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October 11, 2016 3 min read

Vanilla - the aphrodisiac of gods and goddesses. It is used as food flavoring primarily but over time, I have seen several variations of this wonderful plant for the world of aromatherapy. This includes CO2's, essential oils, and solvent extracts. It is time to clarify things for you so you can make a truly informed decision.

Vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans/pods using a solvent. Most often it is found as a thin and fragrant smelling extract on store shelves for the purpose of adding flavor to food. Rarely, is a pure extract found in stores and if it is, it pretty well priced.

Other than the food grade vanilla found in stores, there are five variations of vanilla. This includes:

  • Vanilla Tincture (beans macerated in an alcohol or oil base)
  • Vanilla Absolute
  • Vanilla Co2 Extract (Select or Total)
  • Vanilla Oleoresin Concrete
  • Vanilla Dilution (Co2 or Absolute) blended in a fixed oil

Vanilla essential oil - real or not

Vanilla Solvent Extraction and CO2 Extraction

During solvent extraction, the plant material is fully immersed into a solvent; normally hexane. It then becomes a thick semi solid compound called a concrete during this phase. Then the concrete is mixed with a specific alcohol and the vanilla pod compounds are slowly released. Once this change occurs, the vanilla absolute and the alcohols are then separated. The result is a very fragrant vanilla solvent extract (absolute) which is more commonly sold.

In the CO2 process, the gas is transformed into an almost liquid state by being placed under pressure. The vanilla pods are placed into an airtight container and carbon dioxide gas is pumped in under pressure. Low heat is applied during this time to aid in the extraction of compounds from the pods. As the pressure inside the container rises, the CO2 gas changes to almost a completely liquid state and bathes the vanilla pods in what is called supercritical CO2.  The combination of high pressure and low temperatures encourages the vanilla pods to release their aromatic components.  After a specific period of time, pressure is then reduced and the supercritical CO2 changes back to its gaseous state, completely dissipating from the extracted material. The end result for this type of extraction is a very potent and a wonderfully thick vanilla. Because of its composition as a  CO2, this type of therapeutic compound is considered safe as a food additive and can be used in lip balms as well as other edible products in your kitchen.

Vanilla Oleoresin Concrete & Dilution

Now that you understand a little more about the last two common extraction methods, most reputable companies that sell therapeutic compounds like these only label and call vanilla products a CO2 or absolute. However, the vanilla oleoresin concrete can be found as well. It is also used in skincare aromatherapy and is fairly thick unless diluted and can be very difficult to work with unless heated. It can be found from several suppliers; but often has the word “fold” next to it. When you see Vanilla Oleoresin Fold, it means that the concrete has been folded or diluted in a carrier like ethanol to make it more manageable. Additionally, it is not water or oil soluble and should only be stored in a dark colored glass bottle as it can dissolve aluminum. This type of dilution can only be further diluted with alcohol and is flammable.

Vanilla - Be Kind Botanicals

Vanilla as an Essential Oil or Not?

If you have never actually held a vanilla bean/pod in your hand, they are fairly brittle in their dried state. Due to the fragility of vanilla beans/pods they are not put through the steam distillation process. While many individuals call all therapeutic compounds essential oils, it is important to note that in order for an compound to be called and essential oil, it must be either steam distilled or hydro distilled. Again, essential oils are only obtained by steam distillation and hydro distillation. This method of extraction is what classifies them as essential oils. Let this sink in a moment.

If someone were to call a vanilla absolute an essential oil, would it be true? Not at all. Unfortunately though, many individuals do call CO2 extracts and solvent extracts “pure essential” oils. Keep in mind that CO2s and absolutes which are solvent extracted do have therapeutic benefits. It is simply the classification that is important for this topic.

With so much information floating around on the internet, it can be difficult to really find the truth when it comes to the aromatherapy industry. If you are ever in doubt about an essential oil or if something is possible in aromatherapy, always ask an experienced and qualified aromatherapist! Most have a significant amount of training and can help you find what is right for you!

If you have enjoyed this post, check out my vanilla lip balm recipe!