CBD Oil Extraction

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How is CBD extracted from the hemp plant, and can you make your own CBD-infused oil at home? Read our CBD extraction guide to find out. Extract the full spectrum of CBD When prioritising the best CBD products, it’s important that each step of the process is carried out with care and precision. You can grow high-quality hemp, with a large percentage of cannabidiol (CBD), but all of that goes to waste without the proper extraction techniques. So, that ra

CBD Extraction: CO2, Steam Distillation, and More

We’d like to thank CBDfx and Natural Hemp Solutions for supplying us with images of the processes used in their labs.

Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is an organic compound that is found in the cannabis plant, with the flowers of the hemp plant being the richest source. And in order for CBD to be added to a wide array of consumer products—think CBD oil, lotions, topicals, or CBD vape juice—the first step that manufacturers need to take is to extract it from the plant.

This guide will present the various CBD extraction methods, essentially explaining how full-spectrum CBD oil is obtained from the CBD strains of cannabis. Some of these methods have been used in various industries for decades or even centuries, far before CBD oil was even a thing. Examples include essential oil extraction, decaffeination (and caffeine extraction) of coffee beans, and even beer production. In all cases, the idea is the same: how to extract a valuable resource out of plant material.

If you are interested in the ins and outs of CBD extraction from cannabis strains high in CBD, here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used CBD methods.

Supercritical CO2 extraction

The word “supercritical” sounds real fancy, but it is actually a term that’s very commonly used in chemistry. Simply put, a substance in its supercritical state possesses characteristics of both a gas and a liquid.

When supercritical CO2 is used in CBD extraction, its gas properties allow it to effuse through all plant matter, while its liquid properties allow it to extract compounds efficiently. The exact process varies, and some labs start the extraction with liquid CO2 while others start with CO2 in gas form. In both cases, manufacturers add CO2 in a chamber that includes plant material and use the exact amounts of pressure and temperature needed for CO2 to reach its supercritical state. At this point, and with the help of some additional heat, CO2 acts as a solvent and causes the plant material to separate, carrying with it all the essential compounds. Once done, CO2 is separated from the organic compounds, and manufacturers are left with full-spectrum CBD oil.

While it requires qualified personnel and there are higher costs associated with the equipment needed for supercritical CO2 extraction, it is by far the most efficient and quickest method to extract CBD. It is also environmentally friendly due to the limited amount of emissions, and safer than extractions that use certain solvents as CO2 is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA.

  • The most efficient method
  • CO2 is regarded as generally safe
  • Quick (once everything is in place)
  • Environmentally safe
  • Expensive (equipment costs)
  • Needs qualified personnel

Steam distillation

Steam distillation is a centuries-old process that’s commonly used to distill alcohol as well as extract essential oils from organics. The process is much less complicated than CO2 CBD extraction. First, plant matter is introduced in a distillation tank. With the use of water and heat, the produced steam carries oils to the top of the tank, and it is then passed through a condenser, resulting in a mix of water and oil. The mix then goes through further distillation to separate water and oil, and the result is full-spectrum CBD oil.

While this CBD extraction process is much simpler, there are some downfalls. It is more prone to error, much less efficient, and may potentially damage part of the essential oil profile of the plant. Due to these reasons, steam distillation is very rarely used to extract CBD nowadays, but many labs still use some type of distillation in the process of isolating CBD from full-spectrum oil.

  • Relatively easy to perform
  • Low cost
  • Not very efficient
  • Not consistent
  • Resulting CBD oil is less potent

Solvent extraction

This method is also centuries old and is somewhat of a middle point between CO2 extraction and steam distillation when it comes to complexity and efficiency. It bears many similarities to CO2 extraction, albeit without the advanced methodology that’s behind the “supercritical” part.

In layman’s terms, this type of extraction involves mixing plant material with some type of solvent that will carry the essential oils given the right conditions and enough time. Some of the most popular natural solvents are alcohol (ethanol) and natural plant oils (including olive oil), with alcohol being much more efficient in dissolving the plant’s compounds. But due to the higher cost associated with ethanol, many manufacturers choose to go with synthetic solvents (hydrocarbons like butane or hexane), which may end up in lower quality, or even CBD oil that’s unfit for consumption if they’re not removed properly from the final product.

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Solvent extraction is a delicate CBD extraction process and its pros and cons, as well as the consistency of the resulting oil, varies greatly depending on the solvent used. It can be more efficient than steam distillation if performed properly, but it carries a lot of risk and most labs choose CO2 extraction if they can afford it.

  • More efficient than steam distillation
  • Can be performed with natural oils
  • Relatively safe if natural oils are used
  • Varied results in final product
  • Not as efficient as CO2 extraction
  • Synthetic solvents are dangerous to handle
  • Synthetic solvents need to be completely removed from final product

How to extract CBD at home

At this point, you may be wondering if there’s any way you can extract CBD at the comfort of your own home. The short answer is “yes”, but it really depends on how willing you are to do further research. The following is not going to be a real step-by-step guide, but it can serve as a starting point and give you some basic guidelines.

