What is a CO2 Extract? How Are CO2′s and Essential Oils Different?

Pure Calendula extract, an extremely useful therapeutic oil for the skin, is available only through CO2 distillation.

What does ‘CO2′ and ‘Super Critical CO2′ mean to the aromatherapist? CO2 extraction is an amazing tool for making some (but not all) oils. And while they share many of the same properties, they’re not called “essential oils”, as that term technically means “steam distilled, hydro-distilled or cold-pressed” aromatic oils. We most certainly love our CO2′s, and here’s a look at what they are and how they fit in the aroma-therapeutic world…

In summary, CO2 extraction has the following benefits:

  • It’s clean: the process can be certified organic, as most of our CO2 oils & extracts are.
  • It’s cool: plant material never reaches the boiling point. This is great for some oils & plants, as many cannot be made via steam distillation.
  • It’s efficient: CO2 carries more lipophillic compounds into the final product without the minor loss inherent in steam distillation. It’s more costly to extract via CO2, but you can get more oil out of your plants.
  • It’s adjustable: The extractor can change the temperatures and pressures of the extraction process, optimizing changing the chemical profile of the resultant oil, . This can result in “Select” and “Total” extracts, to be explained…
  • It’s environmentally friendly: Industrial CO2 for extractions comes from byproducts – primarily hydrogen and ammonia manufacturing and fermentation for ethanol. CO2 used for extractions does not contribute to the overall atmospheric CO2 levels. The CO2 is recycled after each extraction process and used again for the next one.
  • Best of All, It Gives Us New Options and Sometimes Better Oils: For some oils, the extraction gives us something a little bit different. Lavender CO2 is not that widely different than the Steam Distilled oil, but is said to be closer to the original plant’s aroma. Cinnamon CO2 & steam distillates are also fairly similar. On the other hand, Frankincense and Myrrh CO2′s are by far our favorites over the steam distilled oils. They’re warmer, smoother, and far more complex.

Frankincense Resin

The CO2 extract of Frankincense resin contains 15% - 30% more compounds in the oil than the steam distilled variety. You can definitely smell the difference!

Let’s look at the CO2 distillation process, and see which oils may be improved via CO2 extraction, which are just different, which are better via steam, and which wouldn’t be available to us at all if it weren’t for CO2!

CO2 Extraction: The Basics

When carbon dioxide is put under extreme pressure and cooled, it becomes a liquid. Under higher pressures, it becomes a ‘supercritical fluid’ which is physically somewhere between a gas and a liquid – think of it as a CO2 “fog”. This is the ‘solvent’ which carries the essential-oil-like compounds away from the raw plant material ~ as opposed to steam and hydro-distillation, the ‘solvent’ is water.

The lower pressure CO2 extraction, where the CO2 is just a simple liquid, involves chilling carbon dioxide to between 35 and 55 degrees F, and pumping it through the plant material at 1000 psi.  Supercritical CO2 extraction, where the CO2 becomes like a “fog”, involves the carbon dioxide heated to 87 degrees F and pumped through the plant material at around 8,000 psi.

It’s not that one temperature and pressure setup is better than another, it’s that different parameters are required for each plant. And by further adjusting the temperatures & pressures, different ‘varieties’ of extract can be produced from the same plant material.

What’s the difference between ‘Select’ and ‘Total’ Extracts?

Lavender flowers - source of this wonderfully-calming essential oil.

Lavender CO2 'Select' is a favorite for Lavender lovers.

For example, a ‘Select’ CO2 extract is most akin to an essential oil. Using Frankincense as an example, the distiller notes the composition of the Select extract on their Certificate of Analysis as “70 – 85 % essential oil with a high content of alpha-pinene and other monoterpenes like thujene, sabinene, beta-pinene,myrcene, limonene furthermore sesquiterpenes and diterpene alcohols (Incensol, Serratol).”

