I have been an active advocate of alternative health therapies for 10 years, and I am the author of a book on essential oils.
About Distilled Essential Oils
The idea of distilling oils and the invention of steam distillation was started by Arabian alchemist, Ibn Sina. Hence, aromatherapists are greatly indebted to him since his innovation has enabled several individuals to acquire the natural oils present in natural plant materials and use it in its liquid form to facilitate for various healing activities.
During distillation, the volatile liquid present in the plant is converted into vapor form or steam. When the steam is condensed back into its original liquid form, the ending result is a pure essential oil. There is still an ongoing debate as to whether distilling oils is actually the best way to extract them from the botanical material, especially knowing that there is heat element involved, which could damage or alter the natural chemical composition of the plant oil.
Benefits of Proper Oil Distillation
Beginners to aromatherapy would probably ask, “why is proper oil distillation of that importance?” The answer is as basic as your desire to get quality oil that will effectively produce healing. Hence, you need to pay close attention to every step of the process to ensure that you are correctly performing each step as instructed.
Take note of proper amounts you use, the right level of temperature, the right amount of pressure, and many other factors. If not, then you cannot expect to get the desired results from using a particular essential oil. In worst cases, you can even produce negative side effects from using it.
The Anatomy of an Essential Oil Distiller
There are three primary components that make up an essential oil distiller. Learning about what each one of these is will provide you with a good understanding of each step of the process and how these components function. They are:
- Steam Generator: This one provides the heat source, which helps to boil the water you use and produce the steam needed to release the volatile oils from the plant. It comes with a chamber that holds the plant material and where the steam makes its way and building an oil-steam mixture.
- Condenser: Once you have produced an oil-steam mixture, it is now passed on into the condenser so that you will be able to turn it into a liquid substance, creating an oil-water mixture this time out.
- Separator: This is the final step during the distillation of essential oils. Since oil is much denser than water, separating them should be really easy.
This method is a traditional and famous option for extracting oils from a plant source, despite the debates and arguments raised about the quality of oil it is able to produce. The method works with the use of steam, as the name implies. Begin by placing the plant material you want to use in a still and place it on top of a heat source. As the heat builds up and the temperature increases, it will eventually produce steam and increase pressure inside the still. These elements help in forcing the molecules of the plant to open up and be released in vapor form.
Soon after the steam is produced, it now moves onto a condenser. This part of the steam distillation process helps the vapor to return into liquid form. At this point, the liquid substance is the essential oil produced from the plant material. Since most plants are quite delicate, you need to properly monitor the amount of heat and pressure you are applying to the plant during steam distillation. This will help avoid the possibility of damaging the quality of the oil or turn it into a toxic substance.
This one is among the newest forms of distillation available, which is more of a variation to the steam distillation method. The difference between steam distillation methods is how the steam is introduced into the still. In the process of hydro diffusion, vapor comes from the top and goes into the botanical material instead of starting from the bottom, which is the case with the traditional steam distillation method.
The same also goes with the condensation process wherein steam mixture builds up below the botanical material. This method is used by many because it requires less steam, produces more oil, and takes less time to complete.
Steam and Water Distillation
As the name indicates, this one combines the method of Steam and Water distillation methods. Hence, a knowledge of both methods should give you a vague idea of how the process will take place.
You must begin by immersing the plant material completely in the water before putting it on top of a heat source. The heat will then help release steam and then the vapor is fed back into the water.
Modern Distillation Techniques
As the world of aromatherapy continues to grow, more methods of distillation are being introduced. Here are some of them:
- Cohobation: This is how the Rose Otto oil is produced wherein its main constituent, which is not extracted with the traditional distillation method, is distilled using the water where it was dissolved in and mixed with the “incomplete oil” that was initially extracted.
- Rectification: This method is undergone to re-distill an oil if it contains impurities and this double distillation process is referred to as rectification.
- Fractional distillation: This basically works like a traditional distillation process but the oils are collected in batches, instead of being done one time. Thus, the term fractional.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Mary Juett from Omaha, NE on July 25, 2012:
I've always wanted to know how to do this! Unfortunately, I'm not science minded at all, so while your hub explains things well, it's not my thing to wrap my mind around (other than the basic concept), so my chemist husband will have to help me. Glad he's good at science! Thanks for the hub!
Paula Andrea, MA from www.mode of cosmic therapy.com on September 27, 2010:
Incredibly well-written informative hub. Your research was thorough, presented in an 'easy to understand' manner. I enjoyed it immensely!