I love all things natural and when it comes to fragrance for soap making essential oils are the obvious choice. Essential oils are very concentrated oils extracted from fragrant plants. Not only do they smell divine but they also have the additional bonus of various therapeutic properties that synthetic fragrances don’t possess.
For example, everyone knows that lavender promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation but less well known is that the essential oil also possesses antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Have you ever been curious about the process that is used for extracting the beautiful natural fragrances from plants and fruits?
There are three main methods of extraction:
Most essential oils are extracted by using steam distillation. The lovely flowers, seeds, leaves and bark are heated over water and the oils are collected in a separate container.
The re-condensed water is also collected and is known as a hydrosol. You might not have heard this word before but you will be familiar with floral waters such as rose water.
You can have a go at distilling your own essential oils at home. I think it would make a fun weekend project. This is a great guide on wikiHow if you do fancy trying it yourself. Just don’t expect to produce large volumes. It takes approximately 10kg of lavender to produce 50ml of lavender essential oil!
Most citrus peel oils are expressed by a machine or cold pressed in a similar process to olive oil production. You may notice that citrus fruit oils are cheaper than most other essential oils and the main reason for this price difference is because there are large quantities of oil in the peel.
Solvent extraction is used for plants that are simply too fragile and contain very small amounts of oil for distillation to be effective and such plants are also unsuitable for expression. In this case a solvent is used to extract the oil from the plant and once the process is complete the solvent is allowed to evaporate. This leaves a substance known as a concrete. Not the type used to build houses although they would be very fragrant places to live!
Alcohol is then used to extract the oil from the concrete and this leaves behind the absolute. Absolutes are much more concentrated but they are not a pure essential oil because there is usually a 2 to 3% solvent residue in the bottle.
A visit to an essential oil distillery is on my wish list to learn about the process and see it in action. Is it on your wish list too?
Please remember that essential oils are very concentrated and powerful oils and should not be used at home to treat serious medical or psychological conditions. If you are pregnant it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor or midwife before using essential oils.