Fragrance extraction

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Copper still from 19th to 20th century Grasse, France for steam distillation Fragonard small perfume distillery.JPG
Copper still from 19th to 20th century Grasse, France for steam distillation

Fragrance extraction refers to the separation process of aromatic compounds from raw materials, using methods such as distillation, solvent extraction, expression, sieving, or enfleurage. The results of the extracts are either essential oils, absolutes, concretes, or butters, depending on the amount of waxes in the extracted product.


To a certain extent, all of these techniques tend to produce an extract with an aroma that differs from the aroma of the raw materials. Heat, chemical solvents, or exposure to oxygen in the extraction process may denature some aromatic compounds, either changing their odour character or rendering them odourless, and the proportion of each aromatic component that is extracted can differ.[ citation needed ]

Maceration/solvent extraction

Certain plant materials contain too little volatile oil to undergo expression, or their chemical components are too delicate and easily denatured by the high heat used in steam distillation. Instead, the oils are extracted using their solvent properties.

Organic solvent extraction

Organic solvent extraction is the most common and most economically important technique for extracting aromatics in the modern perfume industry. Raw materials are submerged and agitated in a solvent that can dissolve the desired aromatic compounds. Commonly used solvents for maceration/solvent extraction include hexane, and dimethyl ether.

In organic solvent extraction, aromatic compounds as well as other hydrophobic soluble substances such as wax and pigments are also obtained. The extract is subjected to vacuum processing, which removes the solvent for re-use. The process can last anywhere from hours to months. Fragrant compounds for woody and fibrous plant materials are often obtained in this matter as are all aromatics from animal sources. The technique can also be used to extract odorants that are too volatile for distillation or easily denatured by heat. The remaining waxy mass is known as a concrete , which is a mixture of essential oil, waxes, resins, and other lipophilic (oil-soluble) plant material, since these solvents effectively remove all hydrophobic compounds in the raw material. The solvent is then removed by a lower temperature distillation process and reclaimed for re-use.

Although highly fragrant, concretes are too viscous – even solid – at room temperature to be useful. This is due to the presence of high-molecular-weight, non-fragrant waxes and resins. Another solvent, often ethyl alcohol, which only dissolves the fragrant low-molecular weight compounds, must be used to extract the fragrant oil from the concrete. The alcohol is removed by a second distillation, leaving behind the absolute . These extracts from plants such as jasmine and rose, are called absolutes.

Due to the low temperatures in this process, the absolute may be more faithful to the original scent of the raw material, which is subjected to high heat during the distillation process.

Supercritical fluid extraction

Supercritical fluid extraction is a relatively new technique for extracting fragrant compounds from a raw material, which often employs supercritical CO2 as the extraction solvent. When carbon dioxide is put under high pressure at slightly above room temperature, a supercritical fluid forms (Under normal pressure CO2 changes directly from a solid to a gas in a process known as sublimation.) Since CO2 in a non-polar compound has low surface tension and wets easily, it can be used to extract the typically hydrophobic aromatics from the plant material. This process is identical to one of the techniques for making decaffeinated coffee.

In supercritical fluid extraction, high pressure carbon dioxide gas (up to 100 atm.) is used as a solvent. Due to the low heat of process and the relatively unreactive solvent used in the extraction, the fragrant compounds derived often closely resemble the original odour of the raw material. Like solvent extraction, the CO2 extraction takes place at a low temperature, extracts a wide range of compounds, and leaves the aromatics unaltered by heat, rendering an essence more faithful to the original. Since CO2 is gas at normal atmospheric pressure, it also leaves no trace of itself in the final product, thus allowing one to get the absolute directly without having to deal with a concrete. It is a low-temperature process, and the solvents are easily removed. Extracts produced using this process are known as CO2 extracts.

Ethanol extraction

Ethanol extraction is a type of solvent extraction used to extract fragrant compounds directly from dry raw materials, as well as the impure oils or concrete resulting from organic solvent extraction, expression, or enfleurage. Ethanol extracts from dry materials are called tinctures, while ethanol washes for purifying oils and concretes are called absolutes.

The impure substances or oils are mixed with ethanol, which is less hydrophobic than solvents used for organic extraction, dissolves more of the oxidized aromatic constituents (alcohols, aldehydes, etc.), leaving behind the wax, fats, and other generally hydrophobic substances. The alcohol is evaporated under low-pressure, leaving behind absolute. The absolute may be further processed to remove any impurities that are still present from the solvent extraction.

Ethanol extraction is not typically used to extract fragrance from fresh plant materials; these contain large quantities of water, which will be extracted into the ethanol, although this is sometimes not a concern.


Distillation is a common technique for obtaining aromatic compounds from plants, such as orange blossoms and roses. The raw material is heated and the fragrant compounds are re-collected through condensation of the distilled vapor. Distilled products, whether through steam or dry distillation are known either as essential oils or ottos.

