Essential Oils, Absolutes, and CO2 Extracts…

You’re probably familiar with essential oils … they are quickly becoming more and more popular for their fragrance, health benefits, and medicinal effects. I wrote a post recently after attending an essential oil class, on some fascinating things I heard.


Have you heard of these… ?

But what about an absolute. Have you heard this name before? And do you know what a CO2 extract is? How do these compare to essential oils, and what makes them unique? And did you know than any of these three can be labeled as an essential oil? You might have all three in your home right now!!

I have the privilege of studying new things everyday as I create products and compare ingredients… and sometimes I run into things that make me curious to know more.

‘Essential Oil’


For example, did you know that there’s no such thing as pure vanilla essential oil? (I really like this source). The same is true with almond essential oil. I really liked this article! Google either one of these and you will find all the sources that you could possibly want for almond or vanilla essential oil. But these are not true pure essential oils. Sometimes they are labeled as an ‘essential oil’ when they are in fact an absolute or a CO2 extract, or other…

Because the truth is, some plants just don’t have an essential oil in them to extract. 🙂

So here’s a quick lesson on the difference between these 3 – they are so common and I come across them *all* the time in my research. I think it’s really fascinating! The purpose of this post is not to state a right or wrong way – but to simply understand the difference between an essential oil, and other oils that are often labeled as essential oils – but are in fact otherwise.

This is good stuff to know…  🙂

So let’s take a look at what a true essential oil is…


“Essential oils are natural aromatic compounds found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of plants. They can be both beautifully and powerfully fragrant. If you have ever enjoyed the gift of a rose, a walk by a field of lavender, or the smell of fresh cut mint, you have experienced the aromatic qualities of essential oils. In addition to giving plants their distinctive smells, essential oils provide plants with protection against predators and disease and play a role in plant pollination.

Essential oils are non water-based phytochemicals made up of volatile aromatic compounds. Although they are fat soluble, they do not include fatty lipids or acids found in vegetable and animal oils. Essential oils are very clean, almost crisp, to the touch and are immediately absorbed by the skin. Pure, unadulterated essential oils are translucent and range in color from crystal clear to deep blue.” – Source

Essential oils are typically distilled (by water or steam or a combination of both) but can also be cold pressed or expeller pressed (as is the case with some of the citrus oils). 


“An absolute is a term given to an essential oil processed by enfleurage (a traditional method using pork or beef fat to extract the fragrant part of the plant) or by solvent extraction (using mineral solvents such as hexane). In France, an aromatherapy doctor will never prescribe an absolute internally as it contains more than just the volatile fragrance (absolutes, especially hexane NOW_rose-absolute-oil-blendextracted, contain some of the plant waxes, colorings and solvent residues)…” – Source

The majority of absolutes are solvent extracted, which means that many parts of a plant are put into a large pot or container full of chemical solvent, and the plant properties are then “extracted” into the chemical. The chemical is then removed (as much as possible) to leave behind the plant “juices”.

This process usually applies to plants that are too delicate for the essential oil steam-distillation (for example, a rose petal or jasmine flower), but this also applies to plants that don’t have an essential oil in them that can be distilled out. When you find vanilla ‘essential oil’ or almond ‘essential oil’ they are very likely absolutes.

Because of how an absolute is extracted, the plant waxes, colorings, and other parts will be mixed in… and absolutes are far more concentrated than essential oils. A little goes a long way! You may also find that your absolute does not really smell as you would think it should – until it has been applied to a soap or other recipe and diluted to the proper ratios.

Unlike most essential oils, absolutes should never be applied directly to the skin because they are so highly concentrated. This is one good reason to know if you’re getting an absolute or an essential oil. Most labels will tell you if your ‘essential oil’ is more highly concentrated than usual and should not be applied directly to skin – as I have found with most absolute labels in my research.

CO2 Extract


In a CO2 extract, carbon dioxide is pressurized until it becomes a liquid – which then acts as the solvent (as described above in the process of extracting an absolute) in place of hexane or other chemical solvent. In the end the CO2 is evaporated back into a gas and the resulting plant extract left behind.

CO2 extracts are commonly labeled as essential oils, because it is believed (although not fully determined) that there is nothing harmful in the final product.

Again, as in the case of an absolute, the CO2 extract will contain more than what we think of as the ‘essential oil’ of a plant – it will have plant waxes and coloring included, as well as the properties from many parts of the plant (vs. from a specific part of the plant as in the case of many essential oils).

