Most of us instantly recognize the scent of vanilla. For me, it brings back treasured memories of watching my Mom work her magic in the kitchen. As a young girl, I felt proud to “help” her measure vanilla extract into the measuring spoon and then add it to the cake batter or cookie dough. I often spilled it, but she still let me try each time. 😉
Have you ever wondered why real vanilla beans and vanilla extract are SO expensive? Growing, harvesting, and processing true vanilla beans is time-consuming, painstaking, and still mostly done by hand!
Vanilla “beans” (properly called pods) are the fruit of the Vanilla planifolia orchid, and it’s the most commonly grown variety of vanilla. The orchid is native to Mexico and other Central American countries but is now grown world wide, with most of today’s commercial vanilla crop coming from Indonesia and Madagascar. [1,2] Initial attempts to grow vanilla outside of Central America failed completely; Spanish conquistadors who brought the orchids back to Europe failed to recognize that vanilla fruit won’t grow without being pollinated by a certain type of bee! The method of hand pollinating vanilla was discovered and refined in the mid-1800s, allowing vanilla to be grown in various locales. 
Since vanilla flowers only last about 24 hours, the orchids must be inspected each day and hand-pollinated one at a time. Once the pollinated flower “sets” fruit (a process which takes 5-6 weeks), the pods will mature on the stem for about six months before they are harvested.
Harvesting and curing vanilla pods is even more intensive work than the hand pollination process. To avoid producing an inferior product, suppliers hand-pick pods at precisely the right time, just when the bean begins yellowing and the terminal end starts to split. The curing process begins after harvesting, which involves “killing” the bean (stopping the maturation process) by various methods. Beans can be dunked in boiling water, frozen, “scratched” down their length, heated in a low oven, or dried in the sun. Further curing includes “sweating” the pods, drying them, and then “conditioning” them. The whole process involves at least another six months before the lovely aromatic beans are ready for grading and shipping. 
People often ask, “What type of vanilla essential oil should I use/purchase?” First, technically speaking, there is no such thing as a vanilla essential oil. The term “essential oil” refers to products obtained during steam distillation or cold pressing of plant material. Since they are not obtained by either process, the term “essential oil” can’t be applied to vanilla products. For aromatherapy purposes, vanilla is obtained either by solvent extraction (vanilla absolute or oleoresin) or by C02 extraction (vanilla C02). There are two vanilla products offered by Plant Therapy, vanilla oleoresin and vanilla 12% C02 extraction.
Vanilla Oleoresin is a concentrated product made by removing the solvent (usually ethanol) from vanilla extract. Depending on how concentrated the product is, it can be liquid or semi-solid. This explains disagreement in the aromatherapy community as to whether or not vanilla oleoresin can be used in diffusers. I’ve owned both a semi-solid and a more liquid oleoresin; I found that frequent use of the thicker oleoresin tended to clog my diffusers. The more liquid oleoresin I currently have from Plant Therapy has not clogged them. The type of diffuser may have some bearing as to whether or not clogging will occur; ultrasonic diffusers that use water may clog less, and nebulizing diffusers that spray just a mist of the product might tend to clog more.
As vanilla oleoresin only emulsifies (mixes) fully in ethanol (alcohol), it’s a bit more challenging to work with when making product blends. For instance, when you put vanilla oleoresin into a carrier oil, the oleoresin will sink to the bottom in a “blob” and remain there. But if you put a bit of oleoresin into an alcohol like vodka, it will dissolve completely. I did a little experiment and took pictures to illustrate what I mean.
In the first photo we see plain jojoba oil and vodka in the two beakers. In the second photo, I placed 3 drops of vanilla oleoresin into each beaker. You can see that the oleoresin remains in a “blob” at the bottom of the jojoba oil, but the oleoresin emulsifies (mixes) completely in the vodka. If you want a product where there’s no separation of components (as seen in the jojoba and oleoresin example) then you’d be better off using vanilla C02 extraction.
I make a luscious salt scrub using vanilla oleoresin, coffee essential oil, and sweet orange oil–it smells like a caramel latte! Here’s the recipe:
- 1/2 cup finely textured sea salt (it doesn’t have to be fancy, though–plain table salt will do.) I whizz up my salt in the spice grinder to make sure it’s extra fine.
- 1/4 cup carrier oil. You can use any oil you wish–olive, sweet almond, etc.–for this recipe I chose jojoba.
- Coffee and sweet orange essential oils and vanilla oleoresin (108 total drops for a 2% dilution–experiment with a few drops of each first to see if you like more of a coffee, vanilla, or orange aroma to stand out.)
Add the essential oil/oleoresin combination to the carrier oil and mix; let stand for a few minutes to meld the aromas together. Then, drizzle the oil mix into the sea salt, stirring until you get the consistency you like. If you like your scrub “runnier”, add more oil; if you like it “scoopable” or with a firmer texture, use more salt. Place into a container with a lid and use within a couple of weeks, as the product has no preservative.
(Note: the scrub contains no water, so it *technically* needs no preserving….but if you’re using it in the tub or shower, it’s going to get wet and it will eventually grow mold.) For these kinds of products, it’s better to make smaller batches more frequently than to make a larger batch that may spoil before it’s used up. You can also substitute brown sugar for the salt for a luscious sugar scrub.
Vanilla 12% C02 is obtained by the method of supercritical carbon dioxide (chemical formula: C02) extraction. Under pressure, C02 gas transforms into an “almost” liquid phase called the supercritical state. Plant material (in this case, vanilla pods/seeds) is placed into an airtight receptacle and carbon dioxide gas is pumped in under pressure; low heat is also applied to aid extraction.
As the pressure inside the container rises, C02 gas nearly liquifies, bathing the plant material in supercritical C02. The combination of high pressure and low temperatures encourages the plant material to releases its aromatic components. After a period of time, pressure is reduced and the supercritical C02 then changes back to its gaseous state, completely disappearing from the extracted material.
Vanilla 12% C02 extraction emulsifies completely in carrier oil; I love infusing it into jojoba oil for lip balms. Add 18 drops of vanilla 12% C02 per ounce of jojoba oil and mix thoroughly; then you can use the aromatic infused jojoba oil as the liquid oil part of your favorite lip balm recipe.
I’m often asked what the “12%” refers to in the title of the product. 12% refers to the percentage of the naturally occurring component vanillin, which provides vanilla with its characteristic warm, sweet aroma. There are also C02 extracts containing 26% and 30% vanillin; these are often used in perfumery and are a bit more challenging to work with as they are solid or semi-solid at room temperature.
Finally, people ask why Plant Therapy labels vanilla C02 extract as safe for use in children, but not the oleoresin. Since oleoresin incompletely emulsifies in carrier oil, it’s possible that undiluted particles of oleoresin would come into contact with skin when mixed in a blend. The chances of an adverse reaction are very small, but as safety is our priority, we prefer to label the products in this manner.
We want you to learn as much as you want to about essential oils and how to use them safely. If you have any questions, comments or other concerns, you’re welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or come join us on Facebook at Safe Essential Oil Recipes!
- Lubinsky P, Bory S, Hernandez-Hernandez J et al. Origins and Dispersal of Cultivated Vanilla. Economic Botany 62 (2): 127-38, 2008.
- Correll D. Vanilla: Its Botany, History, Cultivation, and Economic Importance. Economic Botany 7: (4), 291-358, 1953.
- Havkin-Frenkl D, French JC, Pak FE, Frenkl C. Interrelation of Curing and Botany in Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) Bean. Acta Horticulturae 2004: 93-102.