Today, most common essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, and eucalyptus, are distilled. Raw plant material, consisting of the flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds, or peel, is put into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water.

Steam distillation

Steam from boiling water is passed through the raw material for 60–105 minutes, which drives out most of their volatile fragrant compounds. The condensate from distillation, which contain both water and the aromatics, is settled in a Florentine flask. This allows for the easy separation of the fragrant oils from the water as the oil will float to the top of the distillate where it is removed, leaving behind the watery distillate. The water collected from the condensate, which retains some of the fragrant compounds and oils from the raw material, is called hydrosol and is sometimes sold for consumer and commercial use. This method is most commonly used for fresh plant materials such as flowers, leaves, and stems. Popular hydrosols are rose water, lavender water, and orange blossom water. Many plant hydrosols have unpleasant smells and are therefore not sold.

Most oils are distilled in a single process. One exception is Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), which takes 22 hours to complete distillation. It is fractionally distilled, producing several grades (Ylang-Ylang "extra", I, II, III and "complete", in which the distillation is run from start to finish with no interruption).

Dry/destructive distillation

Also known as rectification, the raw materials are directly heated in a still without a carrier solvent such as water. Fragrant compounds that are released from the raw material by the high heat often undergo anhydrous pyrolysis, which results in the formation of different fragrant compounds, and thus different fragrant notes. This method is used to obtain fragrant compounds from fossil amber and fragrant woods (such as birch tar) where an intentional "burned" or "toasted" odour is desired.

Fractionation distillation

Through the use of a fractionation column, different fractions distilled from a material can be selectively excluded to manipulate the scent of the final product. Although the product is more expensive, this is sometimes performed to remove unpleasant or undesirable scents of a material and affords the perfumer more control over their composition process. This is often performed as a second step on material that has already been extracted rather than on raw material.


Expression as a method of fragrance extraction where raw materials are pressed, squeezed or compressed and the essential oils are collected. In contemporary times, the only fragrant oils obtained using this method are the peels of fruits in the citrus family. This is due to the large quantity of oil is present in the peels of these fruits as to make this extraction method economically feasible. Citrus peel oils are expressed mechanically, or cold-pressed. Due to the large quantities of oil in citrus peel and the relatively low cost to grow and harvest the raw materials, citrus-fruit oils are cheaper than most other essential oils to the extent that purified limonene extracted from these fruit is available as an affordable naturally-derived solvent. Lemon or sweet orange oils that are obtained as by-products of the commercial citrus industry are among the cheapest citrus oils.

Expression was mainly used prior to the discovery of distillation, and this is still the case in cultures such as Egypt. Traditional Egyptian practice involves pressing the plant material, then burying it in unglazed ceramic vessels in the desert for a period of months to drive out water. The water has a smaller molecular size, so it diffuses through the ceramic vessels, while the larger essential oils do not. The lotus oil in Tutankhamen's tomb, which retained its scent after 3000 years sealed in alabaster vessels, was pressed in this manner.


Enfleurage is a process in which the odour of aromatic materials is absorbed into wax or fat, which is then often extracted with alcohol. Extraction by enfleurage was commonly used when distillation was not possible because some fragrant compounds denature through high heat. This technique is not commonly used in modern industry, due to both its prohibitive cost and the existence of more efficient and effective extraction methods.

See also

Related Research Articles

Distillation Method of separating mixtures

Distillation is the process of separating the components or substances from a liquid mixture by using selective boiling and condensation. Distillation may result in essentially complete separation, or it may be a partial separation that increases the concentration of selected components in the mixture. In either case, the process exploits differences in the relative volatility of the mixture's components. In industrial applications, distillation is a unit operation of practically universal importance, but it is a physical separation process, not a chemical reaction.


Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents, usually in liquid form, used to give the human body, animals, food, objects, and living-spaces an agreeable scent.

Essential oil Hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants

An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile chemical compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, or simply as the oil of the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An essential oil is "essential" in the sense that it contains the "essence of" the plant's fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived. The term "essential" used here does not mean indispensable or usable by the human body, as with the terms essential amino acid or essential fatty acid, which are so called because they are nutritionally required by a given living organism.


A tincture is typically an extract of plant or animal material dissolved in ethanol. Solvent concentrations of 25–60% are common, but may run as high as 90%. In chemistry, a tincture is a solution that has ethanol as its solvent. In herbal medicine, alcoholic tinctures are made with various ethanol concentrations, 20% being the most common.

Absolute (perfumery)

Used in perfumery and aromatherapy, absolutes are similar to essential oils. They are concentrated, highly aromatic, oily mixtures extracted from plants. Whereas essential oils are produced by distillation, boiling or pressing, absolutes are produced through solvent extraction, or more traditionally, through enfleurage.

