Monday, February 15, 2010

Question: What exactly is an extract?

In a comment in this post, p asks...Really enjoying your discussion of extracts! Maybe you mentioned this earlier, but is there a standard definition of what an extract is? Are they typically water-extracts by infusion (hot water or cold?), then dehydrated into a powder (under low pressure so no heat applied?)? Or similar with alcohol instead of water? Or are they dehydrated hydrosols? So many ways to get the goodies out of plants and then remove the solvent! Is green tea extract, in particular, just powdered green tea, i.e. matcha? So not really an extract at all? So confused!

It is a confusing topic, and the answer is there really isn't a definition of what constitutes an extract. You'll see witch hazel extract, hydrosol, liquid, and juice, but they can all be the same thing.

The definition I have seen most is an extract is generally a distillation of the good things inside a botanical thing. (Wow, that was clear!) So for instance, say you buy some strawberry extract. It would be a powdered version full of polyphenols, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals, and so on in a purified and water soluble form. It could also come in a liquid form - water, glycerin, propylene glycol, or alcohol - and generally contains a preservative. They can be extracted in different ways, and it depends on whether the extracted stuff is heat sensitive, soluble in water or alcohol, and so on.

When it comes to things we see in our kitchen - rosemary, sage, green tea - the extracts differ in that they have been deodorized and standardized in some way. Green tea extract might contain 10% caffeine or rosemary 5% rosmarinic acid. (Always check to see what the standard is for the extract you are purchasing to make sure it contains the good stuff you want!) Adding a powdered extract is a way of guaranteeing you have the good stuff you want in the products you make.

In theory, you could brew up a pot of green tea or get the rosemary out of your pantry, but they would contribute smell and might cause spoilage. The extracts make it easier to add these great botanical ingredients to your products - if you added papaya to a toner, you'd have a horrible microbial infested mess in a week or less (even with preservatives). I mean, think about how long a crushed up apple would last on your counter! Instead, add some powdered papaya extract to a toner, and you have yourself a lovely creation suitable for normal to oily skin types.

And no, I don't know how some companies - not mentioning any names - can put "fresh" fruit into their products without spoilage or preservation (for the anhydrous products). I suspect extracts are the magic ingredient...


p said...

Hi Susan! Thanks so much for creating a post in response to my question!! Your blog really is incredible - you have two full pages of posts since when I last checked in, so prolific! Can't wait to catch up. :)

But re extracts, I was worried that would be the answer! At least if you know how the extract is made (for starters, what the solvent is), you can guess which constituents of the plants you're getting... I've been working with James Green's The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook - he discusses general principles of what is soluble in what... Like take, for example, saponins - they're soluble in water but not that soluble in full-strength alcohol, so if you (hypothetically) found a soapnut extract that was made by soaking soapnuts in alcohol and then evaporating off the alcohol to get a powder, that extract wouldn't be very soapy! So if you wanted to use your "soapnut extract" to wash your hair, it wouldn't work very well. Or alkaloids, which are often the really medicinally potent compounds in plants - they're not so soluble in water, so an extract made using water as the solvent won't be so great if the alkaloids are doing the work.

And sometimes there's no "right way" to extract a given plant, so it's not even clear what the extract *should* contain - sometimes you want resins, so you use alcohol, and sometimes you want saponins, so you use water, you know? Or mucilage, or tannins, or resins... all different solubility in different solvents. Like comfrey root - if you make a water-extract, it's all mucilaginous and slippery, which is really soothing for irritated skin - but if you infuse it in oil, you get something that's great for bruises but isn't mucilaginous at all! Should "comfrey extract" contain the mucilage? Who knows?

I'm hesitant to use extracts in my crafting, because I don't really know what chemical compounds, and consequently what actions, of the plants I'm getting. Like maybe the whole plant is good for a condition, but a particular extract, because of the way it's made, won't be of much use for that problem?

I do a lot of extracting myself using whole plants and dilute alcohol and vinegar and stuff like that, like Green describes, extracting differently depending on what I want. It's cumbersome, and I sure would like to use a good-quality powdered extract sometimes! Maybe I just need to find better sources, ones that really tell you how the extract is made and what classes of chemicals the extract drew out of the plant (and what classes of compounds it left behind)? That'd make me feel a lot better, anyway! Maybe I'm overthinking the issue, but I don't think so! But maybe that's a symptom of overthinking... :)

I truly appreciate it if you've read this far!! :)


still learning said...

Hey Susan,

Do extracts and oils share the same composition or vary greatly between the two? I would like to use burdock extract in my conditioner but I found the composition makeup for burdock oil. I find the compositions of oils a lot more frequently than extracts. Here is the website where I found the composition:, just in case if you wanted to check it out. Thanks.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi still learning. At times, the composition can vary quite a lot and other times they are quite similar. I realize this is a wishy-washy answer, but it depends on the various chemicals found in the oils and extracts. Extracts tend to have more of the water soluble chemicals whereas oils tend to have more of the oil soluble chemicals. For instance, you're unlikely to find a ton of essential fatty acids in the powdered extract, but you'll find them in the oil. So the answer is - they can be quite similar but quite dissimilar based on the specific benefits and chemicals you seek.

As a note, I've never come across burdock in anything except Dandelion & Burdock pop from England, so I can't offer any more information on it!

still learning said...

Just in case you’re interested here is some information on burdock root.

Anonymous said...

Well, can extracts be deactivated like preservatives? With products you mix things together but unintentionally deactivate another ingredient. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where to buy a variety of "organic" or "pure" extracts in the U.S online? I keep running into websites that don't tell what products the countries are made in, provide no information about the company, etc. Thanks.

The Lazy Composter said...

I'm on the same page with the powdered extracts, very curious. Having worked with herbs for many years, I know how quickly most plants lose their potency once powdered, and usually prefer to preserve them differently depending on which constituents I want to extract. So I want more information on the process before I pay for a finely powdered "extract" to find out what the voodoo is that gives them this name. I always prefer to grind herbs myself before creating something with them. So any additional information on what this process is, would be greatly appreciated.

Mya Symons said...

Hi Susan. I have two questions I was hoping you could help me with. I am trying to add an extract to my shampoo and conditioner but I can't figure out whether to add it to my oil phase or water phase. The extract is Saw Palmetto Berry extract with 30% alcohol. There are no other ingredients in the extract.

Also, I read your blog a lot and get much of my DIY information from it. I would like to make a donation, but I don't know how. How do we do that?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Lazy Composter! I don't know about the process for each company's extracts, so you'd have to ask your supplier or ask them to provide more information from the manufacturers. I'm afraid I can't make some kind of blanket comment about this.

Hi Mya! I would add it to either the heated water phase or the cool down phase. What does the supplier recommend? Here's a post on when to add various ingredients that might be useful.

If you want more information, check out this post on my groups and look to the right of the blog to see the "donate" button. I'll send you out an e-book if you donate $20 or more to my programs (look to the right for more information on this!)

Christy said...

Hi Susan I'm a huge fan. My homemade extracts are made with 100% grain alcohol. Could/would I add them to the water or CD phase?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Christy! I'm glad you like the page! :-)

It would depend if your ingredients were heat sensitive. If they aren't, then add them to the heated water phase. If they are, add them to the cool down phase. Alcohol is volatile and can boil off, so it might be better in the cool down phase.

Check out this post found in the FAQ for more information