How Does CBD Extraction Work? Answering Your Questions

  • CBD
CBD extraction

If you’re dialed into the naturopathic health world, you’ve almost certainly heard of CBD. But what is CBD oil, and how does it get made in the first place?

There are a number of different CBD extraction techniques manufacturers can use. Read on to learn more about these processes and how each of them work.

What Is CBD?

Before we dive into different CBD extraction methods, let’s talk some about what CBD is. Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is an extract of the cannabis plant. In fact, CBD is one of dozens of different cannabinoids that make up the cannabis plant.

One of the most important things to know about CBD is that, unlike pure marijuana, it will not get you high. This is because it does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. THC is the psychoactive compound in marijuana that gets you high; good-quality CBD oil will not contain any THC and so can’t get you high.

What Is CBD Extraction?

When manufacturers are harvesting CBD oil, one of the tricks is to purify it so it doesn’t contain THC or other unwanted compounds from the rest of the cannabis plant.

You can’t simply grind up the plant and turn it into oil if you want to get pure CBD (though there are some processes that do exactly that). Instead, you have to extract only the CBD, along with any non-psychoactive compounds you want to include, from the marijuana plant.

Extraction is the process of isolating and purifying CBD oil from marijuana plants. There are a variety of different ways to approach this, and each yields different results. Some may include different compounds or even low levels of THC.

Solvent Extraction

One of the most common methods of CBD extraction is by using various solvents. During this process, the marijuana plants get soaked or washed with a specific solvent.

The solvent pulls out the CBD and other desirable compounds; popular solvents may include food-grade ethanol, butane, propane, or other similar hydrocarbons

Once the solvent has absorbed the CBD oil and other compounds, it will move on to the purification process. In the case of ethanol, the mixture may be distilled, leaving behind the CBD oil and its connected compounds. Solvents like butane or propane may require different removal methods, possibly going through multiple purification steps to ensure only pure CBD oil is left behind.

Pros of Solvent Extraction

One of the primary benefits of solvent extraction is that it’s a fairly accessible way to harvest CBD oil from marijuana plants. Unlike some of the other methods we’ll discuss, it doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment or chemicals.

You just need a clean solvent, a still, and time to use this extraction method.

Solvent extraction is also one of the more efficient ways to get CBD oil from marijuana plants. The solvents used are excellent at locking onto specific desired compounds and drawing them out from the plant. Hydrocarbons in particular can even retain some of the original flavor and aroma of the plant, an important factor for CBD connoisseurs.

Cons of Solvent Extraction

However, like any extraction method, solvent extraction has its downfalls.

For one thing, it can be dangerous if not handled properly, both for the manufacturer and for the consumer. Many of the solvents used in this process are flammable, and the smallest spark in the manufacturing facility could lead to a dangerous fire.

You also have to be absolutely sure that none of the solvent remains in the final CBD oil product. No one wants to drink propane or butane, and improperly purified CBD oil could be harmful to consumers. These solvents can also be a little too good at their jobs, drawing out chlorophyll and other compounds that give CBD oil an unpleasant taste. 

Olive Oil Extraction 

Another popular extraction method is called olive oil extraction, and as you might guess, it uses olive oil as a “natural solvent.”

This method is not used commercially because of the high cost associated with it – even cheap olive oil costs 14 cents an ounce. By comparison, ethanol costs about a penny per ounce, making it much more affordable.

Olive oil extraction begins with manufacturers heating the raw hemp to a certain temperature to begin activating CBD and the other desired compounds. They then add the heated hemp to olive oil and heat it again to extract the CBD oil.

Unlike propane, ethanol, and other such solvents, olive oil does not evaporate, and so the final product is a CBD-infused olive oil, rather than pure CBD oil.

Pros of Olive Oil Extraction

Proponents of olive oil extraction like the natural element that it brings to CBD extraction processes. You don’t have to worry as much about purifying potentially dangerous chemical solvents out of your CBD oil.

Olive oil is perfectly safe, and some people view the final result as healthier since it sticks to consumable materials only.

Olive oil extraction is also even more accessible for home manufacturers than solvent extraction. You don’t have to worry about the same safety issues, since olive oil isn’t as flammable as ethanol and the like.

You also don’t have to have a still or other such equipment – you just need olive oil and a heat source. 

Cons of Olive Oil Extraction

Aside from the expense aspect, many commercial manufacturers choose not to use olive oil extraction due to the nature of the final product.

