Essential Oils? Absolutes? CO2 Extracts? Is one Better?

What’s the difference between an Absolute, a CO2 Extract and an Essential Oil?

Before we dive in, let’s understand that Absolutes, CO2 Extracts and Essential Oils are all considered aromatic extracts.  And, occasionally you might see them all grouped together, sold or marketed as Essential Oils or Fragrance oils.  But to help you decipher how they are different, only Essential Oils are considered true essential oils.  So what makes an essential oil an essential oil?

First, let’s walk through each of these different methods of extraction, so we can get a clearer picture. And take note: each of these extraction methods (absolutes, CO2 extracts and essential oils)  yield beautiful aromatic experiences, along with a wide range of aromatherapeutic properties that can be used while formulating skin care products, and customizing individual aromatherapy remedies.

So how are they different?  And why does the difference matter?

What is an Essential Oil?

An essential oil is the liquid aromatic extract that is steam distilled out of different parts of aromatic plants.  Throughout history we have been fascinated by aroma, and how to capture it. Since the time of ancient civilizations to the 21st century, we’ve sought ways to transform the invisible sense (scent) into a physical form (the essential oil).

The aroma we smell from aromatic plants is made up of a complex array of molecules that are highly volatile, and fleeting. To capture the aroma and produce an essential oil, the fragrant plant material, from seeds, roots, flowers, leaves, needles, cones, resins, or wood, is gathered and placed in a distillation apparatus, where steam is introduced and gently draws out the ephemeral molecules and transforms them into a physical liquid extract – the essential oil. The resulting extract contains only the specific and unique aromatic molecules, and nothing else.

Steam Distillation
Petals of ylang ylang flowers are drying before distillation of the aromatherapy oil in Mayotte (Comoros).

Another extraction process that produces a true essential oil, is called cold expression, or cold pressing.  This extraction method is specific only to citrus fruits, and literally squeezes out the essential oil compounds from the peel of fruits like lemons, limes, grapefruits, tangerines and oranges.

Both of these processes yield authentic and genuine essential oils.

ESSENTIAL OILS are highly concentrated aromatic extracts that are distilled or expressed from a variety of plant material, including flowers, flowering tops, fruits/zests, grasses, leaves, needles and twigs, resins, roots, seeds, and woods.

What is an Absolute?

An absolute is the resulting aromatic extract from a process called solvent extraction. Solvent extraction has traditionally been used to extract out the captivating and engaging scents from plant materials that are challenging to distill because the actual plant materials, like specific flowers, i.e. jasmine, gardenia, violet leaf, tuberose, and lotus, and a few other kinds of plant materials, are too delicate to be exposed to steam.

Solvent extraction uses solvents, like certain petrochemicals such as methane, hexane, or ethanol to pull out the fat soluble aromatic compounds of the plant. Unlike the steam distillation process that only pulls out the aromatic molecules, solvent extraction also pulls out other types of compounds from the plant like pigments and waxes – making the resulting extract thicker and more viscous and deeper in color. After some extra processing, this extract is thinned out, and the finished extract is what we call an absolute.

Absolutes are mostly used within the perfume and cosmetic industries, and less by aromatherapists.  However, their exquisitely nuanced aromas can offer powerful scent-focused (olfactory) aromatherapy remedies that focus on healing hearts and spirits.

Although some people may be concerned that the process of extracting the aromatic compounds uses synthetic compounds that may be concerning for our overall health and wellbeing (petrochemicals) – the amount that lingers within the final absolute is super tiny – a few parts per million.

What is a CO2 Extract?

Thanks to the cannabis industry, CO2 extracts, also known as Hypercritical Extracts are becoming more and more available and popular. Basically, CO2 is used to pull out the aromatic components from plant material. What happens is that when CO2 gas is put under pressure it turns into a liquid, and that liquid carbon dioxide works as a powerful solvent, with a remarkable ability to pull out all sorts of phytochemical compounds from the plant material – including the aromatic molecules.

The cannabis industry uses this method to pull out CBD and THC, and then, through further processing, can fully isolate out those specific phytochemical compounds for use in all sorts of products. A resulting CO2 extract, like an absolute, will include pigments, waxes and lots of other compounds from the plant – so it tends to be thicker, more viscous and highly aromatic.

You may find CO2 extracts listed as Total Extracts or Select Extracts.

Here what they mean:

  • Total Extract: Contains as much as the CO2 can pull out, these are often very thick and aromatic and can have between 3% – 50% of essential oil compounds. If you buy a Total Extract you’ll notice right away it is really thick and challenging to work with. Warming it and blending it down with vegetable oil can make it easier to work with.
  • Select Extract: Focuses more on the essential oil components and tends to be up to 95% essential oil content. And because of this, they share similar aromatherapeutic properties as an essential oil steam distilled from the same plant material. They are usually not as thick and challenging to work with as Total Extracts.

Understanding a bit more of these different methods of extractions can offer greater insight into how and when to use them – and which kinds of recipes and formulas might be better suited.

But when we are really focusing on how aroma affects our emotions, spirit and psyche – Essential Oils, Absolutes and CO2 Extracts each have compelling and powerful reasons to use them.

Want to start learning more about essential oils and how they can improve your health and wellbeing? Click here to find out more about Aromatherapy for Holistic Living!

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