Thursday, July 28, 2011

Vanilla Essential Oil?

At a recent show, someone asked if I made lavender/vanilla scented soap, to which I replied "no". I went on to explain that there is no vanilla essential oil and since I don't use artificial scents, there was, therefore, no way for me to get a vanilla scent.

She protested. Insisting that she used vanilla essential oil herself. I certainly wasn't going to argue with her since she was, after all, a potential customer, but I was pretty sure she was mistaken. Pretty sure...

So, when I got home that evening, I went straight to the Internet and googled "vanilla essential oil". Guess what? People sell something called "vanilla essential oil". But, there is no such thing vanilla essential oil. There isn't. So what are they selling and how is it legal?

I don't know about the legalities, but I'm guessing they can get away with it due to convenient vagaries in the legal code surrounding the definition of "essential oils". In fact, there actually is no regulatory standard governing the use of the term "essential oil".

However, it seems to be generally accepted that essential oils are, in large part, defined by the method with which they were extracted. More specifically, they must be either steam distilled or, in the case of citrus oils, cold pressed. The problem is, some plants, like vanilla, are too delicate and cannot withstand the heat involved in the steam distillation process. So, in order to extract the essence of these plants an alternative method must be employed. In regards to vanilla, this typically means solvent extraction or CO2 extraction.

CO2 extraction can actually yield a very high quality product. In this method, relatively cool CO2 is pressurized and pumped through the plant. When the pressure is released, the CO2 escapes as a gas, while the plant oils remain behind. There are no residues or solvents in the final product, so this is probably as close to a vanilla "essential oil" as you are going to get. However, if this is what you want, be prepared to pay for it. It is very expensive and downright prohibitive for me at this stage in the game. It will likely be called an absolute, but pay close attention to the extraction method. Absolutes can also be extracted with hydrocarbon solvents (like hexane), which you may not want in your natural products.

The other common type of concentrated vanilla that is available is called an oleoresin. Oleoresins are extracted with solvents. The solvent is then removed. During this final distillation process, some of the aromatics are lost, but a strong oleoresin (as determined by a higher "fold" number) can still give a pretty good flavor and smell. Oleoresins are commonly used in the food industry to make the extracts many of us cook with. Although it seems like oleoresins would be cheaper to produce than absolutes, they often are still very expensive. At least the good ones are.

If you have found a cheap source for vanilla "essential oil," I hate to break it to you, but you are probably getting a cheap product. More than likely,  it has been pre-diluted in a carrier oil or otherwise adulterated in some way. I'm not saying it won't work in lotions, balms etc... but these won't work in cold process soap and who knows what it is really made of.

Personally, I like to know that the products I use are pure and do not contain unnecessary solvents, chemicals or other miscellaneous junk. So for now, I think I will just avoid vanilla, but at least now I will be prepared to explain myself the next time I declare"there is no such thing as vanilla essential oil."


  1. I've seen Vanilla Essential Oil for sale as an absolute with Baldwins - but it's very expensive, something like £17 for 10ml. I tend to use the less expensive vanilla infusion (in sunflower oil) which smells just as nice and can even be made at home.

  2. Ooo...I would love to know if the vanilla infusion you use comes through in cold process soap! I know the absolutes will... but for the price, you might as well make it with gold! :)

  3. Hi,

    I am starting a Handmade Deal website and I'd love to feature you as one of our daily steals. You can check the website out at, it launches monday but you can sneak preview it anytime. I am not charging any fees I am only asking you donate one item as a giveaway the week your "steal' debuts. If you'd like more information let me know!


    Tori Andersen
    Sassy Steals, Inc.

  4. I have just discovered your blog - love your soaping adventures, keep them coming!

  5. Thank you!...I've been slacking lately, but I've definitely got more to say. (I just need to find time to write it all down!)

  6. Very informative post; there isn't a "true" vanilla essential oil. BUT you can get a nice Vanilla CO2 at the Ananda Apothecary, sure it's slightly on the expensive side but it's all natural and therefore worth it for those who want to go all-natural. What I plan to do, is handmill some of my CP soap, to which I'll then add the vanilla CO2.