Vanilla Essential Oil Benefits: Your Guide to Every Form
Loved by pastry chefs, adored by perfumers, and treasured by enthusiasts of all things indulgent—vanilla has carved its place as a crowd favorite. Only the mention of this botanical wonder conjures nostalgia for pleasant times and sweet delights.
It is no wonder then, that vanilla reigns as a beloved and highly sought-after essential oil in the world of aromatherapy.
As with all things, there’s a caveat.
To put it plainly, there is no such thing as commercially available, steam-distilled vanilla “essential oil.” Certainly, vanilla essential oil products can be found on store shelves and in online shops, but these offerings don’t meet the criteria to be classified as an essential oil.
So then, what is an essential oil?
In technical terms, an essential oil is an aromatic liquid that is derived from a single plant via steam or pressure. When vanilla beans are steam distilled or cold pressed, they do not release their aromatic compounds, and therefore cannot be extracted like regular essential oils. What is available in stores can be one of the six types of vanilla listed below:
- Imitation Vanilla
- Vanilla Extract
- Vanilla Bean Oil Infusion
- Vanilla Absolute
- Vanilla Carbon Dioxide
- Vanilla Oleoresin
The variation in the types of vanilla arises from the different ways they are produced. To gain a deeper understanding of the uses and benefits of vanilla essential oil, this article will examine the different forms of vanilla and their properties.
Origins of Natural Vanilla
Given how popular vanilla is, one might assume that the vanilla plant must be abundantly harvested. However, this is far from the truth. Vanilla is derived from the Orchidaceae plant family, and within this family, only one genus produces vanilla beans – aptly called 'Vanilla.' Out of the nearly 100 orchid species in this genus, three are commercially cultivated for vanilla bean production: vanilla planifolia, vanilla tahitensis, and vanilla pompon. Among these, vanilla planifolia is distributed most widely for commercial use. This species is native to South and Central America.
The unique flavoring and aroma that vanilla is known for is obtained from its beans through a specialized process. Each bean pod is the result of one vanilla flower. In addition, vanilla flowers have a single natural pollinator – the Melipona bees, which are native to Mexico. However, for commercial production, these flowers have to be hand pollinated to produce the beans. Once harvested, the bean pods undergo a meticulous curing process to fully develop their distinct flavors and scent. The aromatic compounds are then extracted from the bean pods using several different production processes.
Since the production and pollination methods that process vanilla beans are so labor intensive, natural vanilla is pricey. Many of the cheaper vanilla products that we see being sold are made of synthetic or imitation vanilla. To determine the authenticity of vanilla products, you can use price as an indicator. If the price is low, the product is most likely not pure vanilla, but if the price tag is hefty, then it can serve as a signal in favor of the product’s purity.
Types of Vanilla “Essential Oil”
While there are only 3 species of vanilla cultivated for commercial use, the market offers a wide array of vanilla forms to choose from. Amidst the specialized names and overlap in characteristics, it can get challenging to distinguish between the types. The following sections explore each vanilla form commonly available, as well as its production process, uses, and properties.
Imitation and Artificial Vanilla
As noted earlier, much of the vanilla available commercially is not from the actual vanilla beans. Many vanilla extracts and oils are derived from imitation or artificial vanilla. The coveted scent and flavor properties in pure vanilla come from a compound known as vanillin. Natural vanillin has many synthetic stand-ins that closely resemble its scent and flavor. Synthetic vanillin can be derived from multiple sources, including clove oil, petroleum, wood pulp, and even cow dung!
Imitation vanilla serves as a good alternative for pure vanilla in baking and fragrance products such as perfumes. However, it has a different chemical profile from natural vanilla and thus does not provide the same physiological benefits. When used in aromatherapy, imitation vanilla does little more than provide a pleasant scent, as it does not contain the useful biological compounds that pure vanilla does.
Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the labeling of vanilla extracts. Imitation vanilla products are required to clearly state on the label that the vanilla is ‘artificial’ or ‘imitation.’
Pure vanilla extract is a flavoring derived from vanilla beans cured for 3-4 months. The FDA regulates the production process to obtain pure vanilla extract flavoring. It stipulates that the flavoring consists of 35% alcohol and contains 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of alcohol. The addition of sweeteners to the extract is permitted.
The extraction process involves soaking the bean pods in a water and ethyl alcohol solution. Over a period of several months, the alcohol brings out vanillin and other vanilla compounds into the solution. At the end of the process, the beans are taken out of the solution, and the extraction is complete. As this process is fairly simple, vanilla extract can also be made at home. However, unlike with large-scale manufacturing, the external environment of the solution can’t be manipulated to yield faster extraction at home.
Pure vanilla extract does not function like an essential oil and cannot be used for personal care or aromatherapy. Because of its high alcohol content, pure vanilla extract is best for use in food items and baking.
Vanilla Bean Oil Infusion
As the name indicates, vanilla-infused oil is made from soaking dried and fermented vanilla bean pods in a carrier oil. Neutral oils such as jojoba, grapeseed, and almond oil can be used. The length of the infusion ranges anywhere from 1-4 weeks. As a general rule, the longer the beans steep in the oil, the more concentrated the oil infusion will be.
Vanilla oil infusions are widely used in personal care products such as creams, serums, and toiletries. They are also popular in aromatherapy as a relaxing blend. Oil infusions can also be used in food items to diversify the flavor profile. Essentially, vanilla oil infusions can be added to anything that you would like to imbue with a heavenly vanilla scent.
