There is a major difference in the types of steam distillations of essential oils. If someone asked you which distill you would want in your oil, the “complete distill” or the “first distill,” you will most likely think you want the complete distill. Of course you would want it all, right? Well, that’s not exactly true in the essential oil world. Part of the misunderstanding is in the terminology. Technically, in the essential oil industry, all oils would be considered complete distills. This means they are all distilled for the full amount of time that particular single species needs to be distilled. At least, in theory, they should be distilled in the proper manner. For instance, Cypress must go through a minimum distillation time of 24 hours to get all the active constituents into the final product, while Geranium should only be distilled for 1-3 hours. If you define distillation to mean a specific length of time to get the optimal amount of volatile constituents out of a plant material, then yes, you can talk about distillations as a first or highest yield distillation.
Another confused concept is when someone says there is a first distillation, second distillation, third distillation, and complete distillation. People may mistakenly be inclined to think it is the same material being redistilled – something similar to re-using a tea bag. First you create one cup of tea, then take the same bag and try to make another cup of tea, and find that it is way weaker the second time. This analogy is generally incorrect and should not be used when talking about the distillation process. However, sadly, in the world of essential oil production this may sometimes be the case. Doing a second distillation means a plant is distilled first with steam and then redistilled using a chemical pushed through with the steam to extract more of the essential oil. Sometimes even a third distillation may occur with chemicals. This often happens with Lavandin. This type of extraction is done more that you would think and is a large reason many oils are contaminated with trace synthetic chemicals.
Let us start by defining what the distillation process is without confusing it with the synthetic extraction method. Unfortunately, some companies, who can still label their essential oils as organic or therapeutic grade try to find shortcuts by raising the temperature or adding pressure to get more essential oil faster. They get more oil to sell, but it drastically alters the therapeutic qualities of the essential oils, also known as the plant’s constituents or molecules. The best companies don’t take shortcuts. They use the most costly form of distillation, which is a low-temperature, little to no-pressure, no-solvent extraction method. This method maximizes the therapeutic qualities and keeps the constituents at a level consistent with the finest essential oils, using the standards set forth by the Association French Normalization Organization Regulation (AFNOR) and the International Standards Organization (ISO).
When a plant is grown, if it was grown correctly, it must be harvested at just the right time. You can see more on this in chapters #43 through #48. Once it is harvested, again, depending on the plant, it must either sit for a certain amount of time, or be processed in just the right way, otherwise the whole process will be in vain. Assuming the plant was grown, harvested, and placed correctly into the still, the distillation part is what is in question.
Generally speaking, plant material is distilled for a specific length of time, from 1 hour up to 16-22 hours. The most potent, or what is called the volatile part of the essential oil, that which readily leaps into the air, is extracted during the first part of the distillation process. To understand why the first distill is the most volatile, you need to understand a bit of chemistry, but basically it works as follows: each plant contains thousands of different natural chemical constituents. Some of these constituents contain the best therapeutic qualities, or actions of the essential oil, while others have little to no therapeutic qualities.
They all, however play a roll, and work synergystically together. While one essential oil would need every single constituent, others work better with a higher percentage of a particular, more volatile constituent. Each one of the constituents within the plant material has a different boil rate. The most volatile constituents always boil at a faster rate, meaning they will boil first (during the first part of the distillation). After the first few hours, the essential oil changes in constituents based on what is being extracted from the plant. As more time is added to the distillation, different constituents are extracted and included in the final product. When you get to the final stage of distillation, at the longest point, the final essential oil will smell more fragrant because those constituents (the sweeter part of the plant) boil last. As a bonus, the distillery will get far more out of that plant material than if they only used the first part of the distillation, commonly referred to as the first distill. Most soap and perfume companies will use the complete distill or even a second or third distill, as mentioned earlier by use of chemicals added to the steam, in their final products because it has the most pleasantly mild and sweet smell.
Creating an essential oil with a sweeter, more mild smell will greatly increase sales, simply because of the psychology of smell. When we test an essential oil by smelling it at the local market, we want it to smell nice. Plus, we like the super low, off-the-shelf price tag, too. When a new oil user smells an essential oil that is really earthy or strong smelling, for most of them, their minds tell them not to buy it. This is why most of the essential oils you find readily available are complete, second, or even third distills. This is also why you can pretty much tell right away if your oil is distilled correctly, simply by smelling it. Most really inexpensive oils may still be called pure or 100% essential oil because they are, in fact, just that. Why can they be sold for extraordinarily low prices? They raised the temperature and pressure to make the process faster in order to get a larger batch. It is still pure, but just doesn’t contain the constituents we need to better support our body systems. They are great to smell, but they won’t do anything for you in terms of real health and well-being.
The litmus test in determining the constituents of a final essential oil batch is in the library of past batches owned by the laboratory testing the oils. Many labs are sorely lacking in their library volumes, so just because a lab states they can test the constituents of an essential oil does not mean they have the means (library) to appropriately read all constituents correctly.
In layman’s terms, if you got robbed and you lived in a small town and the only thing you had was a fingerprint from the thief, you’d need to bring it to a police department to find a match. If you went to the small town police department that did not have access to the larger database of national fingerprints, this small town would have a much smaller database based on the people they have already processed for past crimes. They may even have a general fingerprint database from the most notorious people sent in from other cities. The problem is you are most likely out of luck. If your thief does not show up in their database, you won’t know who it was. Or worse, you could end up with a wrongly accused person. The better way to find a match would be to go to a large city police department to have your thief fingerprint analyzed.
When an oil is analyzed, basically the markers that it is analyzing is like a fingerprint. It is actually more like multiple fingerprints because there are multiple constituents within a single essential oil. The fingerprint data then needs to be compared to all the other data in the database. Let’s say a brand new species of plant life was made into an essential oil and it was sent to a lab for analysis. They might say, “Well it is spiking in this area and showing other spikes in that area but we are not 100% sure.” It could then get wrongly accused of being a different constituent.
It also has to do with what that lab mostly processes. If it processes mostly petrochemicals, which are usually synthetic plastics as opposed to natural plant chemicals or phytochemicals, they will still try to match them. The machine wants to match whatever it is testing to the data that is already stored in its library. The machine cannot make up things; it’s a machine. It has to have a litmus test. It has to have something to match it to. That is what a library is. When you use a library that is smaller, you are going to get potentially inaccurate outcomes.
When you are looking at an essential oil that is found in nature that is widely produced, you will find from each company, based on how they were seeded, cultivated and processed, very different final essential oil molecule levels. If you send it to a lab that does not have a large enough library, you are going to run into some issues. Point being; get to know how your essential oil company processes their oils from farming methods clear through to bottling.
Excerpt from the book “The Essential Oil Truth: the facts without the hype” ©2015 Jen O’Sullivan
Order your copies here: www.jenessentials.com/books