So for Frankincense, typically there are 15 – 30% MORE ‘oil’ compounds in the CO2 extract than the essential oil, and these are most often heavier, larger molecules not “picked up” by steam. These heavier molecules contribute to a significantly warmer aroma, with an overall deeper tone. Frankincense was the first CO2 extract to be recognized by “medical” aromatherapists world wide as potentially “more therapeutic” because of the presence of these larger sesquiterpenes and diterpene alcohols…this is also the case with Myrrh – the CO2 Select is so very wonderful, warm and rich, and a very worthwhile experience. (Continued below…)

Ananda’s Collection of Exquisite CO2′s

Ambrette Seed ‘Musk’ CO2-se
Arnica CO2-to, Organic
Calendula CO2-to, Organic
Caraway CO2-se
Cardamom CO2-to, Organic
Carrot Root CO2-to, Organic
Chamomile, German CO2-to, Org.
Cinnamon, Sri Lanka, CO2-se. Org.
Cinnamon, Burmanii, CO2-se. Org.
Clove CO2-se, Organic
Coriander Seed CO2-to, Organic
Frankincense Carteri CO2-se, Wild


Frankincense Seratta CO2-se, Wild
Ginger CO2-to, Organic
Juniper Berry CO2-se, Wild
Lavender, French Fine, CO2-se
Myrrh CO2-se, Wild
Rosehip CO2-to, Organic
Rosemary CO2, ‘Antiox’ Org.
Sea Buckthorn CO2-to, Organic
Spikenard CO2-se, Wild
Turmeric CO2-to, Organic
Vanilla, Madagascar, CO2-to
Note: “CO2-To” is a “Total” extract, “CO2-se” is a “Select” extract.

About CO2 Total Extracts

A Frankincense ‘Total” extract is not produced at all by any CO2 distiller – one would end up with a gummy mass not much different than the resin itself. But a “Total” extract is just what’s called for in cases such as Sea Buckthorn, Rosehip and Calendula. No steam distilled version of them even exists! The higher pressure and temperature “total” process extracts all the “oils” from these plant materials.

Some Incredible Plant Extracts ONLY Available as CO2′s

The extracts of whole Rosehips, whole Sea Buckthorn Berries, and even Calendula flowers  don’t have strong aromas, as they don’t contain much lighter, smaller aromatic molecules such as mono-terpenes. However, they do contain fatty acids – whole rosehips are not only rich in deep-red phytonutrients, but they also contain the oils from the seeds inside. ALL these lipophillic compounds are extracted in a CO2 “Total”. Together, these are absolute MAGIC skin care ingredients, as you can imagine!

Until CO2 extraction, Calendula was available only as an infusion – one had to soak Calendula flowers in olive oil for months to extract the skin-healing nutrients into the carrier oil. Now, you can just add a few drops of Calendula CO2 to any blend and Voila! A Calendula “infusion” in minutes…

The Spice Oils – Viva la Difference!

Many ‘spice’ oils seem to have a fuller aroma, with more pronounced middle and lower tones when CO2 distilled. Yet the changes in the therapeutic values depend on the oil itslef — while Cinnamon CO2 and steam distilled varities are very similar, Ginger, for example, is quite different depending on the distillation technique. Its benefit to the digestive system is best received from the steam distilled variety, whereas the CO2 oil is best for its anti-inflammatory properties.

The CO2 extract of Rosemary is the perfect antioxidant / preservative for your essential oil blends.

Rosemary CO2 is SPECIFICALLY extracted for its unique anti-oxidant action: it is the only known compound to quench EVERY one of the seven classes of oxidative radicals (we’ll skip the chemistry…we’ll just let you know that we actually put this in capsules to take it as as supplement for this purpose…note it is NOT an essential oil, but a CO2 extract meant only to derive the strong anti-oxidant properties from the plant).


This makes a great addition to any formula with a carrier oil. Just add one to two drops of Rosemary CO2 for every ounce of blend – it’s aroma is very, very light, and is typically undetectable at such low concentrations.

