A big misconception about cannabidiol (CBD), the constituent of hemp used for its potential therapeutic benefits, is that all CBD is created equal. But, long before it is incorporated into your favorite bath bomb or salve, CBD undergoes manufacturing processes that may impact CBD quality and your experience with the product.
One of the most pivotal manufacturing steps is the CBD extraction, when the CBD is isolated from the rest of the components in the hemp plant. Botanical extraction requires a solvent, or dissolving agent, that can impact the quality of the final product—for better or worse.
Common extraction solvents found in the industry include CO2, natural solvents like ethanol, or hydrocarbons like butane. The solvent a brand chooses has to do with the product they are making, the quality they are looking for, and the money they want to spend on overhead. As a consumer, understanding these varying extraction methods is yet another tool in finding an effective, high-quality CBD product in this unregulated industry.
A popular method is supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) utilizing carbon dioxide as the solvent. This method involves pressurizing the carbon dioxide gas until it enters a “supercritical state,” where carbon dioxide liquid and vapor coexist and have the power to separate the CBD and the other present phytocannabinoids from the rest of the hemp plant.
Supercritical CO2 extraction is not a new process. Before CBD, supercritical CO2 extraction was used to decaffeinate coffee and extract essential oils for perfumes. It is popular because it allows manufacturers to choose exactly which chemicals they want to isolate and extract, and it is one of the cleanest and most cost-effective ways to do so, studies show.
For instance, when using other organic solvents—like hydrocarbons (butane), or alcohols (ethanol)—residual solvent can sometimes be found in the final product. This residual solvent can create unwanted toxicity, environmental risk and flammability, making them less suited for large scale extraction. By contrast, carbon dioxide evaporates from the extract when exposed to “natural atmospheric conditions.”
Therefore, CO2 extraction is ideal for CBD products that will be ingested or absorbed, because you can be sure that it’s as pure and safe as possible, but not devoid of the critical components that make the CBD effective.
“We use supercritical CO2 extracts in our products because it’s a very stable (pure) extraction,” said Daniel Britt, Marketing Manager for the CBD Brand Elevated Wellness. “It can be customized to the target ingredients, making more customized blends of cannabis chemicals.”
Some CBD brands may choose other methods instead of, or in addition to, CO2 extraction. This is because SFE requires scientific expertise and costly equipment, two hurdles that scrappy CBD start-ups may want to avoid, or other forms of extraction may offer desirable benefits to the product that they can’t obtain through CO2 extraction alone.
Elevated Wellness uses both CO2 and ethanol extraction in their line of products. According to Britt, they use CO2 extraction because it’s efficient, versatile, and CO2 has a good shelf life. That said, they utilize ethanol as a solvent in some of their extractions due to the way it maintains the phenolic compounds, flavonoids, and phytochemicals that are found in the hemp plant to create a more potent full-spectrum CBD concentrate.
“Our CO2 products may help many conditions, while ethanol-extracted products may help with the more extreme conditions, where the phenolic compounds, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals play a vital role in the efficacy of the product,” said Britt.
Ethanol extraction is done when warm or cold ethanol is poured over the plant matter and left to soak. From there, the ethanol will solubilize the chemicals in the plant, which can then be separated out of the ethanol solution and filtered down to isolate specific cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. From there, the residual ethanol is removed through evaporation.
There are some downsides to this method. Ethanol is so effective at dissolving the plant that chlorophyll may also be extracted, giving the resulting oil an unpleasant taste that may make it unsuitable for edibles or vapes. As well, because alcohols are hydrotropic, they may bind to water soluble components of the plant. This makes it very challenging to obtain a CBD purity of 80% or more, limiting the types of effective CBD products a brand can make.
As Precision Extracts reports, “In the developing cannabis and hemp markets, all the craze, and the hottest products are now revolving around “The Sauce” (High Terpene Full Spectrum Extract) and isolates/crystals. Simply put, an isolate is a crystalline structure of a single molecule, normally THC-a or CBD cannabinoids, with certain products like “The Sauce” also adding a terpene layer into the mix. To make such products, you generally need an initial extract purity greater than 80%.”
Of course, ethanol-extracted CBD can be further processed to achieve a more pure concentration, but that process is expensive and very hard to scale. Hence, most brands are limited in the products they can make if they choose this extraction method. If you notice a brand that uses ethanol extraction is selling a CBD product advertised as more than 80% purity, the consumer should do extra research to confirm that is true by asking for third-party testing results.
When done well ethanol extraction is much cheaper for high-yield operations to pull off than CO2 extraction methods, and it can create effective CBD products when used in the right context.
Another type of solvent that can be used are hydrocarbons like butane. To achieve this sort of extraction, the hydrocarbon is washed over the plant matter and left to sit until the cannabinoids are drawn out. Then, the butane is purged from the solution—similar to the ethanol in the previous example.
While this method, unlike with ethanol, can extract more phytocannabinoids and offer versatility in the products you can make, the hydrocarbon extraction method involves the highest amount of consumer risk if handled incorrectly. After all, most hydrocarbons are highly flammable—meaning the careful handling of hydrocarbons and use of proper equipment is paramount. Plus, if the mixture is not purged of the poisonous hydrocarbon before it hits the shelves, it is possible to distribute products that are hazardous to humans.
That said, hydrocarbon extraction has been used in the food industry for the production of food flavorings and colors for more than fifty years proving it can be a relatively safe and effective solvent. It all comes down to how dedicated and thorough the brand is about acquiring the right, safety-regulated equipment for hydrocarbon extraction, and how well they complete the purging process.
All in all, if you find a brand that uses hydrocarbon extraction, it’s best to ask detailed questions about their handling process.
Extraction is one of most important parts of the CBD manufacturing process—and there are several ways to do it. These methods can impact CBD quality and effectiveness, in spite of encouraging labeling. Hence, understanding these methods and vetting a CBD brand’s processes is essential in protecting and informing yourself as a CBD consumer.