What is an Essential Oil?

What is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are volatile fragrant compounds obtained from plants through the process of extraction. Plant materials from seeds, roots, flowers, leaves, stems, bark, and resin can be used to extract the essential oil of the plant. Extraction can be done with fresh or dried plant material.


Only Nature Can Produce Essential Oils
  • Plants contain 0.01- 10% essential oil content, but the average amount found in most plants is 1- 2%.
  • The number of plants that actually give up their essential oil through extraction is relatively low.
  • The amount of essential oil that can be collected from the plant through extraction varies, and, as a result, directly impacts the price.
  • Lower yield and availability of the plant drives the price of the essential oil upwards.

To be Most Effective, Essential Oils Must be 100% Pure and Natural.


What Does This Mean?
  • The oil does not contain any synthetic component, adulterant, or “nature identical” ingredients.
  • The oil is not cut with a less expensive oil or diluent to bring down the cost (and quality).
  • The oil has not been reconstructed in a laboratory.


Methods Of Extraction


Steam Distillation
  • Most widely used method of obtaining essential oils from plant.
  • Typical yield is 1-2% by weight of the essential oils on distillation, but some oils are substantially less (for example, rose oil yield can be as low as 0.015%, and this drives the cost of the essential oil).


  1. Plant material is placed into the vessel (container).
  2. The vessel is closed.
  3. Combination of steam and essential oil vapors go out of the vessel.
  4. The steam is cooled and condensed.
  5. The oil separates from the water due to the differing densities.
  6. The essential oil is collected.
  7. The water is recycled for the next diistillation, or it is collected for use as a floral water since it has smaller amounts of essential oil trapped within it.

Example: lavender oil


Most common method of extraction of citrus oils from the peel of the fruit.


  1. The peel of the fruit is scored.
  2. The peel is pressed.
  3. The essential oil is collected and filtered (may be centrifuged to remove water as well)

Example: mandarin oil
Note: for many citrus fruits, the essential oil is a co-product of the juice production whereby the fruit is used to make juice, and the peel is used to make the essential oil. Many citrus essential oils are, also, used for the flavor industry.



Yields a product with lower essential oil content.


  1. The plant material is soaked in a plant oil or alcohol solvent.
  2. The solvent pulls out the volatile essential oil components.
  3. The plant material is filtered from the liquid.
  4. The plant oil/alcohol liquid that has trapped the essential oils inside it is used for flavor and fragrance materials.

Example: vanilla extract
Note: for production of vanilla extract, there is an elaborate curing process for drying the vanilla beans prior to this extraction.


Solvent Extraction
  • produces highly concentrated extracts, know as an absolute, concrete, resin or pomade.
  • solvent extraction is performed on plant materials whose volatile components would be damaged, changed, or not given off via steam distillation.
  • this process is run at room temperature without the pressence of additional heating of the plant material.


  1. The plant material is loaded into the vessel.
  2. Solvent is added to the vessel (or plant material is dipped into solvent for set amount of time).
  3. Solvent absorbs the essential oils, plant waxes, fats, and cellulosic material from the plant.
  4. The solvent is removed under vacuum from the plant/solvent mixture.
  5. The concrete remains, which contains the waxes and essential oils from the plant.
  6. The concrete is washed with alcohol.
  7. The alcohol is driven off under vacuum.
  8. The product is filtered.
  9. The final product is the aboslute.

Example: jasmine absolute


Supercritical Extraction / CO2 Extraction
  • Method uses carbon dioxide under pressure to extract the volatile components of the plant.
  • An extremely expensive process but, also, yields very concentrated extracts.
  • Process has most success using dried plant materials or concretes as starting materials.


  1. Dried plant material or concrete is loaded into vessel.
  2. CO2 is administered under various constant temperatures and high pressures.
  3. The final product is a CO2 extract.

Example: ginger CO2 extract
Note: this method is mostly done on spice materials, vanilla, and concretes of floral materials.


  • process that is a form of solvent extraction using animal or plant fats/oils.
  • usually, this process is done with fresh flowers from the plant.
  • this process was developed by ancient Egyptians and is one of the earliest forms of plant extractions for cosmetics.


  1. Glass trays are covered by animal or plant fat/oils.
  2. Fresh flowers are placed on the trays.
  3. The trays are left for several days/weeks in order for the fat/oil to absorb the essential oil from the flowers.
  4. Fresh flowers are replaced several times on the trays, so the fats/oils can absorb more of the esential oil from the plant.
  5. The flowers are removed from the trays.
  6. The fat/oil materials are solubilized in alcohol.
  7. The alcohol is evaporated off.
  8. The final product is the floral enfleurage.

Example: jasmine enfleurage
Note: this process usually yields a weaker product compared to absolutes because the solvents used to produce the absolutes are stonger than the plant oil/fats. Therefore, the solvent pulls more essential oil from the plants than the animal fat/plant oils.