One other commonly used oil which stands out as “better” therapeutically is German Blue Chamomile. The heat of the steam process converts the stronger anti-inflammatory molecule of Matricin (the blue-green compound in the oil) to the weaker Chamazulene (the inky-blue compound in the oil). But truly, there are only a few oils where CO2 distillation produces a better product over steam distillation. These can be almost completely summed up in Frankincense & Myrrh, the Spice oils, German Chamomile, and the oils where they would otherwise not exist: whole Sea Buckthorn Berry, whole Rosehip, & Calendula.

But CO2′s Are Not Always Better…Oftentimes, They’re Just Different…

And then there’s many oils which are just different. Not even really therapeutically different, but aromatically different. Patchouli is a great example…the CO2 is somewhat “green” smelling, like a freshly distilled Patchouli. You may know that Patchouli really gets better with age, and while some folks may enjoy the CO2′s aroma, it hasn’t hit it big.

Lavender is probably the best example of an oil simply being ‘different’. As some linalyl-acetate is converted to linalool in the steam distillation process, the plant’s natural aroma profile is changed. We do use the Lavender CO2 in ingestable formulas, as it is the form found in lavender capsules, though the science doesn’t really point to one form being advantageous over another. You may or may not prefer the aroma, and it’s certainly worth the experience.

Carrier Oils & the Future of CO2′s

One very strong point for CO2′s is the extended shelf life of carrier oils extracted using this method. Borage Seed and Evening Primrose oils are excellent examples. These are extremely delicate, and the cold-pressed varieties do require attention to keep them away from light and heat. The CO2-extracted varieties are much less susceptible to oxidation – though there costs are almost prohibitively high, but are coming down.

At Ananda, we plan to continue to expand our CO2 offerings, and do our best at explaining why you might choose a CO2 over a steam distillate for a particular oil variety. They’re really all worth experiencing – Our owner is dearly in love with his newfound favorite ‘therapeutic cologne’ of Frankincense Carteri & Seratta CO2′s, Myrrh CO2 and Indian Sandalwood. Sandalwood CO2′s are only “interesting”, and haven’t topped the aroma of a good steam distilled variety, yet.

Thank you for reading! We hope you find the information helpful in your Aromatherapeutic journey!

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Frankincense and Myrrh EO’s Tested Together Against Numerous Cancer Cell Lines. See the Results!

Our New Stock of Sandalwood, Frankincense, Myrrh, Helichrysum, Melissa & Blue Tansy are On Sale Now 20% Off.

Myrrh Trees

The sap of Myrrh trees is collected, and the essential oil is distilled from this dried resin, leaving these amazing trees unharmed.

Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils have both been positively studied for their anti-cancer activity in laboratory research. In the study reviewed here, Frankincense and Myrrh oils were tested both together (to find any potential synergistic effect) and separately (to gauge their ‘strength’ against one another) on several human cancer cell lines using two different assays.

In the study “Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense”(1), breast, blood cell, cervical, skin and small-lung cancer cell lines received a wide range of concentrations in their medium of Frankincense and Myrrh, either together or individually. These cells were incubated and analysis performed on the oils’ ability to cause their death.

Results of Assay #1: Cell line IC50, μg/ml

Essential oil MCF-7 HepG2 Hela HS-1 A459
Myrrh 19.8 39.2 34.3 22.7 41.4
Frankincense 40.7 57.0 55.5 39.7 60.3
Mixture, 1:1 38.1 51.4 43.9 35.4 51.0

The Results: The table above summarizes the results of the first assay, which shows the concentration of each essential oil – and the 1:1 blend of the two – at which half of the cancer cells were killed.

The breast (MCF-7)  and skin cancer (HS-1) cell lines were found most susceptible to the anti-cancer activity of both Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils, whether the oils were used together or separately. Using the above data, the researchers selected the breast cancer cell line for the apoptosis assay. This evaluated each oil’s potential to cause apoptosis (natural cell death), as opposed to simply cause the death of the cancer cells – as was done with all five cell lines.