Other terms

There are other terms too… maybe you’ve heard of an isolate (which if I understand this correctly is the result of singling out a part of an essential oil – in order to get the full benefits of that part vs. using the whole essential oil). There are infused oils – which means that a carrier oil is involved, which has then been infused with the plant properties (watch my video on how to infuse herbal oils here). There are tinctures, which means that a plant’s properties are soaked in alcohol or glycerine instead of a carrier oil – resulting in an herbal “juice” after many weeks. And the list goes on…


So there you have it! Three specific kinds of oils that are growing more and more common – any of these three can be labeled as an essential oil. Sometimes a company will tell you the method of extraction – whether the ‘essential oil’ was steam-distilled, cold pressed, solvent extracted, or CO2 extracted. And if so, this is one way to help you determine.

But this is one good reason why you can’t always conclude that an ‘essential oil’ is absolutely an essential oil (as we think of an essential oil by definition). We are dealing with quite a few different kinds of oils here – and each will vary in strength, make-up, and benefit.

According to label standards, all three can be labeled simply as ‘essential oil’ – of course proper specifications need to be listed if for example it should not be applied to the skin undiluted, because it is actually an absolute… now it is not likely that all of your essential oils are absolutes or CO2 extracts. Absolutes are usually either separated out as absolutes (on a website for example), and if they are listed with the essential oils they might say “solvent extracted”, or you may simply tell by whether or not such a plant could actually be an essential oil (referring back to the almond and vanilla examples). They will often have a note about how this oil is more highly concentrated than usual and should be used with caution in small amounts… etc.

Does it matter which one you use? That’s up to you 🙂 … but now hopefully you have a small understanding of what the difference is, and how you might possibly find out which ones you’re using at home.

And this is why…


I personally love essential oils. I’ve never worked with CO2 extracts or Absolutes before… but it’s fascinating to at least have a small understanding of what these different terms mean, and how they might be overlooked on a label.

You know me – I’m really happy to avoid synthetic fragrances altogether! Which is why I absolutely love these soaps, and the products that this amazing family makes (of which my 2 favorites at this moment happen to include this, and this)! Check out this other post on their products. Essential oils are wonderful, not just for their medicinal benefits, but also for their lovely fragrances. 🙂


P.S. The beauty of blogging is that I can share as I learn! But there are so many different views and opinions out there… so much to learn and sort through and understand more fully. What are your thoughts? Have you heard these terms or studied these different types of oils in more detail? 

And a few other notes …

  • If you haven’t visited my new shop, stop by some time… and let me know what you think! 🙂
  • There’s an incredible sale going on, so go take advantage of that… it’s almost the gift-giving time of year. 🙂
  • A HUGE thank you to everyone who made my big first day (one week ago, tomorrow) with *so* many wonderful emails, comments, phone calls… you all have been so encouraging and wonderful!! ❤
  • Today I officially topped my most embarrassing moment (which used to be a story from about 2 years ago… :-/ ) I laughed so hard about it afterward that I actually thought I was going to pass out (for real I thought I would die). And then I took a drink of water and the reality of it hit me all over again…  which resulted in the water coming back out of my mouth after a most painful experience of “choking” on it… 😉
  • Come visit me at the WBC Craft show next month!! I’m also hoping to be at the B&B Craft show in late November. You can keep up with all of the upcoming events on my events page.
  • I’ve added a small blog to my shop… where I’ll post recipes, diy health advice and tips, personal health testimonies and recommendations, sales and specials happening in the store, etc…

2 thoughts on “Essential Oils, Absolutes, and CO2 Extracts…

  1. Sarah Great job on your essential oils article! I have a similar passion for learning, and I always enjoy reading your blog posts. Your new website is so beautiful. How long have you been using Shopify? I’m thinking about using it for another one of my business lines.


    Cherlynn Thomas Wellness Advocate # 3082 *Copyright © 2014 Herbal Essentials, All rights reserved.* NOTE: The information shared has not been evaluated by the FDA. The products and methods recommended are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or heal any disease. Please consult with your care professional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much Cherlynn!
      I always appreciate your comments and kind words… especially as you seem to know so much in the essential oil world. I am grateful for your investment in my life, and the things you have shared with me – advice, oil samples, encouragement, educational resources. I opened my shop one week ago (Tuesday) and am absolutely *loving* it so far! It is wonderful and the price per month is *very* reasonable for all that I get out of it – including all of the lovely free apps that I installed to get my site looking the way that it is 😉 … so I highly recommend it for your business! Definitely check into it sometime! It took me 2 weeks to get my site put together and while I definitely had to put some time and research into a few things that challenged me, I am so happy that I went with shopify!! You can really do quite a few things with it. 🙂 Thank you again!

      Liked by 2 people

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