Essential oils extraction methods have been used by ancient cultures for thousands of years.
These ancient people found that aromatic essences and oils could be extracted from the plant by a variety of methods.
One of the oldest and crudest forms of essential oils extraction was known as enfleurage. "Enfleurage" in French means 'to saturate with the perfume of flowers'.
This was done by taking raw plant material (stems, foliage, bark, leaves or roots), crushing them and then steeping in olive oil.
For example, with cedar, the bark was stripped from the trunk and branches, soaked with olive oil and wrapped in a wool cloth.
The soaked cloth was then burned. The heat would pull the essential oil out of the bark into the olive oil. The wool cloth was then pressed to extract the essential oil.
Another essential oils extraction method was to place petals in goose or goat fat, and then the essential oil molecules would be pulled into the fat. The oil was then separated from the fat.
This technique was another very primitive form of extraction.
There were many extraction techniques used by ancient cultures. Some of these included:
- Soaking plant parts in boiling water
- Pressing flower petals, roots and leaves into fat ("enfleurage")
- Cold-pressing by grinding and then pressing the rinds of fruit to extract the oils
- Soaking in alcohol
- Steam Distillation by passing steam through the plant material and condensing the steam to separate the oil from the plant.
Essential oils extraction done through goat fat were then placed in ancient Egyptian evaporation dishes for fragrancing chambers associated with sacred rituals and religious rites.
The ancient Arabians were another early culture that developed and refined a process of distillation.
They perfected the extraction of rose oils and rose water, which were popular in the Middle East during the Byzantine Empire (330 A.D. - 1400 A.D.).
Today, how are essences extracted from the plant product? The chosen method depends on the plant itself and the desired end product.
Modern methods of extraction:
- Steam Distillation is the most common method used today. This method is believed to be the process that retains the aromatic healing properties the most.
- Cold-pressing is done by grinding and chopping the rinds of fruit and then pressing them. The oils then separate from this watery mixture over time. The drawback to cold-pressing is that it has a short shelf life of approximately six months.
- Maceration is done by "infusing" vegetable oils with plants. The plants soak in the oil, are then heated and strained. The infused oils are most commonly used for massage and cooking, such as infused olive oils.
- Solvent Extraction is used in combination with distillation. The plant material is combined with a hydrocarbon solvent that dissolves the essential oil. It is then filtered and put through a distillation process that concentrates the oil to produce a resin (wax). The remaining substance is a combination of essential oil and wax and is called "concrete".
The oil is then extracted by using pure alcohol. The alcohol evaporates leaving the oil behind. The drawback to this method is that the solvents leave residue behind that could cause problems to the immune system if used therapeutically.
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