CBD-infused olive oil is much more perishable than pure CBD oil, and there isn’t a great way to separate the two once the oil is infused. This oil may only have a shelf life of a few weeks before it turns rancid. 

Olive oil extraction also isn’t as precise as solvent extraction since it creates a solution, rather than a pure extract. You may wind up with some unwanted compounds that give the oil a strange flavor or aroma, and you may even get THC in your oil.

And because you can’t be sure quite how much CBD made it into your olive oil, you may have to use a higher dose, and precise dosing is almost impossible. 

Steam Distillation

Steam distillation is a good middle ground for people who want to end up with pure CBD oil, but who don’t like the chemical nature of solvent extraction.

This method was originally developed to extract essential oils, and it should come as no surprise that it works well for CBD oil, too. As the name suggests, steam distillation uses only heated water to extract CBD oil from marijuana plants. 

During steam distillation, water is heated to a boiling point, and the resulting steam rises up through the hemp plants, pulling out CBD and other desired compounds using heat and moisture. The CBD-laden steam travels up into a still, where it condenses back into liquid water and oil. From there, you can separate the water from the oil and end up with pure CBD.

Pros of Steam Distillation

One of the big benefits of steam distillation is that it’s entirely safe, both from a production and a consumption standpoint. There are no solvents involved to pose chemical risks, and you wind up with pure CBD oil, eliminating dosing concerns.

Boiling water is safe, so long as you don’t spill it on yourself, and separating the water and oil is a straightforward, simple task.

Steam distillation is also about as cheap as it comes for CBD extraction. Water is cheap, and you don’t need any expensive equipment or solvents to use this method. You will need some sort of distillation equipment, but building your own still is a simple enough matter, making it a good option for people just breaking into the market.

Cons of Steam Distillation

Before you jump into steam distillation, however, you should be aware that it does have some downsides. Many manufacturers don’t like to use it because this method is far less efficient than solvent extraction. You only get the compounds that the steam pulls out, and a lot of good CBD gets left behind in the plant matter you throw away.

Some CBD compounds may also be negatively impacted by exposure to the levels of heat involved with steam extraction. The compounds in steam-extracted CBD reach temperatures of more than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and some of them are heat-sensitive. These compounds may get damaged during extraction and may not be as effective in the final product.

CO2 Extraction

One of the more complex methods of CBD extraction uses carbon dioxide, or CO2, to pull out cannabinoids. This process involves three steps with three different specialized chambers. In the first one, carbon dioxide gets converted from a gas to a liquid using low temperatures and extremely high pressure. 

Once the carbon dioxide is in its liquid state, it slowly gets heated up while remaining under high pressures until it reaches a supercritical point – a phase somewhere between liquid and gas.

When it hits this supercritical phase, the CO2 gets pumped into a second chamber which holds the marijuana plants. Here, it pulls CBD and other desired compounds out of the plants before the oil-CO2 mixture gets pumped into a third chamber, where the CO2 evaporates away. 

Pros of CO2 Extraction 

CBD manufacturers love CO2 extraction for its precision and efficiency. The supercritical carbon dioxide is excellent at pulling CBD out of the plant material, maximizing the amount of oil you get from the plant material. And because this process doesn’t use high levels of heat, it doesn’t disturb the temperature-sensitive compounds in CBD.

CO2 extraction is also safer than solvent extraction, since it doesn’t involve any flammable chemicals. It’s also better for the environment, given that it doesn’t produce any chemical waste and it uses less energy than some methods. And because CO2 extraction only uses carbon dioxide to pull out the CBD oil, it’s natural.

Cons of CO2 Extraction

Of course, the major downside of CO2 extraction is that it tends to have a high up-front cost. It should come as no surprise that equipment capable of converting CO2 to a liquid and back again costs quite a bit. This process is only realistic for professional CBD oil manufacturers to use.

CO2 extraction equipment is also very sophisticated and requires extensive training to use. Even for startup manufacturers, the cost of training employees on how to use the equipment can be daunting. And if something on the machine breaks, repairs can be complex and expensive. 

Get the Best CBD Products 

CBD oil is one of the hottest products on the market, and there are a number of ways it gets made. From the simpler olive oil extraction and steam distillation to solvent and CO2 extraction, manufacturers can get their CBD through a variety of techniques.

Which CBD extraction technique you choose to consume may depend on your personal preferences and availability.

If you’d like to find the best CBD products on the market, check out the rest of our site at Etanicals. Our objective is to provide you with the highest-quality botanical products on the market. Shop our products today and get the best lab-tested, most potent, and most powerful option available!


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