introduction to herbalism: extracts

let’s learn all about EXTRACTS.

what is an extract? what are the types of extracts? why use certain menstrums and not others?

wait, what’s a menstrum?


what is a plant/herbal extract?

an extract is a substance that contains the beneficial constituents of the original plant material. what constituents are extracted entirely depends on the menstrum used.

>> everything discussed in this post will not technically be a true-to-definition ‘extract,’ but they are all in the same realm and will come up when you’re having to choose for DIYs.

what is a menstrum? 

simply put, a menstrum is a solvent. working with herbs, you will typically choose from water, alcohol, vinegar, glycerin, and/or a carrier oil.

you want your end ‘product’ to contain the constituents you intended. for that, you need to understand plant constituent solubility. not everything can be infused in oil!

constituent solubility

this is the underpinning to creating an effective extract!

knowing which constituents are what is absolutely necessary to avoid wasting precious plant material and/or creating misleading marketing hype.

this knowledge will keep you from fruitlessly trying to extract the tannins from white peony root in oil and drinking horsetail tea for the silica content (neither of which will ever work).

learning different constituents takes time and lots of research. i for one definitely do not know them all by heart. does anyone, though? maybe David Hoffman ūüėČ

here’s a rough guide on how to choose which menstrum would be best for your intended end result:

  • oil
    • essential oil components, fat-soluble vitamins, carotenoids, fatty acids, tocopherols, lipids
    • ex: wound healing and skin moisturizing properties of comfrey leaf (allantoin); anti-inflammatory properties in black cumin seed oil (thymoquinone)
  • water
    • tannins, saponins, lectins, terpenoids, mucilages, polypeptides, polyphenols¬†
    • ex: astringent property of witch hazel (tannins); antioxidant properties of butterfly pea flowers (anthocyanins – flavonoid)
  • vinegar
    • minerals and trace elements
    • not as potent as using an alcohol solvent, but suitable and extracts different constituents
    • ex: silica from horsetail; minerals in nettle
  • alcohol
    • carotenoids, tannins, terpenoids, sterols, alkaloids, polyphenols (like flavonoids)
    • ex: antioxidant properties of clove (eugenol)
  • glycerin
    • alcohol alternative, but unlike alcohol, it also extracts saponins
    • ex: oxidative stress scavenging properties of astragalus (saponins)

don’t know which to use and can’t find any published research? reach out to a local certified herbalist. can’t reach one? find research and/or reading material from a trusted source, like David Hoffman or Rosemary Gladstar. this book has been my favorite so far for initial reading and learning (i have both the ebook and hardcover copies, if that says anything).

types of plant material extracts and methods
  • essential oil
    • (please see my EO safety statements at the end of the blog post. to pique your interest in scrolling down – amongst other things, i included published Injury Reports and average documented injuries #s)
    • highly concentrated distilled plant material containing volatile chemical compounds (not actually an ‘oil’)
    • often used as aromatherapy
    • used in extremely small concentrations (ie – 1%)
    • ex: lavender, oregano, blue tansy, geranium
  • hydrosol, hydrolat, distillate
    • aqueous by-product of distilling essential oils that was once thrown away by manufacturers as waste
    • ‘low risk’ plant water (suitable for sensitive skin)
    • ex: rose hydrosol, cucumber hydrosol
  • infusion
    • can be oil- or water-based
    • extracts from softer plant parts, like petals and leaves
    • water-based infusions usually involve letting plant materials sit in hot water for a certain amount of time before straining (aka, tea)
    • oil-based infusions require 4 to 6 weeks to be properly made but utilize the same softer plant parts (we’ll have a post on this)
    • ex: water-based – peppermint tea, chamomile tea
    • ex: oil-based – comfrey leaf oil (skin), rosemary oil (scalp)
  • ¬†decoction
    • concentrated aqueous preparation of plant material made by boiling and then steeping (we’ll have a post on this, too)
    • typically used with tenuous plant materials like roots, stems, seeds, and barks, where a normal tea preparation will not suffice
    • not suitable for delicate petals and leaves
    • ex: witch hazel; valerian ‘tea’ (because it’s made with the root and rhizome)
  • maceration
    • used for soaking very delicate plant materials where the menstrum (oil/fat) is used cold
    • also includes herb-infused honey
    • ex: monoi de tahiti oil is a polynesian-decreed maceration of tahitian gardenias in unrefined coconut oil; it’s not a unique cold-pressed oil like hemp seed oil or olive oil
    • ex: garlic honey
  • CO2
    • supercritical oil extraction using carbon dioxide
    • allows for higher terpene content
    • contains both the carrier and essential oil constituents of the original plant material
    • currently considered the cleanest extraction method for plant oils
    • effective in smaller concentrations as compared to a cold-pressed carrier oil
    • ex: chia seed CO2, black cumin seed CO2
  • CO2 total
    • supercritical oil extraction using carbon dioxide
    • creates an original “herb-like” extract that contains the oil, volatile essential oil constituents, waxes, and resins, all in one
    • more paste-like than a CO2 extract
    • effective in smaller concentrations as compared to a cold-pressed carrier oil
    • ex: calendula CO2 total, raspberry seed CO2 total
  • absolute
    • alcohol-extracted
    • only used for perfumery
    • ex: violet leaf absolute, rose absolute
  • tincture
    • herbal medicine extract using alcohol as the menstrum
    • ex: anxiety blends, digestive blends (here is a good source; not an affiliate)
  • glycerite
    • herbal tincture using glycerin as the solvent/menstrum instead of alcohol
    • can be taken internally as herbal medicine
      • better for kids and those avoiding alcohol
    • ‘enhanced’ option for topical use formulations instead of plain glycerin
    • ex: astragalus, echinacea (here is a good source; not an affiliate)
  • liniment
    • rubbing alcohol extracted tincture
    • for topical use only
    • ex: arnica for bruising