Olive oil extraction

Possibly the simplest way to extract CBD oil, as it only requires some CBD-rich bud, olive oil, and some basic kitchen equipment to ensure a steady supply of heat. If you’ve ever made cannabutter, then technically you have already utilized this method before. The only difference in this case, is that you are using hemp and olive oil—but olive oil can easily be swapped out for the oil or butter of your choice. This includes regular butter, coconut oil, hempseed oil, etc.

The first step for olive oil extraction is decarboxylation, i.e. activation of the compounds of plant material with the use of heat (there’s more info in the following section). Trimmed hemp flower in an oven tray heated between 240 and 280°F (115-135°C) for up to an hour should do the trick. Once this step is taken care of, the resulting activated cannabis is mixed with olive oil and heated at low temperature (ideally in a double boiler) for around two hours. The only thing left to do at this point is to use a filter to strain the mixture and separate the oil from the plant material. The result: CBD-infused olive oil.

While this is the easiest and least risky way to extract CBD oil, it is certainly not the most efficient. As with most DIY projects, there’s always room for user error. But even if you do everything right, you are going to sacrifice a large part of the organic compounds of the plant and you will produce less potent oil than a lab would. For these reasons, extracting CBD at home is an interesting experiment, but if you want to reap all the benefits of CBD it is advisable to get it from a reputable source instead.

Activation and purification

While technically not steps of CBD extraction, activation of active organic compounds and purification of CBD oil are two processes that are very important in CBD production. The most common methods used for these purposes are decarboxylation and winterization.

Decarboxylation

The active organic compounds of the cannabis plant come in their acidic forms. In order to go from THCA and CBDA to THC and CBD, manufacturers need to apply heat and decarboxylate the compounds—that’s the lab equivalent to lighting up a joint. Heat removes a carbon molecule from the organic compounds and turns them into their active counterparts.

Decarboxylation may take place before or after the extraction, and the exact methodology followed is highly dependent on this choice. But it is an essential part of the CBD oil production process, as non-activated compounds have little to no effect on the user.

Winterization

While not as essential as carboxylation, winterization is a very common process that ensures that the final product of the extraction is as pure as possible. Simply put, the process of winterization employs solvents (usually ethanol) and low temperatures to ensure that lipids and other impurities are removed from an oil extract. This takes place as one of the final steps before full spectrum oil is obtained.

Winterization is not always performed, but it is a very important process when the final product is intended to be vaped. Some terpenes and other compounds are also filtered out during this process, but many manufacturers choose to add terpenes to their CBD oil after winterization.

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CBD extraction: the takeaway

These are the most commonly used CBD extraction methods and, as expected, each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The main takeaway from this guide should be that the reason you may have seen “supercritical CO2 extraction” in ads and promotions is not just that it sounds cool (although it does!) Simply put, CO2 extraction is by far the cleanest and most efficient CBD extraction method—and a no-brainer for any lab that can actually afford it.

This doesn’t mean that all CO2-extracted CBD products are better by definition. But if a lab invests in the equipment that’s required for the most technically demanding extraction method, chances are that they know what they are doing. When in doubt, check lab tests, and always choose third-party tested CBD products from reputable sources.

Which CBD oil extraction method is the best?

When prioritising the best CBD products, it’s important that each step of the process is carried out with care and precision. You can grow high-quality hemp, with a large percentage of cannabidiol (CBD), but all of that goes to waste without the proper extraction techniques. So, that raises the question: which method is best?

At Vitality CBD we often discuss the importance of choosing a quality CBD oils, and how premium extraction techniques contribute to a better product. To truly understand why high-end extraction methods matter, let’s first explore how CBD is synthesised.

What is CBD?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of over a hundred different cannabinoids found in plants from the Cannabis family. The most famous of these cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the one that induces the “stoned” effects typically associated with recreational Cannabis use. On the other hand, studies have repeatedly shown that CBD does not get you high.

Currently we know that when introduced to your body, CBD interacts with your pre-existing endocannabinoid system. Understanding that the human body already generates cannabinoids that bear a great similarity to CBD in structure and function is step one in understanding why CBD oil is proving so popular.

Cannabidiol is actually synthesised in the trichomes of the female hemp plant, alongside the other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. The need to create CBD oils that retain CBD and other cannabinoids whilst removing the THC is part of why extraction techniques are so important.

How do you extract CBD?

When we extract the best CBD, the end goal is to harvest it in a concentrated form so that it can then be mixed into CDD e-liquids, CBD oils and CBD topicals. That’s why we use a strain of hemp called Cannabis sativa L., renowned for its high CBD levels.

As we’ve mentioned, CBD is actually a constituent in a vast sea of hemp compounds, so extraction isn’t as easy as it first may seem. However, all of these techniques were first developed for other purposes, like extracting essential oils from flowers.

