Natural Health Resource Center

  • Natural remedies, homeopathy, herbal preparations, and other alternative health practices can offer a natural way to maintain ones health. However, herbs can be very powerful and it is important to know how your body responds to different combinations and doses. This section provides some guidance when selecting alternative health options.

What Are Essential Oils?               

Most commonly, the essence is extracted from the plant using an technique called distillation. One type of distillation places the plants or flowers on a screen. Steam is passed through the area and becomes "charged" with the essence. The steam then passes through an area where it cools and condenses. This mixture of water and essential oil is separated and bottled. Since plants contain such a small amount of this precious oil, several hundred pounds may needed to produce a single ounce.

Steam Distillation

Steam distillation is the most common method of extracting essential oils. Many old-time distillers favor this method for most oils, and say that none of the newer methods produces better quality oils. Steam distillation is done in a still. Fresh, or sometimes dried, botanical material is placed in the plant chamber of the still, and pressurized steam is generated in a separate chamber and circulated through the plant material. The heat of the steam forces the tiny intercellular pockets that hold the essential oils to open and release them. The temperature of the steam must be high enough to open the pouches, yet not so high that it destroys the plants or burns the essential oils. As they are released, the tiny droplets of essential oil evaporate and, together with the steam molecules, travel through a tube into the still's condensation chamber. As the steam cools, it condenses into water. The essential oil forms a film on the surface of the water. To separate the essential oil from the water, the film is then decanted or skimmed off the top. The remaining water, a byproduct of distillation, is called floral water, distillate, or hydrosol. It retains many of the therapeutic properties of the plant, making it valuable in skin care for facial mists and toners. In certain situations, floral water may be preferable to pure essential oil, such as when treating a sensitive individual or a child, or when a more diluted treatment is required.

Cold Pressing

Another method of extracting essential oils is cold-pressed expression, or scarification. It is used to obtain citrus fruit oils such as bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, and tangerine oils. In this process, fruit rolls over a trough with sharp projections that penetrate the peel. This pierces the tiny pouches containing the essential oil. Then the whole fruit is pressed to squeeze the juice from the pulp and to release the essential oil from the pouches. The essential oil rises to the surface of the juice and is separated from the juice by centrifugation.


Some flowers, such as jasmine or tuberose, have such low contents of essential oil or are so delicate that heating them would destroy the blossoms before releasing the essential oils. In such cases, an expensive and lengthy process called enfleurage is sometimes used to remove the essential oils. Flower petals are placed on trays of odorless vegetable or animal fat, which will absorb the flowers' essential oils. Every day or every few hours, after the vegetable or fat has absorbed as much of the essential oil as possible, the depleted petals are removed and replaced with fresh ones. This procedure continues until the fat or oil becomes saturated with the essential oil. Adding alcohol to this enfleurage mixture separates the essential oil from the fatty substance. Afterwards, the alcohol evaporates and only the essential oil remains.

Solvent Extraction

Another method of extraction used on delicate plants is solvent extraction, which yields a higher amount of essential oil at a lower cost. In this process, a chemical solvent such as hexane is used to saturate the plant material and pull out the aromatic compounds. This renders a substance called a concrete. The concrete can then be dissolved in alcohol to remove the solvent. When the alcohol evaporates, an absolute remains. Although more cost-efficient than enfleurage, solvent extraction has disadvantages. Residues of the solvent may remain in the absolute and can cause side effects. While absolutes or concretes may be fine for fragrances or perfumes, they are not especially desirable for skin care applications. Some trees, such as benzoin, frankincense, and myrrh, exude aromatic 'tears', or sap that is too thick to use easily in aromatherapy. In these cases, a resin or essential oil can be extracted from the tears with alcohol or a solvent such as hexane. This renders a resin or an essential oil that is easier to use. However, only those oils or resin extracted with alcohol should be used for aromatherapy purposes.

Turbo Distillation Extraction

Turbo distillation is suitable for hard-to-extract or coarse plant material, such as bark, roots, and seeds. In this process, the plants soak in water and steam is circulated through this plant and water mixture. Throughout the entire process, the same water is continually recycled through the plant material. This method allows faster extraction of essential oils from hard-to-extract plant materials.

Hydrodiffusion Extraction

In the hydrodiffusion process, steam at atmospheric pressure is dispersed through the plant material from the top of the plant chamber. In this way the steam can saturate the plants more evenly and in less time than with steam distillation. This method is also less harsh than steam distillation and the resulting essential oils smell much more like the original plant.

Carbon Dioxide Extraction

Supercritical carbon dioxide extraction uses carbon dioxide under extremely high pressure to extract essential oils. Plants are placed in a stainless steel tank and, as carbon dioxide is injected into the tank, pressure inside the tank builds. Under high pressure, the carbon dioxide turns into a liquid and acts as a solvent to extract the essential oils from the plants. When the pressure is decreased, the carbon dioxide returns to a gaseous state, leaving no residues behind. Many carbon dioxide extractions have fresher, cleaner, and crisper aromas than steam-distilled essential oils, and they smell more similar to the living plants. Scientific studies show that carbon dioxide extraction produces essential oils that are very potent and have great therapeutic benefits. This extraction method uses lower temperatures than steam distillation, making it more gentle on the plants. It produces higher yields and makes some materials, especially gums and resins, easier to handle. Many essential oils that cannot be extracted by steam distillation are obtainable with carbon dioxide extraction. In the future, many botanicals that are not now available may possibly be obtained through carbon dioxide extraction.

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