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How Essential Oils are Made

There are a few different processes by which essential oils are extracted from plants:

 

Steam Distillation

Essential Oil distilleries have classically used hydrodiffusion (steam distillation) to produce Essential Oils. During distillation, steam runs through the plant material. The hot steam breaks down the cells of the plant and carries the essential oils to a cooling chamber where the hydrosol (water portion of the plant) and the essential oil (volatile oils of the plant) are then separated.

Like fine wines, the end result is dependent upon several factors which include: growing methods (preferably Organically grown, Bio-dynamically grown, or Ethically wildcrafted), geography, climate, soil conditions, and most importantly, the technique and expertise of the distiller. The amount of essential oil that each distillation yields is dependent upon the plant. Price is usually a reliable indicator of how much oil each crop yields. For example, it takes approximately 30 rose buds to produce a single drop of rose otto essential oil. 1 ml (approximately 30 drops) then, is sold for about $35 on the retail market. Lavender, on the other hand, yields approximately 4 liters of oil per ton of plant. A 5 ml (1/6 of an ounce) bottle of true lavender is found for about $10-$15.

Carbon Dioxide Extraction

A relatively new method of extraction that is being employed is called carbon dioxide extraction, or CO2. This process utilizes the "supercritical" state of CO2, when it acts both as a gas and a liquid. The required equipment used for this method is quite expensive but yields a higher volume of essential oil, making more expensive oils such as frankincense and myrrh more widely available. CO2 extraction, which is cooler than steam distillation, is also gentle on the plant material and yields essential oils with exceptionally true aromas.

Cold Press Extraction

Most high quality citrus essential oils are obtained from a cold pressing of the rind or peel. This process is often called scarification. As in steam distillation, to insure high quality essential oils it is necessary to use only the finest plants available. The common use of chemical pesticides in industrial citrus farming makes using organic citrus essential oils especially important. Many citrus essential oils on the market are bulk essential oils of inferior quality made by steam distillation of the peels rather than scarification.

Absolutes

Another method used to extract essential oils from plants is by using solvents. These oils are called absolutes. Absolutes are commonly used to extract the essence from very delicate plant parts like flower petals. Common absolutes are Rose, Jasmine and Mimosa. These are used primarily for perfumery and blending, and because of the solvents used in extraction, are not considered to be a therapeutic grade.

 

Simplers Botanicals 2012 - By Robin Lander, Clinical Herbalist & Aromatherapist