Frankincense and Myrrh Essential Oils Tested Together Against 5 Cancer Cell Lines

The graph above summarizes the results of this second assay: It was found that Myrrh essential oil was strongest in its ability to invoke apoptosis, a crucial feature in an anti-cancer agent. (Normally, cancerous cells are considered ‘immortal’, and it is this ‘immortality’ which allows them to grown and spread in the body.)

Thus, in each assay performed, Myrrh essential oil was found to have the stronger anti-cancer activity over both Frankincense alone, and a blend of Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils. This does not, of course, discount the large body of research noting Frankincense’s anti-cancer properties.

A note about the oils used: these were hydro-distilled essential oils. We carry a hydro-distilled Boswellia sacra (Sacred Frankincense), though most of our wildcrafted Frankincense and Myrrh oils are Supercritical CO2 extracts. This organically-certified distillation process happens at cooler temperatures than steam or hydro-distillation, and more importantly, it draws a greater range of heavier molecules into the oil. This is why CO2 extracted Frankincense & Myrrh oils are thicker than their steam and hydro-distilled counterparts. All the molecular constituents found in the steam and hydro-distillates are also found in the CO2 extracts, and then some. These heavier molecules are unique to these plants, and while it has not been ‘proven’ in research, much of the aromatherapy community considers them to have important therapeutic considerations. PLUS, we find these particular CO2 extracts smell nicer – smoother, deeper and richer.

This Research Prompts Us to Take A Different Look on Frankincense, Myrrh & Sandalwood Oils & Cancer…

Interestingly, we’d just published a post regarding the complementary ways in which Frankincense and Sandalwood essential oils destroy cancer cells. This research did not compare their relative strength, but did note that they each killed cancer cells via different, and therefore complementary, mechanisims – each affected a different set of the cancer cell’s DNA, leading to its death. It would be of course very interesting to see a similar study including Myrrh, and examine how these three oils may act together.


This is the full research abstract of the article reviewed here as published in Oncology Letters

1. Title: Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Published in: Oncology Letters. 2013 Oct;6(4):1140-1146. Authors: Chen Y1, Zhou C, Ge Z, Liu Y, Liu Y, Feng W, Li S, Chen G, Wei T.

The present study aimed to investigate the composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from two species, myrrh and frankincense, by hydrodistillation. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), 76 and 99 components were identified in the myrrh and frankincense essential oils, respectively, with the most abundant components, 2-Cyclohexen-1-one, 4-ethynyl-4-hydroxy-3,5,5-trimethyl- and n-Octylacetate, accounting for 12.01 and 34.66%, respectively. The effects of the two essential oils, independently and as a mixture, on five tumor cell lines, MCF-7, HS-1, HepG2, HeLa and A549, were investigated using the MTT assay. The results indicated that the MCF-7 and HS-1 cell lines showed increased sensitivity to the myrrh and frankincense essential oils compared with the remaining cell lines. In addition, the anticancer effects of myrrh were markedly increased compared with those of frankincense, however, no significant synergistic effects were identified. The flow cytometry results indicated that apoptosis may be a major contributor to the biological efficacy of MCF-7 cells.

the full article available here

You can find a wealth of research at PubMed.Gov. Enter search terms such as ‘frankincense and cancer’, or ‘lavender and sleep’ and you’ll see much of the published research in the medical field over the last ten years.

For over four thousand years, Frankincense and Myrrh have held a place in health and healing. According to aroma-therapists and herbalists, their applications are numerous. Both, too, have been used as spiritual aids by various cultures throughout the ages.

We enjoy them for their vast array of healing benefits, and most often for their lovely, complex aromas in any style of diffuser. To learn more about each oil, see our in-depth Frankincense and Myrrh pages.







