Essential Oils and Absolutes in Natural Perfumes: How Are They Obtained

March 27, 2023 By admin

Essential Oils and Absolutes in Natural Perfumes: How Are They Obtained

How are fragrant oils obtained from flowers? Is it true that chemicals are used to extract them? Is it safe to use these oils?

The answers depend upon the oil in question. “Essential oils” are obtained through steam distillation or hydrodistillation of flowers, plants and other natural materials. A few essential oils, such as orange and grapefruit, are obtained by exerting pressure on the rinds. Some perfume oils are obtained by solvent extraction. These are called “absolutes”.

Hydrodistillation is the gentler process for obtaining essential oils. Plant materials are boiled in water, the resulting steam is collected and condensed, and the fragrant oils are collected from the condensation water. It’s a fascinating process! Traditionally-made Indian Attars and Ruhs are hydrodistilled, but be aware that most Indian Attars today are synthetic.

Steam distillation occurs at a higher temperature, because steam is hotter than boiling water. Hot steam is forced into the plant material to separate the fragrant oils.

For aromatherapy and medicinal uses, steam distilled oils work fine. For perfumery however, the high temperatures can destroy the most delicate fragrance molecules, called the “top-notes”. If available, hydrodistilled essential oils are sometimes preferred.

Some flowers will not release their oils with either distillation method. For these flowers, solvent-extraction is used. The oils that result from solvent-extraction are called “absolutes”. Absolutes are very concentrated. Because this process uses no heat, absolutes have a more complete, true-to-life aroma profile than do essential oils.

High quality absolutes use high-quality solvents (such as food-grade hexane) in one part of their process. By the end of the process, the solvent traces have evaporated and are no longer noticeable. Cheap, low-quality absolutes use more toxic solvents, and this is apparent in the finished product. You can smell the solvents in a poor-quality absolute. When this absolute is diluted for perfume, you might still smell solvents, and you will absorb them into your body.

Some oils, such as Lavender, come in both essential oil and absolute form. Only perfumers tend to use Lavender Absolute. It really adds a sparkle from a perfumery standpoint! The essential oil is preferred for aromatherapy.

Rose is another flower that is both distilled and solvent-extracted. Rose Otto is hydrodistilled rose oil. Tons of rose petals are required to make a just a tiny amount of Rose Otto, so it is very expensive. Rose Otto is sometimes preferred for aromatherapy. Rose Absolute, while also expensive, is more common, and truer in fragrance to a real rose. Because of its more complete fragrance profile, Rose Absolute is usually preferred for perfumery. A really fine rose perfume may contain both!

There is now a fourth method of extraction, called CO2 Extraction. A completely non-toxic process, CO2 extraction uses no heat or solvents. Instead, it uses pressure from natural carbon dioxide to extract the aromatic oils. The resulting products smell the closest to the original material of any essential oil or absolute.

CO2 extraction is environmentally friendly for many reasons:

Only a small amount of plant material is required to render a good quantity of oil. For example, dust and slivers left over from the carving of Agarwood can be used for CO2 extraction of Agarwood oil. These small particles would be useless for distillation. Also, a smaller quantity of this oil is required to produce the desired result in a perfume composition. Thus, with CO2 extraction precious resources are conserved, no toxic chemicals are used, and no fuel is burned that could contribute to the greenhouse effect.

CO2 extracts cost more than distilled essential oils and absolutes, but they work beautifully for perfumery, aromatherapy and medicinal uses. Remember this though: For safety, always dilute essential oils and absolutes before using them!

Many people are irritated by perfumes made with synthetic fragrance chemicals. Yet, they can enjoy perfumes made from natural essential oils and absolutes. People with mild-to-moderate Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) who are trying natural perfumes for the first time should start with simple perfumes made from essential oils. If those are well tolerated, they can then try perfumes made from absolutes and more complex ingredients.

 

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