How are essential oils made?

Whenever we can in our perfume making process we like to use real essential oils. Essential oils are naturally fragrant oils distilled from different parts of plants.

Essential oils can be extracted from petals, leaves, bark, and even the roots of a plant. Vetiver oil, for instance, comes from the roots of the Vetiver plant, and expensive Oris essential oil comes from the roots of the iris.

There are two main ways of extracting essential oils from plants. These two methods are called Distillation and Expression.

Distillation is a very old practice, used in ancient cultures 5000 years ago, and involves using steam to seperate the oils from the water of the plant materials. Steam or water is heated and slowly break through the plant material, which is held on a grid, to remove its volatile constituents (ie the fragrant oil). Then these volatile constituents rise up into a condenser, which cools the materials back into liquid form again, where it is collected below.

Water and essential oils do not mix, so the oil will then float to the top of the water where it is then skimmed off. In the case of a very heavy essential oil such as Benzoin, the oil may instead sink to the bottom of the collecting trough, and so then the water is siphoned off to leave the oil.

Expression is the second most popular way of extracting pure essential oils from plant materials. Expression, sometimes known as cold pressing, is a method of extraction particularly suited to citrus essential oils, such as orange, grapefruit, lime, and lemon. This is because the oils are very aromatic but not as delicate as some other plant materials such as rose petals, for instance, which would easily bruise.

In ancient times a very simple method of expression or cold pressing was carried out - whereby the zest or rind of a citrus fruit would be soaked in warm water to bring out the oils and soften the plant materials. Then a sponge would be used to squeeze and press the rind, breaking down the fruit and releasing the essential oil. This water/citrus oil solution would then be let to sit so that the essential oils would float to the top in a similar manner to the distillation process - and again these would be skimmed off for use.

Modern day, more efficient cold pressing or expression is usually done with the help of a machine, and the process is sometimes called ecuelle a piquer. In this process the machine is used to prick and prod the rinds and zests of citrus fruits - it is like they are put into a huge barrel with a family of porcupines - and the essential oils are released and collected in a small area below the container.

Another popular type of modern day expression is with the use of a centrifuge machine, whereby the fruits are spun around very fast and the centrifugal force separates most of the essential oil from the fruit juice.

Essential oils are an, excuse the bad pun, an essential part of  perfumery, whether they are extracted by steam distillation or by cold pressing or centrifuge. How wonderful it is to be wearing a fragrance captured from the scent of pure nature!