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The Vast Research Melissa Essential Oil vs. Herpes Simplex Viruses, & Personal Experiences

Our New Stock of Sandalwood, Frankincense, Helichrysum, Melissa & Blue Tansy are On Sale Now 20% Off.

Organic Melissa officinalis, or 'Lemon Balm', grown the Balkans, from which the essential oil is distilled.

The Herpes simplex viruses afflict between 50% and 80% of the adult population in the United States. Whether oral, herpes, genital herpes, or shingles (Herpes zoster), traditional medical treatments can be expensive, time-consuming, and of limited efficacy. For the afflicted with a preference for natural remedies, essential oils are a thoroughly-researched alternative.

Melissa essential oil has been researched more than any other for its anti-viral action versus the herpes simplex I & II viruses. In every study we’ve reviewed, the essential oil has been shown to halt the spread of the virus, either through direct inactivation or prevention of the virus from passing between cells.

In a study published in Phytomedicine(1), the journal of the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy, at non-cytotoxic concentrations (levels that do not harm living cells), Melissa essential oil has reduced viral infectivity by between 97% & 98%.

Melissa and Drug Resistant Herpes Virus Strains: Melissa essential oil has also been found effective in preventing the Herpes Simplex virus cell attachment & infectivity even in Acylovir-resistant virus strains.(2)

We have organic Melissa essential oil from distillers in Germany and the Balkans.

Melissa essential oil is noted in research(3) to work at very low concentrations, perhaps 100 times lower than other compounds of similar molecular makeup. Further, the whole essential oil appears significantly more effective than any single molecule scientists identified as the primary ‘active constituent’.

Anecdotal reports from users of our Melissa are consistently positive for relief of HSV symptoms, particularly when used at the very onset of outbreaks. Some individuals report a near-eradication of the virus, preventing outbreaks from occurring except under the most extremely stressful situations on the immune system — meaning that they have fewer and less severe outbreaks since using the essential oil regularly. Here’s a great personal report from use of Ananda’s Melissa…

To address herpes simplex II outbreak symptoms, some individuals take one drop of the oil internally several times a day when they’re fatigued and/or feel an outbreak coming on. Others use very small amounts ’neat’ on the affected area (this depends significantly on the location of the outbreak – oral/genital – you get the idea), and some dilute it in Tamanu oil to ratio that is best tolerated by their skin (Tamanu appears to have anti-viral activity itself, as well as a profound ability to speed skin healing)  ~ any carrier oil will allow the powerful Melissa to do its work! Melissa essential oil is said to be able to be diluted to 1/100th (one drop Melissa essential oil in 99 drops carrier oil) and retain its efficacy.

Please note: while ingestion of Melissa essential oil is noted as non-toxic in the important guide ‘Essential Oil Safety’ (Tisserand & Young, 1995), in French aromatherapy practice (which uses oral administration as much as diffusion and topical application, and perhaps even more so when addressing a particular ailment), essential oils are only taken internally during the course of treatment – not forever! Please be responsible, be safe, and find a qualified practitioner to work with should you feel you need one.

True Melissa essential oil is naturally costly, as the yield from the plant is low (the plant by weight is less than 0.5% essential oil) ~ there are are many ‘rectified’ and blends made of other oils out there for less.

1. Study: Melissa officinalis oil affects infectivity of enveloped herpesviruses. Phytomedicine. 2008 Sep;15(9):734-40. Authors: Schnitzler, Schuhmacher A, Astani A, Reichling J.

Abstract: Extracts and essential oils of medicinal plants are increasingly of interest as novel drugs of antimicrobial and antiviral agents, since herpes simplex virus (HSV) might develop resistance to commonly used antiviral agents. Melissa officinalis essential oil was phytochemically examined by GC-MS analysis, its main constituents were identified as monoterpenaldehydes citral a, citral b and citronellal.

