The extraction process of essential oils has a long and interesting history, believed to have started in ancient Egypt and further discovered in the days of the Alchemist. Here we will take a deeper look into how essential oils are extracted today and how these various methods shape the resulting oils effectiveness, quality and usability. One thing that should be pointed out from the start, is essential Aromatherapy grade oils are extracted from once living botanical sources including flowers, fruits, barks and even resins from trees.
Many commercial institutions wishing to jump on what they see as a craze for Aromatherapy “like” products, blur the lines as to what essential oil use really is and would like you to believe that fragrance oils may be used in the essential oils place, being just as effective. The truth of the matter is, there are actually two branches which have become intertwined, mainly by the perfume industry. The art of Aromatherapy is not simply inhaling pleasing essential oils for mood enhancement, an aphrodisiac effect, etc., this falls more into the realm of Aromacology, which is the study of scents and fragrances on the human psyche and mind.
Aromatherapy on the other hand is the use of highly concentrated essential oils which not only have an effect on the psyche from it’s aroma but also medicinal qualities which can be used in a variety of applications including inhalation, massaging on the skin, cold and hot compresses, etc. Aromacology may use non-real alcohol based perfumes while Aromatherapy can only use pure, real essential oils.
Here is a look at the various ways of extraction which is used today.
Infused oil AKA Maceration: Base oils such as vegetable or sweet almond are mixed with aromatic plants, the mixture is heated over a fire or placed in the sun.
Distillation: Plant material is placed inside a still like contraption. Steam is forced passed through the botanicals like an espresso maker. The essential oil filled pockets in the botanical burst open and the essential oil is carried away as the steam travels to the top of the still. The steam is forced into a water-cooled pipe (condenser) where the vapors return to a liquefied state. Essential oils float to the top of the water and are spined off. The water that remains is used as floral waters.
Enfleurage: Lard is smoothed over a large glass plate. Flower petals (such as rose) is then spread on top of the lard. This is done over and over until the lard has absorbed the oils and scent of the flowers. Alcohol is used to remove the essence of the flowers from the lard. The remaining lard is used in soap making.
Expression: Citrus fruits such as limes, lemons, oranges, etc. are peeled and the zest is used and pressed (such as with apple cider) to remove the oils. The oils collect into sponges which are later squeezed to produce the finished product of essential oils. This method while completely natural and very desirable is not used as often as solvent or steam distillation.
Solvent Extraction: Hydrocarbon solvents are used in a drum filled with plant material to dissolve the essential oils. The solution is filtered and put through a distillation process. It produced resinod and concrete. Alcohol is used to extract the oils and the finished product is called an absolute. Unfortunately not all the solvents or alcohol can be completely removed and the resulting essential oils, which can result in a less effective product.
Carbon Dioxide: Carbon Dioxide gas or butane is used when in a liquefied state to extract oils from plants under extreme pressure. This is a very new development in essential oil extraction methods and is still under testing and modification. Once again, as with the solvent method, this procedure may lead to denaturing of the essential oil and it’s effectiveness.
One of the best and oldest methods of obtaining essential oils and not denaturing them or add impurities is distillation. Alchemist were known for their use of distilled botanicals and believed that everything, including stones, sand, etc. could be distilled to produce healing medicines. A large potion of their thinking that anything earthly could hold healing properties, was the belief that everything had a soul and spirit which could be extracted and used by the human body, referred to as “solve and coagula”. The Alchemists art of “spagyrie” was to distill the botanical over and over again to remove all impurities and produce what they thought to be a highly potent and powerful medicine.
At the turn of the century in France the distillation process could only be done on a small scale, mainly for wild lavender. Today it is still successfully used for the extraction of essential oils and preferred by Aromatherapists far and wide. Many botanicals, especially flowers produce a very small yield of essential oil for the volume of petals picked. This has of course made these certain essential oils more costly to produce and to buy, by the consumer. Factors such as this has lead to the use of mock essential oils more and more by companies and the fragrance industry.
While saving a few dollars may seem good at the time it can mean you are not going to get the results you are looking for or even a allergic reaction from the chemicals used. Always read the label carefully to see what is inside the bottle. It should only be the plant used for the extraction and perhaps a base oil such as jojoba, peanut or sweet almond.
Some companies are now producing organic essential oils. Any pesticides or chemicals on the plant can end up in the essential oil, so organic oils make very good sense. The fragrance industry makes a point of always brining up that essential oils can not be standardized and that everyone should use chemical reproductions which are always the same instead. People said that herbs couldn’t be standardized either yet now we see many companies including pharmaceutical ones producing such products.
There are far too many components that essential oils contain for there to be an exact chemical match made of them. The first area and most important to the perfume industry to be copied is the scent and not the other components which include vitamins and nutrients. I’m sure it will be a matter of time before standardized essential oils are also produced.