Monday, August 12, 2013

Essential Oils vs. Extracts

Here's a question that I'm frequently asked: "What's the difference between an essential oil and an extract?"  "If I should avoid grapefruit seed extract, should I also avoid grapefruit essential oil?"

What are Essential Oils?
The term "essential oil" has a very specific meaning. Essential oils are the concentrated volatile aromatic compounds of a plant, typically consisting of terpenes, esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides. In other words, the aromatic compounds of the plant are removed and separated to create an oil-like substance.  (Although essential oils are not technically oils, as true oils are made up of lipids.) Essential oils are typically extracted through the process of steam distillation.  Plant matter is placed in a big vat with water and boiled...the steam arises and through a system of tubes. As the steam cools, the water collects to the bottom of the tank and the essential oils arise and collect in a separate tank.  (The water that's collected is known as a hydrosol and contains trace amounts of the essential oil and other components from the plant.) The only exception to steam distillation is with citrus fruits, where the essential oil is sometimes pressed from the rind of the fruit.  (Called cold-pressing.)

What are Extracts?
There are several types of extracts.
  • Infusions
    • An infusion is made when the plant material is let to steep in water or oil for a period of time.  A water-based infusion is made just like you'd make a cup of tea--boil the water and add the herbs to steep for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes.  With an oil infusion, the steeping time is much longer, from days to weeks.  
  • Tinctures
    • A tincture is an alcohol-based extract. The plant material is steeped in a solution of (usually) 50% alcohol. The plant material steeps for days to weeks to extract compounds from the plant.  
  • Glycerites
    • These are liquid extracts in glycerin.
Essential Oils that Aren't Really Essential Oils

You may see a few ingredients listed as essential oils, when in fact, they aren't truly essential oils. Take for instance vanilla.  The "essence" of vanilla is difficult to extract via steam distillation, so it's typically extracted through steeping in alcohol (most commonly) or in oil.  This is the traditional vanilla extract that you'd use in cooking.  This is the least concentrated form of vanilla extract.  But, for a more concentrated form of vanilla, there's vanilla oleoresin. (Sometimes you'll see it listed as essential oil.)
  • Oleoresin
    An oleoresin is created by taking an alcohol-based extract and evaporating out the alcohol.  You're then left with a thick resinous material that's a more concentrated form of the aromatics that the plant provides.  Two common oleoresins are vanilla and rosemary.  Vanilla oleoresin is commonly used in personal care products as a scent.  Rosemary oleoresin (also listed as rosemary extract) is used as an anti-oxidant in foods and personal care products, helping give oils a longer shelf life. (Do note that it is an anti-oxidant, not a preservative.  It will help keep oils fresh but it does not stop bacterial growth.)
  • Absolutes  
    Finally, there are absolutes. This is the most potent and concentrated form of extracts.  Absolutes are typically extracted with a solvent like hexane to create a waxy material called a concrete.  The concrete is mixed with alcohol to further extract the aromatic compounds.  Then, the alcohol is evaporated out and a highly concentrated oil known as an absolute is left behind.  Sometimes people will mistakenly list an absolute or oleoresin as an essential oil, whereas they are technically not an essential oil.  Plants that are typically extracted as absolutes instead of essential oils include vanilla, jasmine, tuberose, oak moss and mimosa.  When it comes to roses, both steam-distilled essential oil and absolutes are made.  There are actually absolutes of honey as well, that will extract the delicate fragrance notes from different types of honey.  
Fake Extracts

There are some ingredients that you'll see listed as "extracts" on a product, when they're not really an extract.
  • Japanese Honeysuckle Extract is not a true extract but a highly synthesized preservative.  You can read more about it here.
  • Grapefruit Seed Extract is not a true extract, but a quaternary ammonium compound that's also used as a preservative.  You can read more about it here. (Not to be confused with grape seed extract, which is a totally different thing, extracted from grapes, not grapefruits. Grape seed extract is a true extract.)
Vegetable/Carrier Oils

Vegetable or Carrier oils are true oils, composed of lipids (fats). These include sunflower, jojoba, safflower, almond, olive, coconut. They are either solvent, or, preferrably, cold-pressed from the seeds, nuts, or fruit of certain plants.  Some carrier oils sound like essential oils, when they are not.  For instance rosehip seed oil is not an essential oil but a vegetable carrier oil.  After the rose has blossomed and created a rose "hip", inside this hip are hundreds of tiny little seeds.  These seeds are taken and pressed to create rosehip seed oil.  It doesn't smell like roses, but has a nutty, seed-like aroma.  Red raspberry seed oil is also commonly confused. It is pressed from the raspberry seeds and while it does have a mild raspberry aroma (somewhat like raspberry leaf tea) it is not an essential oil and is used for moisturizing properties, not for scent or aromatherapy.  


S said...

