Essential oils are all constituents derived from plants. It is important to understand this fact when working with the oils themselves. Each plant offers a unique aromatic fragrance that can be noticed in the peel of their produce, the bark of a tree, the scent of a leaf when it is rubbed between the fingers or on the bloom itself. These aromatic compounds create the quintessential essence of each plant. The process of extracting these essences from the plant is quite complicated but each unique extraction process produces highly coveted essential oils that are used for a wide variety of purposes including aromatherapy. It is much easier to utilize Young Living essential oils then to go straight to the plant source. It would require a large green house and years of botanical training to amass a garden full of healing plants. Plants produce their unique oils for many reasons; some include pest control, pollination attraction, and determent. Essential oils never mix with water; this is a key point to remember as we discuss extraction processes. The oils themselves will mix with oil, fats and alcohol but will separate themselves from water.
Distillation is one of the methods where oils are removed from the plants. Studies have shown that this method has been used for thousands of years and utilizes steam distillation to separate the plants’ oil from the plant itself. The plant is placed above boiling water and the water vapor that is released will separate the oil from the plant. As the steam rises above the plant it is collected into a condenser that is equipped with tubing and the steam is promptly cooled as it is collected. This cooling process will turn the steam back into its previous state of water. Essential oil will not mix with water; it will separate. Once these two constituents have separated the essential oil is collected and the water left behind is a highly fragrant solvent that is referred to as floral water or hydrosol and is used in a variety of cosmetic products. One of the most notable advantages of utilizing the distillation method is that the material is distilled at a temperature below boiling which will not cause damage to the plant material. Distillation is a temperature controlled extraction process; another type of extraction method is the Expression process.
Expression is one of the most direct extraction processes when it comes to obtaining essential oils. This process has also been utilized for thousands of years and is quite simplistic as far as the procedure. Citrus fruits such as bergamot, lime, lemon, grapefruit and orange are all pressed to release the essential oils from their fruity flesh and their zest. The process is very similar to the way olive oil is obtained by using a cold press. The peels of the fruit are punctured prior to the pressing process. This step in the process will release the essential oils that are within the plants cells. The fruits are then soaked in warm water and placed in a machine that uses pressure and presses the fruits and uses centrifugal force to separate the essential oils from their liquid juice. It is best to use certified organic produce for these essential oils so purity is not in question.
Absolutes are extremely similar to essential oils however they are not the same thing as pure essential oils. Essential oils are acquired solely by expression or distillation and all other methods that require a solvent for extraction are considered absolutes.
Enfleurage is a considered an ancient art of solvent extraction that was typically passed down through families in the Grasse region of Southern France. This is not a popular method of extraction and the technique has to be very specific. Many people shy away from this method because lard is an animal byproduct and people tend to avoid animal based products and lean more towards completely plant based. Originally this process would utilize meat fats to absorb the essential oils from flowers but some modern techniques use vegetable fats. Floral blooms are placed on sheets of fat. The fat absorbs the aroma from the flowers. This process must repeat many times and the fats used must be of high quality so they will not turn rancid. Enfleurage truly is an art in the essential oil industry. The exhausted flowers are removed when the process is complete and the fats are separated from the essential oils. Enfleurage is extremely rare today and if someone finds one on the aromatherapy market it is most likely an absolute.
The solvent extraction process can be performed by using any of the following methods; petroleum solvents, ethanol solvents or by using the supercritical CO2 extraction process. Petroleum solvent was one of the most popular ways to extract oils from sources such as vanilla, rose petals and jasmine flowers but it is not a favorite for aromatherapy or topical use because the hexane residue that is left behind during the process can cause skin conditions and be an irritant. Ethanol solvents are extremely popular for extraction in sources such as vanilla. The plant material is saturated in the ethanol and allowed to seep. Over time the alcohol naturally evaporates out and the concentrated oil, also known as an absolute, is the final product left behind. Vanilla is often listed as an essential oil but it is technically an absolute. Supercritical CO2 extraction is becoming one of the newest ways to extract the essential oils from their plant material but it is also quite costly. This is a pressurized extraction where the temperature of the carbon dioxide is elevated to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbon dioxide reaches a point of half liquid and half gas at this temperature. The pressure temperature gets decreased and the carbon dioxide returns to its previous gaseous state and the pure essential oil produced is the only left behind.
Essential oil products have been available for centuries. More studies need to be done to fully delve into all of the essential oil benefits that they offer but it is clear that they are commonly utilized for their aromatherapy, apothecary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.