How do you make essential oils? The extraction process is very complicated so, I’ve enlisted the help of Perfino founder, Kim Brookes, to tackle this question.
With her expertise we will tackle some essential oil FAQs, in the hope it will clarify this particular industry.
How are essential oils made?
The extraction of fragrant essential oils from natural materials is an age-old practice with many of the extraction methods having changed little over centuries. It all starts with a physical material derived from plants, generally from the flower, resin, bark, stem, or root. Extraction of the essential oil is predominantly achieved by distillation, passing water or steam over the raw material causing it to release aromatic compounds. Once cooled the water separates from the oil. This method is used for delicate flowers such as Roses, as well as resins such as Frankincense, and roots like Vetiver.
For materials which are more heat sensitive, solvent extraction may be used by mixing the raw material with CO2, hexane, or ethanol at a lower and more regulated temperature, and then separating the oil upon cooling.
The most labour intensive and now rarely used method of extraction is enfleurage which is occasionally still used for flowers such as Jasmine or Tuberose. In this method the flowers are placed on top of animal or vegetable fat and compressed, replaced, compressed and so on until the oil is absorbed into the fat over time. The fat is then combined with alcohol which causes the essential oil to separate for collection.
Citrus fruits are a much more basic affair as this simply involves cold pressing to release the oils.
Why are some essential oils so cheap?
The old adage “you get what you pay for” most certainly applies when buying essential oils as the purity of oils can only really be tested with complex scientific equipment, and most oils and can be synthesised for mass production based on a chemical formula making the resulting oil far cheaper… but definitely not natural.
To be sure that you are buying a pure natural essential oil it is always advisable to buy from a trusted source who in turn buys direct from a known producer of quality.
Occasionally essential oils appear on the market which are virtually impossible to extract, such as lilac or even apple, so knowing the method of extraction and the country of origin may help here, and reputable suppliers will always provide this information.
It takes 25 square foot to grow enough lavender to produce 15ml of essential oil and notably 10,000 roses for a teaspoon of rose absolute, all hand-picked early in the morning when the oil is most present. So, if it’s cheap, it’s probably not the real thing.
Are current extraction methods sustainable?
Essential oil harvesting and production provides a much-needed source of income in many of the poorer parts of the world. In these locations the distillation process requires heat so the sustainability issues concerning extraction relate predominantly to energy production.
The use of chemicals, such as CO2, to extract oils, taps into the same underlying issue, but the CO2 is merely used to extract and reforms into its original state once the process is complete, thereby generating no extra pollutants.
Reputable suppliers know their producers well and will testify to issues such as workers’ rights, sustainable growing methods, compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the sustainability of extraction methods.
How can we make EO extraction more sustainable?
To ensure full sustainability we need to buy from reputable suppliers who are transparent about the source of their essential oils, document compliance with CITES, show that workers’ rights and climate issues are core to their values, and ideally are registered as a B Corporation, demonstrating that their sustainability credentials have been independently vetted.
It is these suppliers who have the power to effect change within the supply chain, so the more we buy from them, the stronger their voices are heard and effective in pushing issues relating to sustainable essential oil production and extraction. Far better to pay more and buy less if we can, hand on heart, know where the oils come from and how they are extracted.
Are all essential oils vegan?
Almost all essential oils are now vegan, certainly those from well-known and reputable suppliers, in as much as it is extremely rare to see oils derived from animals such as Ambergris, a secretion from the intestine of Sperm Whales, or Civet oil, a secretion from the glands close to the testicles of Civet cats. Hardly surprising that the allure fades when you know the origin of the oil!
Essential oils are also cruelty free and not tested on animals. Special use cosmetics sold in China has been an exception here in the past, although recent updates in Chinese animal testing laws are happily bringing China in line with the rest of the world.