At Vitality CBD we use two different techniques specifically (typically in conjunction) but we’ll discuss all the options available, and how they affect the end result. As always, if you have any further questions drop us an email on our contact page.

CO2 extractions of cannabidiol

The most expensive and most popular CBD extraction method (particularly amongst manufacturers offering a premium product) involves using CO2. This is because it provides a clean, precise extraction that massively reduces the contamination potential of other methods.

The applications of CO2 extractions stem far beyond just hemp products. CO2 extractions are used to decaffeinate coffee beans, to extract the nicotine from loose-leaf tobacco, and to precisely extract spices and flavours.

CO2 extractions can be split into supercritical and subcritical categories (there’s also ‘mid-critical’, a halfway point between the two), but supercritical is the most common, and the one we use at Vitality CBD for all of our CBD products. We’ll breakdown the differences between each below.

The shared methodology between the two essentially entails running pressurised carbon dioxide across the hemp plant to strip away the desired phytochemicals (literally: plant chemicals). When treated to certain conditions, CO2 actually acts like a solvent, without any of the potential side-effects.

Supercritical CBD extraction

Starting with the liquid form of CO2, a supercritical method involves increasing the temperature and pressure of the CO2 until it becomes ‘supercritical’. This means that the CO2 has properties of both gas and liquid: it is able to fill a container like a gas, whilst also having the density of a liquid.

In this supercritical state, CO2 acts as a solvent when applied to the hemp plant without denaturing any of the compounds. The need to maintain the right pressure and temperature explains why CO2 extractions use expensive equipment, resulting in the best CBD.

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Once the supercritical CO2 has been passed through the hemp extract, the resultant solution is passed into a separator to be (you guessed it) separated. The CO2 is stored to be used again, whilst the desired hemp compounds are removed and taken to the next step in the process.

Subcritical CBD extraction

The immediate distinction with a subcritical hemp extraction is the lower temperature and lower pressure. As a result, the process takes longer, but it also further reduces the chances of denaturing the more delicate compounds, like terpenes.

Whilst the yield is smaller than with supercritical, it also allows for lighter oils and other sensitive compounds that might otherwise be dismantled in the process to be extracted. However, the trade off is that heavier, more resinous material will typically get left behind.

Solvent CBD extractions

Probably the cheapest and easiest of all the methods available (you could easily do it at home without buying any specialist equipment. not that we recommend this), solvent extractions are also generally considered to be the most likely to cause issues with the end product.

A solvent extraction involves running the solvent in question—typically either butane or ethanol—to the hemp plant matter. This strips the cannabinoids into the liquid, which is then evaporated so as to leave behind a concentrated oily residue with the hemp compounds in.

The main problem is that the solvent not only removes the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, but also inadvertently extracts chlorophyll. This occasionally leads to unwanted side effects, and will cause the taste to become much more bitter.

Likewise, the compounds that the solvent does remove can either be denatured, or just degraded entirely during the extraction process. As such, whilst it’s the cheapest and easiest method to do on a mass scale, there’s a reason why many companies are phasing it out. When you buy CBD with us, you can be confident it’s not been treated this way.

Olive oil CBD extraction

An olive oil extraction is most commonly done by home brew enthusiasts looking to create their own CBD oils. Though near any oil can be used in this process, olive oil is preferred due to its masking flavour and versatility.

The first step is to either grind the hemp very finely, or to decarboxylate it, a complex word which here means: heat it at a certain temperature. Through this process, several of the cannabinoids have their chemical make-up converted, making some more potent and others easier to extract.

After the initial heating, you then heat the hemp matter further in the olive oil, a process by which the compounds are extracted to the oil. Whilst this is perfect for home users, it results in a low yield and a highly perishable product that isn’t practical on a mass scale.

Dry ice CBD extraction

Whilst the name alone suggests high-tech scientific experimentation, this is another method that can be performed at home (assuming you have access to dry ice). It also benefits from the lack of denaturing solvents, resulting in a cleaner and purer end product.

The process involves flash-freezing the loosely chopped hemp extract, and then sieving the frozen trichomes through a mesh bag. These in turn can then be used as the basis for your cannabidiol oil—it’s really that simple.

Since this is a relatively haphazard and difficult to measure method, the quality is not always ensured depending on how well the hemp is frozen and how vigorously it is sieved. However, if you can get safe access to dry-ice this is a clean alternative to solvents for creating your own CBD oil.

Which CBD extraction method is best?

At Vitality CBD, we would recommend either of the two mentioned CO2 extraction techniques, depending on what compounds you want to prioritise extracting. All of the others have their uses, of course, but CO2 is the best all-rounder.

Learn more about CBD

As mentioned earlier, grasping why a clean and accurate extraction is important is premised on understanding just what is being extracted. Read on here for our supporting articles on terpenes and flavonoids.

If you’ve got any further questions about CBD extraction techniques, or some information you’d like to share with us, our experienced team are always on hand to field any questions. You can reach our friendly team via our contact page, or alternative you can go check out our full CBD range here!

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