The pure essential oils discussed in this book vary greatly in chemical structure from synthetic essential oils. Pure essential oils come exclusively from plant matter with naturally occurring properties, but synthetic oils contain animal matter, synthetically created oil properties, and naturally occurring oil properties. Using chemical solvents like alcohol is a popular way to create synthetic oil properties. Once chemical solvents have been introduced to plant matter such as leaves or flowers in the extraction process, the occurring oil is called an absolute and is not really considered essential oil anymore even though it still possesses some therapeutic qualities. Aromatherapy experts say
that even the minutest synthetic component in otherwise pure oil renders it completely synthetic albeit still useful in aromatherapy.

Extraction Methods

This is the most common extraction method for essential oils and can include steam distillation, hydrodistillation, or a combination of the two, called water and steam distillation. Water is the common denominator in distillation, but heat plays an important role as well.

In steam distillation, an aromatherapist grabs fresh or dried plant matter and a still — a contraption similar to a pressure cooker — and starts cooking. Stills range in price from less than $100 to more than $10,000, depending on capacity, whether they can be configured to use electricity, and the materials they are made out of. Stills made out of copper are popular because they reduce sulfur compounds in the final product but are considered to have a negative impact on quality of essential
oils. Because of the effects copper has on essential oils, stainless steel stills are recommended. The Essential Oil Company is a good place to begin shopping for stills and other products used for essential oil extraction.

Hydrodistillation, the oldest method of distillation available, involves tightly packing and fully submerging plant matter in a still’s kettle, applying heat of about 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and producing what resembles a pot of soup. A separate still chamber generates pressurized steam that is circulated throughout the plant matter, forcing the plants’ cells that contain essential oils to open and release their treasures. As the oils are released, they evaporate and mix with the steam. The still’s condenser then cools the steam, allowing it to revert to a liquid state.

Robert Seidel, president of The Essential Oil Company and designer of the “Essencier” essential oil separator, suggests exercising careful calculation once the steam reverts to a liquid state, because there is a continuous  flow of watery distillate that has to be separated from the essential oils. This must be done by capturing the water in a separate container while making sure the sill does not overflow and you do not lose any essential oils.

Products like the Essencier can solve the problem because they automatically separate essential oils from the distillates in the still. This allows lighter essential oils to float to the top of the water for easy extraction.

Keep in mind that a few pounds of plant material result in a just a few ounces of essential oils. For instance, more than 8 million jasmine flowers produce just 2 pounds of jasmine essential oil. The good thing is the oils are very concentrated, meaning that a few drops can go a long way.

Expression is a method of extraction exclusively for obtaining citrus essential oils. Bergamot, lemon, lime, and other citrus fruits are rolled over a trough that has sharp extensions meant to pierce the skin of the fruits and release the oils within. Think of your basic kitchen knife piercing a lemon, releasing the permeating scent of the lemon juice mixed in with essential oils.

Solvent extraction
A rose plant may have thorns, but its flower petals are wispy, sweet smelling, beautiful to behold, and produce some of the most expensive essential oils you can find. Through the use of the solvent extraction method, the essential oils within rose, jasmine, violet, and other delicate flower petals are placed on perforated metal trays before they are sprayed with a solvent that makes them release their essences. Pure alcohol is the solvent of choice because it evaporates, leaving the essential oils behind.

The enfleurage extraction method, though more expensive than all other extraction methods, is akin to the solvent extraction method. It entails spreading fixed oil, usually vegetable oil or animal fat, onto a
sheet of glass mounted on a wooden frame. Flower petals are then placed in the fixed oil before the contraption is placed in the sun and left until the fixed oil is saturated with the essential oils from the flower petals.

A solvent like alcohol is introduced to the petals and once it evaporates, it leaves the essential oils on the sheet of glass. The products of this method are called absolutes rather than essential oils, because using solvents introduces foreign chemical components that render the oil impure in aromatherapy.

Carbon dioxide extraction
Like in the distillation method, carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction uses high pressure, described in aromatherapy as “hypercritical” at 91 degrees, to extract essential oils. When carbon dioxide is in a hypercritical state, it is neither gas nor liquid. Place plant matter in a stainless steel tank and inject carbon dioxide into the tank. The colorless, odorless gas turns into a liquid, which acts as a solvent on the plant matter. Once the pressure decreases, carbon dioxide reverts back to its gaseous state
leaving behind cleaner, fresher essential oils.

Carbon dioxide as a solvent is gaining popularity because no solvent residue remains in the essential oils and the method features no temperature degradation of the oil, which can weaken the essential oils’ therapeutic effects.

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