Making Your Own Essential Oils

This past Christmas, my husband was thoughtful enough to buy me the coolest gift a geeky artsy girl like me could ever want. I finally had a chance to use it, and I am so excited about the possible uses! I know that a lot of you buy essential oils. It's no secret that they can be incredibly expensive! Well now you can make your own, and all you need is a good supply of plant material and this cool gadget.

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

It's a bit pricey (starting at $150). But if you buy essential oils on a regular basis, either for soap making or aromatherapy, you already know that if this product works then you could recoup your costs pretty quickly. Ah, but does it work? I had to find out.

200 grams of assorted orange peels

200 grams of assorted orange peels

The included instructions were pretty simple to follow. I really wanted to try using fresh herbs, but being the middle of January I didn't want to take any cuttings from my plants. I was too excited to wait until I could make a trip to the grocery store. So I made my first attempt with what I had on hand -- about a dozen oranges. I didn't feel bad "wasting" them, because they had been ignored in the fruit bowl for a long time. So long, in fact, that they were starting to shrivel. There were a few mandarins, as well as navel oranges. I peeled them and measured 200 grams of the peels (that's about 7 ounces). The peels were then loosely packed into the large glass bowl.

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

In the middle, protected by a microwave-safe metal shield, I placed the provided 250 mL beaker. I was really starting to feel nerdy out at this point. There was giggling.

An ice core assembly

An ice core assembly

Next, I needed to attach an ice core to the unit. You heard right, an ice core. It sounds fancy, but really it is the simplest thing in the world. A funnel, with the end plugged, sits upright inside a mug. You fill the funnel with water. Then you take a disc with a hole in the center and thread a plastic screw into it. That sites on top of the funnel. The purpose of the disk is simply to keep the screw centered in the water inside the funnel. Into the freezer it goes for a day, and you have an ice core.

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Remember the plastic screw? That's how the ice core gets attached to the lid. It sits inside a metal shield, centered over the shielded beaker. Now it heads to the microwave. In only 6 minutes, the magic is complete! Or is it?

Steam filled extraction unit

Steam filled extraction unit

After letting everything cool a bit, I removed the lid. I could see an oil slick on the surface of the water in my beaker.

Film of orange essential oil

Film of orange essential oil

I poured the liquid into a flask, put a cap on top, and waited for the oil to float to the top.

Oil collection flask

Oil collection flask

Nothing. Just some water with a vague dirty orange scent. Hmmm... Is this a piece of junk? Or did I do something wrong? I decided to try again. I took a look at my process, especially all the parts that, in my opinion, the instructions had left open to interpretation. I froze 3 ice cores, so that I could make multiple attempts in a short amount of time. Fortunately, I had success on my very next try!

I wondered if the mandarin oranges, with their very thin skin, might not have been a very good choice. So I opted for a variety of fresh citrus fruits - lemons, limes, and even a blood orange, because I happened to have some in the house. Aside from variety and freshness, the only other change I made was in how I removed the peels. Remembering that the oils are located in the outermost layer, I chose to cut the peels off with a paring knife, leaving as much of the white pith behind as possible. I knew as soon as I removed the lid that my results would be better. I was immediately hit with the scent of lime! I poured the liquid into my flask, and an oil layer floated to the top.

Citrus oil blend

Citrus oil blend

Success! I used a pipette, similar to an eye dropper, to suction the oil off the surface and into an amber bottle for storage.

Essential oil in amber glass

Essential oil in amber glass

That single batch produced about 1/4 dram of essential oil from all organic peels. I don't know about you, but a dram is a unit that I just don't use, so I prefer to use ounces or milliliters. In this case, that's just under 1 mL of oil. How does that compare to simply buying the same quantity of organic essential oil? A quick online search shows organic essential oil blends in 5 mL bottles for $20 - $25, or an average of $4.50 per mL . My cost? Well, that depends. In this case, we ate the blood orange, and used our juicer to make some awesome lemon-limeade for the kids. The peels would have been put out with the compost, we had no other use for them. So in this case, I think my cost was, well, nothing. I think the same would be true if I use my own herbs this spring. I routinely have to cut them back to keep them from growing outside of their assigned locations (they are naughty buggers that like to escape their raised beds). I have, many times, had to throw herbs out to the compost because there was just so much that I couldn't even give it all away. So, to me, oil produced from that excess would be free. So my only real cost is in the Extraction Kit itself.  Since it costs around $150, dividing that by the $4.50 per mL cost of buying oils, means that if I can produce 33 mL of oils then I will break even. Any more than that, and I will be saving money.

The bottom line is this: yes, you can make your own essential oils! It is easy, and safe enough that you can have kids actually help. I will happily promote anything that can gets kids interested in science, and teach them about the various chemicals (both natural and synthetic) that they are likely to encounter so they can make better choices as adults. For making soap, it would be difficult to produce enough essential oil to use for a typical batch. I often use several ounces at a time. For aromatherapy, this might be just enough. So, what will I do with my oil? I think this will be exactly enough to go into a batch of coconut-lime lip balm. And this summer, when my thyme is going crazy, I may see if I can make my own thyme oil to use as a mite treatment in the beehives. What oil would you want to make?

Katy Penwell

of Milk and Honey, Lynnwood, WA 98087, USA