The antiviral effect of lemon balm oil, the essential oil of Melissa officinalis, on herpes simplex virus was examined. The inhibitory activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) was tested in vitro on monkey kidney cells using a plaque reduction assay. The 50% inhibitory concentration (IC50) of balm oil for herpes simplex virus plaque formation was determined at high dilutions of 0.0004% and 0.00008% for HSV-1 and HSV-2, respectively.

At noncytotoxic concentrations of the oil, plaque formation was significantly reduced by 98.8% for HSV-1 and 97.2% for HSV-2, higher concentrations of lemon balm oil abolished viral infectivity nearly completely. In order to determine the mode of antiviral action of this essential oil, time-on-addition assays were performed. Both herpesviruses were significantly inhibited by pretreatment with balm oil prior to infection of cells. These results indicate that Melissa oil affected the virus before adsorption, but not after penetration into the host cell, thus lemon balm oil is capable of exerting a direct antiviral effect on herpesviruses.

Considering the lipophilic nature of lemon balm essential oil, which enables it to penetrate the skin, and a high selectivity index, Melissa officinalis oil might be suitable for topical treatment of herpetic infections.

2. Study: Attachment and penetration of acyclovir-resistant herpes simplex virus are inhibited by Melissa officinalis extract. Phytotherapy Research. 2014 Oct;28(10):1547-52.  Authors: Astani A1, Navid MH, Schnitzler P.

Abstract: Medicinal plants are increasingly of interest as novel source of drugs for antiherpetic agents, because herpes simplex virus (HSV) might develop resistance to commonly used antiviral drugs. An aqueous extract of Melissa officinalis and the phenolic compounds caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid and rosmarinic acid were examined for their antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) acyclovir-sensitive and clinical isolates of acyclovir-resistant strains in vitro. When drugs were added during the intracellular replication of HSV-1 infected cells, no antiviral effect was observed by plaque reduction assay.

However, Melissa extract interacted directly with free viral particles of two acyclovir-resistant HSV strains at low IC50 values of 0.13 and 0.23 µg/mL and high selectivity indices of 2692 and 1522, respectively. The Melissa extract and rosmarinic acid inhibited HSV-1 attachment to host cells in a dose-dependent manner for acyclovir-sensitive and acyclovir-resistant strains. These results indicate that mainly rosmarinic acid contributed to the antiviral activity of Melissa extract. Penetration of herpes viruses into cells was inhibited by Melissa extract at 80% and 96% for drug-sensitive and drug-resistant viruses, respectively. Melissa extract exhibits low toxicity and affects attachment and penetration of acyclovir-sensitive and acyclovir-resistant HSVs in vitro.

3. Study: Melissa officinalis extract inhibits attachment of herpes simplex virus in vitro. Chemotherapy. 2012;58(1):70-7.  Authors: Astani A1, Reichling J, Schnitzler P.

Abstract: Extracts and essential oils of medicinal plants are increasingly of interest as novel drugs for antiherpetic agents, since the herpes simplex virus (HSV) might develop resistance to commonly used antiviral drugs.

METHODS: An aqueous extract of Melissa officinalis as well as phenolic extract compounds, i.e. caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid and rosmarinic acid were examined for their antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) in vitro.

RESULTS: When drugs were added to HSV-1-infected cells, no antiviral effect was observed as determined by plaque reduction assay and analysis of expression of viral protein ICP0. However, the Melissa extract demonstrated a high virucidal activity against HSV-1, even at very low concentrations of 1.5 μg/ml, whereas similar results for phenolic compounds were only achieved at 100 times higher concentrations. Besides the virucidal activity, the Melissa extract and rosmarinic acid inhibited HSV-1 attachment to host cells in a dose-dependent manner. These results indicate that rosmarinic acid was the main contributor to the antiviral activity of Melissa extract. However, the selectivity index of Melissa extract of 875 against HSV is superior to the selectivity indices of single constituents.

CONCLUSION: Melissa extract exhibits low toxicity, is virucidal and affects HSV-1 attachment to host cells in vitro.

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