Essential oils have been used for religious, healing and aesthetic purposes for thousands of years. Recently, they have once again become mainstream as popular stores and brands began selling them and consumers are becoming better educated about their uses. At Botanie, our soaps are scented with high-quality essential oils. The process of refining essential oils for our soap and other uses is quite intensive and requires elaborate tools. Here’s how it works.
What Is an Essential Oil
An essential oil is a highly-scented compound extracted from plants. Essential oils are often used to scent cosmetics and candles, applied to the skin and diffused in the air. Some examples include lavender, mint, orange and tea tree.
How Essential Oils Are Made
There are multiple methods for refining essential oils. It is believed that ancient Egyptians used a solvent of animal fat to extract the oils along with distillation pots. Today, the method used depends on the factory’s equipment, the type of plant and a variety of other factors. These methods include distillation, expression, enfleurage and the use of solvents and carbon dioxide.
Distillation is the most popular method for creating essential oils and can even be done at home with the correct materials. Using a large, stainless steel or copper Still, steam is injected through the plant material, turning the scent molecules into a vapor. This vapor then enters a flask called a condenser where it is cooled back into liquid form. The liquid that comes out of the condenser is made up of water and oil which are then separated.
This technique is typically used for nut and seed oils. Often called “cold pressed” because no heat is used, expression is the process of putting the plant materials under high mechanical pressure to force the oil out.
Popularized in 19th century France, enfleurage is perfect for delicate flowers and plants that cannot withstand distillation or expression. This technique uses oil to soak up other oils. The flower or plant you are extracting oil from is placed on top of a thin layer of oil on a glass plate, and, after a while, the base oil absorbs the scented oil from the plant.
Solvents and Carbon Dioxide
When extracting oil using solvents, the plant is mixed with a solvent such as acetone and agitated or shaken for a significant amount of time. This will release the essential oil into the solvent. When a lot of pressure is put on carbon dioxide (CO2) it turns into a liquid solvent, which can then be used to extract the essential oil in the same way as acetone. Using carbon dioxide is a new but popular technique.
Choosing High-Quality Essential Oils
With many different types of plants and ways to extract oil from them, it can be difficult to find true, high-quality essential oils. Here are a few tips for making sure the oils you are purchasing are good quality:
- Beware of synthetic fragrances: Some scented oils are packaged like essential oils but are actually just synthetically scented base oils. In order to do this, be sure the bottle mentions something about it being “100% essential oil” or “pure” and read any available ingredient lists.
- Don’t choose the cheapest option: As you can see, the process of extracting essential oil is time consuming and requires specific materials. Because of this, high prices generally reflect higher-quality oils.
- Take a smell of the oil: If you take a sniff and smell alcohol or a scent that doesn’t match the oil listed on the bottle, it might be cut with something, which means it is a lower-quality oil.