This was very insightful! Thank you for the wonderful article!

- said...

I have very sensitive skin and I wonder if essential oils are safe for my armpits. Lately I have been reading about their toxicity and the contraindications in pregnancy. I am not pregnant,but this fact scares me :-(

What do you think about this? I'm REALLY interested in Pit Putty sticks...

Thank you, Stephanie!!!


Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your question, Raquel! Essential oils are substances that should be treated with respect and used properly. I have researched the topic extensively and created products that are safe for use by everyone and even during all stages of pregnancy (barring any personal allergies, of course.) Check out this article on the topic:

- said...

Thank you for the info! Now I feel safe. Congrats for your products :-D

Anonymous said...

So not sure if I understand the answer to the question about grapefruit extract vs oil. Is the oil okay to use then?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Grapefruit seed extract is a synthetic preservative, while grapefruit essential oil is a natural substance that, when diluted and used properly , is safe. Grapefruit (along with other citrus oils) do pose the risk of phototoxicity (accelerating sunburn) so it's important if used in a leave-on product, to dilute it in oil at a less than .5% concentration and avoid exposure to the sun.

Shreya said...

Love your blog on essential oils. I have been reading a lot about the oils and especially before exposing myself to them. It was great to know it. Thanks. One small query, is there a difference between water-based and oil-based essential oil? Do they have the same effect? are there any such essential oils (do they exist???)?

Please do help me. thanks in advance.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your question! There are no water-based essential oils. Essential oils are not technically oils (lipids) however, they are not soluble in water, only oil. There are hydrosols, like I talk about above. Is that maybe what you're thinking about?

Micks said...

Which keeps the plant's properties the best? Extracts or essential oils? (Specifically for topical use)

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your question, Micks! That's going to depend on which plant and which properties you're trying to extract.

Micks said...

I want magnolia bark and pine needle for antibacterial and anti-inflammation properties. Do you know whether an extract or essential oil would be better?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I'm not aware of any magnolia bark essential oil, so you'd have to go extract with it. Pine does have an essential oil and both the oil and the extract would have astringent properties. Pine essential oil can be a potential skin irritant, so you might have better luck with the extract. But it also depends on if you're making a balm or an emulsion and need either water-soluble or oil-soluble material.

Micks said...

I was planning on adding it to carrier oils for a wash. So, I guess an emulsion.

Dana McKenzie said...

I have an infant with thrush. We have been using the prescription medication for about a month with no change. After doing some research I found that the prescription rarely work for a lot of people. Some of the sites suggested using grapefruit seed extract and some recommended grapefruit seed oil. I went to my local Vitamin Shoppe and found both grapefruit seed extract (33% extract and 67% vegetable glycerin) and grapefruit essential oil (100% grapefruit oil). So I was confused as to which one is the better choice for treating myself and my baby as I am breast feeding. Any thoughts?? I went for the essential oil since the bottle said 100% but I wasn't sure.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

@Dana--Sorry to hear about the thrush! Well, I don't have an easy answer for you. Grapefruit essential oil is definitely a no...essential oils shouldn't be taken undiluted internally or on skin. Especially an infant. The Grapefruit Seed Extract would be a better choice, however, do know that it's not a true extract, but a synthetic chemical. (However, it may be better than the drugs she's currently taking.) I would advise visiting with a naturopath or other qualified holistic practitioner to figure out the best course of treatment. Sometimes with thrush no treatment is needed. You may also look in to probiotics for yourself, as the infection may be passing back and forth between both of you; if you have candida in your system (previous antibiotic use will cause this), no matter what you put in his mouth, if you're still feeding him the yeast, he'll continue with the infection. Of course, this is for educational purposes only; I can't give medical advice. Just my thoughts on it. :)

Alexandra said...

Hi Stephanie, thank you for your insight. I am curious, what kind of extracts do you use for your lotion products? I am guessing those cannot be water or alcohol based, as all your lotions dont have water. Thank you in advance!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Sure thing! We use oil-based scent extracts. Organic plant matter (such as vanilla, spices, etc etc) is steeped in oil and let to sit until the scent compounds are released from the plant matter (much like you'd make a rosemary-infused olive oil for cooking). The oil is filtered and the concentrated aroma remains in the oil.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm interested in using ginger to stimulate my hair follicles. Can you comment on whether ginger essential oil (mixed with carrier oils) would be more beneficial, or as beneficial as fresh ginger extract? Thank you!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for your question! Actually, instead of ginger, fresh, extract, or essential oil, I'd recommend looking at the internal causes of hair loss. Hair growth is a mechanism highly dependent upon internal mechanisms and topical application of a substance, unless it's a drug like Rogaine, will not be likely to counter the internal causes of hair loss. You can check out my article on the topic here:

Allan Niere said...


When should i use herbal extracts as opposed to essential oils and vice versa?