobial formulations for acne based on orange (Citrus sinensis) and sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum L) essential oils]. Matiz. G et al, Biomedica. 2012 Jan-Mar;32(1):125-33.
  6. Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Babar Ali et al, Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine Volume 5, Issue 8, August 2015, Pages 601-611.
  7. Basil Essential Oil – MountainRoseHerbs.
  8. Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of the essential oil of Ocimum basilicum L. (sweet basil) from Western Ghats of North West Karnataka, India. Rakesh K. Joshi, Anc Sci Life. 2014 Jan-Mar; 33(3): 151–156.
  9. Methyl cinnamate – PubChem.
  10. https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/scientific-guideline/public-statement-use-herbal-medicinal-products-containing-estragole_en.pdf

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