whew – hopefully that wasn’t too much.

NEXT STEPS: not only should you be familiar with your constituent solubility, but you also have to know the best extraction method, based on what part of the plant you’re using, what constituents you want to utilize, and what menstrum you’re using. think: cold or hot; fast or slow.¬†that will be our next post!




i could make a whole post about this… should i?

  • *always, always check contraindications and usage guidelines before use with a registered aromatherapist!*
  • not all are safe for use
  • none are water-soluble
    • oil and water don’t mix. this applies to dropping EOs in your bathtub.
  • never apply to skin undiluted
    • causes skin irritation and sensitivity, up to and including hives, swelling, inflammation, and burns
    • caveat: the soles of the feet can be okay because the skin is so thick, but it’s still not advised unless under the supervision of a registered aromatherapist
  • can be dangerous when diffused
    • 1. for extended periods of time, 2. around children, the elderly, and those who are sick, and 3. around pets (their livers cannot metabolize the constituents, cats especially)
    • for example – wintergreen, peppermint, and eucalyptus are toxic to children and should not be diffused around them
    • there are also some EOs that should never be diffused for any reason
  • never ingest¬†¬†
    • “essential oils” are naturally found in raw plant materials, so when, for example, you put oregano on your pasta, you consume the oregano EO. but distilled essential oils are so highly concentrated and completely different from what you would ever encounter in nature.
    • to be very clear – there is no such thing as a “food grade” EO. EOs do not belong under your tongue nor in your water bottles. this is often dangerously marketed by MLMs and bloggers. this can, and HAS, lead to mucous membrane irritation, migraines, ulcers, hives, seizures, organ failure, and hospitalization. let’s not forget that EOs also interact with pharmaceuticals!
    • the only exception to this “never ingest” rule is if you are under the direct care and supervision of a REGISTERED aromatherapist, who has been through countless hours of formal study, clinicals, and passed a rigorous exam.
      • from Tisserand’s website (aka the most renowned and educated EO human we have today) – “Do not ingest essential oils unless advised to do so by a practitioner who is qualified/licensed to prescribe essential oils in this way.¬†Taking essential oils orally engages many areas of risk that other modes do not. […] mucous membrane tissue is more sensitive than skin, yet our gut only sends out pain signals when erosion has progressed quite far. Essential oils are widely used in food flavorings, and GRAS status for many essential oils applies to food flavoring use, but it specifically excludes medicinal use.”
      • here is the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) statement, taken from their website – “AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal).”
  • please be cautious of MLMs
    • they advise EO use in an unsafe and misleading manner, and employ untrained/unregistered distributors advising harmful methods of use (like undiluted application and ingestion). i don’t think the individual distributors do this out of malice by any means, they just haven’t been properly educated.
    • they advertise their EOs are “therapeutic grade,” which doesn’t actually exist! it was completely made up and trademarked by the MLMs themselves. genius marketing, though.
  • please take the time to look at Injury Reports!
    • here’s 2014, 2015a, 2015b, 2016, 2017, and 2018. they will show documented cases of EO injuries from being applied undiluted and from being ingested.
    • look at the below chart to how much doterra deviates from average injury rates. WOW!Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 1.19.03 PM.png


disclaimer Рthese statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. anything presented here or on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. i am not a medical doctor. i will not advise on herbal remedies for ailments nor will i advise on herbal safety. your choices are your own.