Enfleurage is a process that uses odorless fats that are solid at room temperature to capture the fragrant compounds exuded by plants. The process can be "cold" enfleurage or "hot" enfleurage.

Steam distillation

Steam distillation is a separation process which consists in distilling water together with other volatile and non-volatile components. The steam from the boiling water carries the vapor of the volatiles to a condenser, where both are cooled and return to the liquid or solid state; while the non-volatile residues remain behind in the boiling container.

Petrochemistry is a branch of chemistry that studies the transformation of crude oil (petroleum) and natural gas into products or raw materials. These petrochemicals have become a major part of the chemical industry today.

Supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) is the process of separating one component (the extractant) from another (the matrix) using supercritical fluids as the extracting solvent. Extraction is usually from a solid matrix, but can also be from liquids. SFE can be used as a sample preparation step for analytical purposes, or on a larger scale to either strip unwanted material from a product (e.g. decaffeination) or collect a desired product (e.g. essential oils). These essential oils can include limonene and other straight solvents. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most used supercritical fluid, sometimes modified by co-solvents such as ethanol or methanol. Extraction conditions for supercritical carbon dioxide are above the critical temperature of 31 °C and critical pressure of 74 bar. Addition of modifiers may slightly alter this. The discussion below will mainly refer to extraction with CO2, except where specified.

Rose oil

Rose oil is the essential oil extracted from the petals of various types of rose. Rose ottos are extracted through steam distillation, while rose absolutes are obtained through solvent extraction, the absolute being used more commonly in perfumery. Even with their high price and the advent of organic synthesis, rose oils are still perhaps the most widely used essential oil in perfumery.


Neroli oil is an essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. Its scent is sweet, honeyed and somewhat metallic with green and spicy facets. Orange blossom is also extracted from the same blossom and both extracts are extensively used in perfumery. Orange blossom can be described as smelling sweeter, warmer and more floral than neroli. The difference between how neroli and orange blossom smell and why they are referred to with different names, is a result of the process of extraction that is used to obtain the oil from the blooms. Neroli is extracted by steam distillation and orange blossom is extracted via a process of enfleurage or solvent extraction.

Supercritical carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide above its critical point

Supercritical carbon dioxide is a fluid state of carbon dioxide where it is held at or above its critical temperature and critical pressure.

Extract category of substance

An extract is a substance made by extracting a part of a raw material, often by using a solvent such as ethanol or water. Extracts may be sold as tinctures, absolutes or in powder form.

Florentine flask

A florentine flask, also known as florentine receiver, florentine separator or essencier, other shapes called florentine vase or florentine vessel, is an oil–water separator fed with condensed vapors of a steam distillation in a fragrance extraction process.

Types of plant oils

Plant oils or vegetable oils are oils derived from plant sources, as opposed to animal fats or petroleum. There are three primary types of plant oil, differing both the means of extracting the relevant parts of the plant, and in the nature of the resulting oil:

  1. Vegetable fats and oils were historically extracted by putting part of the plant under pressure, squeezing out the oil.
  2. Macerated oils consist of a base oil to which parts of plants are added.
  3. Essential oils are composed of volatile aromatic compounds, extracted from plants by distillation.
Superheated water

Superheated water is liquid water under pressure at temperatures between the usual boiling point, 100 °C (212 °F) and the critical temperature, 374 °C (705 °F). It is also known as "subcritical water" or "pressurized hot water." Superheated water is stable because of overpressure that raises the boiling point, or by heating it in a sealed vessel with a headspace, where the liquid water is in equilibrium with vapour at the saturated vapor pressure. This is distinct from the use of the term superheating to refer to water at atmospheric pressure above its normal boiling point, which has not boiled due to a lack of nucleation sites.

Winterization of oil is a process that uses a solvent and cold temperatures to separate lipids and other desired oil compounds from waxes. Winterization is a type of fractionation, the general process of separating the triglycerides found in fats and oils, using the difference in their melting points, solubility, and volatility.

Hash oil

Hash oil, also known as honey oil or cannabis oil, is an oleoresin obtained by the extraction of cannabis or hashish. It is a cannabis concentrate containing many of its resins and terpenes – in particular, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids. There are various extraction methods, most involving a solvent, such as butane or ethanol. Hash oil is usually consumed by smoking, vaporizing or eating. Hash oil may be sold in cartridges used with pen vaporizers. Preparations of hash oil may be solid or colloidal depending on both production method and temperature and are usually identified by their appearance or characteristics. Color most commonly ranges from transparent golden or light brown, to tan or black. Cannabis retailers in California have reported about 40% of their sales are from cannabis oils. Hash oil is an extracted cannabis product that may use any part of the plant, with minimal or no residual solvent. It is generally thought to be indistinct from traditional hashish, according to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as it is "the separated resin, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant".

Concrete, in perfumery, is a semi-solid mass obtained by solvent extraction of fresh plant material.