Edition 45: July 2012
Plant oils: born to fly
The difference between essential oils and absolutes
MANY people have wondered about how an absolute differs from an ordinary essential oil.
We have endeavoured here to explain the difference and why we source them as two separate, fundamental and wonderful tools to use in aromatherapy and perfumery.
Both essential oils and absolutes are aromatic concentrated plant extracts used in perfumery and healing. Both products are extracted using methods that capture the unique aromas and natural scents as well as the therapeutic quality of plants. Both are a concentrated form of herbal energy that captures the spirit or “soul” of a plant.
They occur originally as tiny droplets within the living plant as agents of the plant’s adaption to its environment for its own survival. They are primarily produced in the cells of aromatic plants and held in specialised glands that influence growth, reproduction, repel predators as well as protect the plant from parasites and disease.
It is this amazing array of medicinal and protective properties that prompt us to seek them out, inspiring us to extract them; because we also desire a piece of this action!
Essential oils are lighter and are made when a plant yields a lot of volatile oil, which makes them a more accessible and less expensive option.
They can be easier to use in a number of situations such as in blends for massage, bathing, cosmetics and fragrances as they mix with oil or oil suspensions so well.
They are certainly the option to choose in general household products for freshening, deodorising or cleaning the environment and other situations where you need a larger amount of product.
An absolute is much stronger and also a much more expensive option, which means they are used more sparingly and employed in exclusive perfumery and mood blends. Let us explore further how the two precious substances are obtained.
What is an absolute?
LIKE their essential oil counterparts, absolutes are highly aromatic liquids, yet often a more refined concentrate and typical of certain fragrant plants.
Originally, an absolute was a term given to an essential oil processed by enfleurage (the traditional method using pork or beef fat to extract the fragrant part of the plant).
This method was superseded by solvent extraction long ago because of the time and labour involved - even though twice the amount of oil can be produced.
Today only in certain rare cases are absolutes extracted by the more laborious enfleurage; sometimes with vegetable oil and alcohol derived from sugar cane, where the entire process of extraction is done by hand using no heat and no solvents.
In this gentle process, the vegetable oil is used to absorb the aromatic oils from the delicate flower petals. Once the oil is completely saturated with the essence of the flower, the vegetable oil is separated by mixing it with pure cane sugar alcohol which is then evaporated, leaving only the purest absolute.
Today, an absolute is predominantly obtained by solvent extraction.
Extracting an absolute from plants is a procedure by which the aromatic compounds are drawn out of the plant material using a volatile solvent such as hexane. The heavy matter is separated from the plant, leaving the oil and waxes. The hexane is then evaporated or vacuum extracted, making a concrete. This concrete is then put in ethanol, the temperature is dropped to -25C to solidify the waxes for removal, then the ethanol is vacuum extracted from the oil - leaving the final end product which is called an absolute.
The complex manner in which absolutes are extracted does require the use of chemical solvents, which are sometimes disputed, however they are later removed during the final stages of production.
The whole process results in a wonderfully aromatic liquid (although some absolutes are semi-solid) that displays an aroma profile often quite similar to the original plant, only more concentrated and potent.
Absolutes sometimes tend to carry a more true to nature fragrance than essential oils. This is because they contain many of the non-volatile constituents of the plant such as tannins and pigments that are not made available by distillation means.
Rose absolute is a great example of this, still displaying its vivid colour and exquisite fragrance. In the case of rose otto (distilled Rose) it produces enough oil, but is more expensive than rose absolute, which produces more oil.
Rose absolute is indicated (topical application only) for women's health problems. The extra substances in the absolute are actually quite beneficial for treating feminine problems and these additional compounds are not found in the essential oil of rose. When jasmine is steam distilled; almost no essential oil is produced thus the cost is prohibitive. Carbon dioxide-extracted Jasmine is even more cost prohibitive; we will discuss this extraction method soon.
Delicate flowers need special attention
ABSOLUTES are very often much coveted by the high-end perfumeries.
They come from the most exquisite, fragrant blossoms that are hand-picked, often at the break of dawn when the volatile oils are peaking and steam distillation would be a much too aggressive method to maintain most of the precious scent.
The high-powered hot steam used to distill an essential oil does not manage to extract much natural oil from the plant and even harms the precious natural oil.
For delicate flowers of low concentration such as Jasmine, Neroli, Oak moss, Tuberose and Rose, where it takes tonnage of plant matter to yield very little oil, solvent extraction methods are preferable because they are very gentle and more exacting.
As a rule, absolutes are more concentrated that essential oils
WHILE it is true that a little essential oil goes a long way, a little absolute goes an even longer way.
A very small trace amount of solvent can remain in the final absolute and some purists regard this as a disadvantage to using absolutes in aroma- therapy, which focuses on the sole use of pure and natural plant matter.
Although the amount of remaining solvent is minimal and even measurable if necessary, absolutes can indeed be used in true aromatherapy with care, respect and knowledge (aroma- therapists are able to procure and pay more for organic and Co2-extracted oils if they so choose).
Absolutes should not be taken internally by anyone because of that small amount of trace solvent that may remain. It is also fair to say that all essential oils should not be taken internally by anyone that is not educated and experienced at doing so; as only a few are appropriate for such application.
What exactly is an essential oil?
AN ESSENTIAL oil is an aromatic liquid extracted from different parts of a plant - leaves, wood, bark, seed, flower and even peel; most commonly by steam distillation (sometimes hydro or water distillation or a combination).
