How Essential Oils Are Made
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Have you ever wondered what goes into the process of making essential oils - as opposed to fragrance oils, which are lab-made? With some cooking oils like olive oil, it can be fairly easy to imagine just squeezing the fruit hard enough and obtaining large quantities of oil...but a rose petal or a lavender bud is hardly very oily, is it? So just how do plants, flowers and stems or bark yield the incredibly potent and fragrant oils we love to use in our products?
We went to New Directions Aromatics, the largest supplier of lavender essential oil in Canada and the supplier of LUSH Cosmetics (and, also, one of our main suppliers at Saltzco - we stock their oils, too!) to find out the secrets of making essential oil.
Essentially, essential oils are liquid versions of plants
-Essential oils are the liquids that are isolated from plants when introduced to solvents – they are liquefied versions of the plants! Essential oils are extracted from plant materials through specialized removal methods that are best suited to the specific plant part containing the oils.
-Popular extraction methods include: Steam Distillation, Solvent Extraction, CO2 Extraction, Maceration (that's the aforementioned crushing), Enfleurage (as the name indicates, this method is often used for flowers), Cold Press Extraction, and Water Distillation.
-The method of extraction affects essential oil quality by way of pressure and temperatures applied, as well as any chemicals used in the process.
-It can take an extraordinary amount of plant material to produce a very tiny amount of essential oil.
-Some extraction methods are best suited to particular plant types and parts; for example, Cold Press extraction is better than Enfleurage for obtaining oils from citrus fruit peels, because the peels need to be pierced and squeezed, which is not achievable through Enfleurage.
Steam Distillation is the preferred extraction method for EO producers
Steam Distillation is the most popular (read: inexpensive) method used to extract and isolate essential oils from plants for use in natural products. This happens when the steam vaporizes the plant material’s volatile compounds, which eventually go through a condensation and collection process.
How Steam Distillation creates essential oils from plants
The plants are placed into a large container called a Still (yep - same device used for brewing alcohol), which is usually made of stainless steel
Steam is injected into the still through an inlet such that it passes through the plant material containing the desired oils, releasing the plant’s aromatic molecules and turning them into vapor.
The vaporized plant compounds travel to the condensation flask or the Condenser. Here, two separate pipes make it possible for hot water to exit and for cold water to enter the Condenser. This makes the vapor cool back into liquid form.
The aromatic liquid by-product drops from the Condenser and collects inside a receptacle underneath it, which is called a Separator. Because water and oil do not mix, the essential oil floats on top of the water. From here, it is siphoned off. (Some essential oils are heavier than water, such as clove essential oil, so they are found at the bottom of the Separator.)
There are, of course, many other methods by which essential oils are extracted from petals, bark, leaves and so forth - some are more complex and involved than others, and this is a contributing factor in the major cost variances of the various essential oils. To read more about these methods and see diagrams of how the machinery works, please visit the New Directions Aromatics blog.
Essential oils are hard work, but they're worth it.
So what is the point of all that hard work for a tiny amount of essential oil? Of course, the concentrated oils are very powerful and pack a huge natural pharmaceutical punch. That's why all virtually all our products are scented with essential oils - even those that also contain a phthalate-free fragrance oil boost. Essential oils have natural medicinal and healthful qualities that are not to be missed...and let's face it, they smell amazing!