Steam is passed over the plant matter under pressure, rupturing the oil-bearing glands in the plant. The aromatic vapour rises and passes through a chamber surrounded by cold water (the refrigerated coil).
Other methods used to create pure essential oils are dry or vacuum distillation, destructive distillation and cold expression, the latter being the method used to extract citrus oils from the rind.
Scent born to fly
ESSENTIAL oils are volatile by nature (to varying degrees depending on the plant); they were born to evaporate readily upon exposure to open air as opposed to a fixed or vegetable oil that is relatively inert.
Even an absolute is far less volatile than most essential oils.
An essential oil perfume is often composed using different notes from the volatility table. Top notes are the most volatile and fleeting essential oils, such as the citruses; they are sharper and introduce the fragrance to our noses.
The middle notes volatise more slowly, forming the body or heart of the perfume blend. Geranium is an example of the mediating middle note that softens rough edges.
Base notes have the lowest volatility and are used for their tenacity to fix a blend, giving a perfume staying power and depth.
The wood and resinous oils such as sandalwood or myrrh are good examples of base notes. Like creating a symphony, each note contributes to complete a whole harmonious scent.
Explore these versatile aromatic blenders
ESSENTIAL oils are very pure; there is no contact with any contaminants during the steam distillation process, making them ideal to be used for therapeutic blends involved in skin absorption such as cosmetics and massage oils.
Absolutes are better suited in mood altering perfumes that primarily affect the psyche, but can certainly be blended together with essential oils, CO2 extracts or other types of extracted aromatic oils in alcohol or in a fixed oil such as jojoba oil to create something quite unique. They can also be used to make solid perfumes by combining an aromatic blend and setting it in beeswax or a plant wax such as candelilla wax.
Carbon dioxide – the crème de la crème
ONE METHOD of extraction for high quality, select essential oils and absolutes is by carbon dioxide; and these extracts deserve their own category.
CO2 extracts display some of the characteristics of both essential oils and absolutes. They are extracted using carbon dioxide gas under pressure at ambient temperatures. Depending on the pressure used, a select or total extract will result. Select means that a lower pressure is used and total means that a higher pressure is used.
Select extracts are more similar to essential oils in that they are usually fully mobile liquids and essential oils make up the vast majority of the extract.
Total extracts contain more constituents of the plant and are more full-spectrum or more closely resemble the constituents of the whole plant rather than just the essential oil fraction of the plant.
Use them if you can afford them
BECAUSE of the purity of carbon dioxide extracts and because they display some very favourable characteristics not found in essential oils, CO2 extracts are highly valued.
They are primarily used by exclusive specialist food, body care, and herbal industries, yet CO2 extracts are also excellent for high-grade aromatherapy and natural perfumery.
This extraction technique (more accurately called supercritical CO2 extraction) is a relatively new and expensive technology.
It is more efficient in some ways than steam distillation because the process has the ability to capture a broader spectrum of the plant components, giving a fragrance more true to the original plant material without the use of chemical solvents.
Other benefits are that the extraction process happens at lower temperatures than steam distillation and that carbon dioxide is non-toxic, odourless, and is easily removed from the extracted oil at the end of the process.
The magic of pure scent
HOW MANY wonderful moods and memories are tied to a particular scent and how often have we longed to capture the “scent” of an experience so that we can let the genie out of the bottle and relive those moments? This is the real magic of aromatherapy, the wherewithal to do just that. Priests, healers and alchemists at various times and in different places all over the world have been able to figure out how to capture and preserve such wonderful aromas and keep them safe, like a “genie” in a bottle.
In their search for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, or fountain of youth, alchemists discovered the ‘soul of the plant’, a name they gave these ethereal essential oils.
Ethereal suggests something heavenly or celestial and that is what these fragrant treasures really are; the very essence of a plant. Every essential oil has its own fragrance and personality; no two are alike.
As healers have recognised, contained within the essential oil, in concentrated form, is the life force, Prana; the power of the universe carried in the plant.
We are able to measure these energies with a variety of instruments and can verify their high-frequency radial energy field; Kirlian photography makes visible this strong energy field that surrounds the living essential oils.
An essential oil is the life-blood of a plant
Synthetic laboratory-produced scents, the components of most commercial perfumes, are completely devoid of this vitality. Only nature’s plants can produce a smell that has such far-reaching effects on our emotions and states of consciousness. Man-made imitations may be cheaper to produce but they will never have the same healing power nor be as compatible with living human flesh and emotions.
Leading aromatherapy expert Robert Tisserand says: “What is really sad is that many people have no idea what aromatherapy really is. They think aromatherapy is a hair spray which smells of hyacinth or a perfumed candle redolent of lily of the valley.”
Aromatherapy is confused with the artificial fragrances contained in mass-merchandised cosmetics, which compromises the future of the true science and art.
Charlatan aromatherapy is made popular by industrialists and corporate marketers and is reduced to shampoos with artificial frangipani and soap that evokes the smell of a seemingly seductive rose; all are cheap to reproduce, and so far from what nature intended the human nose to smell.
It is such a shame that the true nature and integrity of aromatherapy has been obscured by commercial incentive and lust for a sweet, popular smell.
It is a role of Tinderbox to re-educate people’s noses to the real natural scent of plants and their extraordinary healing virtues.