Vanilla absolute is the most concentrated and expensive out of all the vanilla types listed here. It is obtained via a two-step process. In the first step, a natural solvent such as benzene is used to break down the vanilla plant material. The solvent is then removed, and the resulting product is again broken down with a sugar alcohol solvent such as ethanol. The solvent is removed once again, and then we have vanilla absolute.
Vanilla absolute is soluble in oil and is mainly used in perfumery. Its high price point deters its use in other applications such as personal care. Additionally, vanilla absolute may contain leftover solvent and thus should never be ingested.
Vanilla Carbon Dioxide
This is a relatively newer type of vanilla essential oil you will find in stores. Vanilla CO2 extraction is considered the closest to steam distillation and does not leave traces of synthetic solvents or alcohol. It uses liquid carbon dioxide as a solvent to derive the oil. The carbon dioxide is held at critical temperature or pressure above critical level, a state where it is a supercritical fluid. Once the process is complete, the CO2 turns back into gaseous form, leaving behind potent vanilla CO2 oil.
The oil is a dark amber color and is thicker in comparison with regular essential oils. The scent of vanilla CO2 is very similar to that of the vanilla plant in complexity and depth. The oil can be used like regular essential oils, through diffusers and inhalers. Like vanilla absolute, vanilla CO2 should never be ingested for any purpose.
Despite being the most qualified contender for the title of vanilla essential oil, vanilla CO2 has not gained popularity due to its steep price point.
In the world of aromatherapy, vanilla oleoresin is the vanilla form used most commonly. It is derived through a single-step solvent extraction process. A natural solvent is used to break down plant material and produce an extract. The solvent is removed at the end, leaving behind a thick oil. The oil is hydrophilic and does not dissolve well in lipids. As such, it cannot be completely dissolved in carrier oil blends.
Vanilla oleoresin oil has many applications, such as in aromatherapy, personal care products, and fragrances. Part of its popularity rests on the fact that it is economical and thus more accessible when compared to vanilla CO2 and vanilla absolute. To its advantage, its biological properties are just as beneficial as the more expensive forms of vanilla essential oil.
Benefits of Vanilla Essential Oil
The medicinal use of vanilla has been widely studied in scientific research. Much of the interest in studying vanilla stems from its long history in ethnomedicine.
Benefits of Vanilla Essential Oil for Skin
Vanilla oil is commonly seen in skincare formulations. Many assume that vanilla is added only as a scent; however, vanilla beans have many biological properties that benefit the skin.
A clinical trial tested the effects of topical vanilla on aging skin. The results of the trial showed that the participants experienced a reduction in sagging of the face, as well as a decrease in the depth of skin wrinkles. The participants' skin also appeared more radiant after continued application of vanilla.
Vanilla’s anti-aging mechanism is driven by the antioxidant compounds vanillin and vanillic acid. Antioxidants neutralize reactive oxygen in the skin, preventing oxidative stress from damaging skin tissues.
Several studies have been conducted to demonstrate the efficacy of vanilla as an antibacterial agent. A 2020 study highlighted the mechanism that makes vanilla oil effective against bacterial diseases. It found that vanilla oil hinders the formation of mature biofilms–complex structures that bacteria create to protect themselves and promote their growth. Preventing the formation of these biofilms is crucial because they can lead to persistent and difficult-to-treat infections.
As such, vanilla essential oil may be used topically to support the treatment of bacterial ailments such as acne.
Benefits of Vanilla Essential Oil for Sexual Wellness
In traditional medicine, vanilla oil is believed to be beneficial for treating issues of sexual impotence and loss of libido. A study was conducted in 2012 to validate these claims. The research concluded that vanillin induces aphrodisiac effects and noticeably arouses sexual instinct. These findings provide scientific support for the therapeutic potential of vanilla oil in enhancing sexual function.
Benefits of Vanilla Essential Oil on Neural Health
All over the world, vanilla is synonymous with relaxation and stress relief. But is there any weight to this beyond anecdotes? The following section explores scientific research on vanilla’s benefits for brain health.
Anxiety and Stress Relief
The use of vanilla to manage anxiety and stress is not only widespread, it is also backed by research. An interesting study investigated the effect of a vanilla scent on anxiety levels in patients undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for cancer diagnosis. Participants reported experiencing significantly less anxiety after smelling the vanilla fragrance.
Cognitive Function Improvement
Another research examined the effects of vanilla fragrance on cognitive functions. The study was conducted on a group of healthy male volunteers aged 18-22 years. The results showed that exposure to vanilla fragrance increases reaction times and recognition times when completing complex tasks. The research also encouraged the use of vanilla fragrances in work and study environments.
Vanilla Essential Oil: The Takeaways
The possibilities for incorporating vanilla essential oil into your routine are boundless, owing to its multiple biological benefits. However, when selecting vanilla products, it is crucial to purchase from a trusted source, like Wholesale Botanics, and prioritize reading the labels. The label provides information about the form and source of the oil, helping distinguish between imitation and pure extracts.
It is also worth noting that prices can serve as an indicator of oil purity and sourcing. Natural vanilla beans are typically associated with higher-quality oils, while unusually low prices may raise concerns about the authenticity and quality of the product. By being attentive to the label details, you can ensure that you are using the oil appropriately and safely.
As a rundown, vanilla extract and imitation vanilla are edible and can be added to food recipes. They are suitable for use in personal care formulations. Vanilla infusion, vanilla absolute, vanilla CO2, and vanilla oleoresin are all inedible forms of vanilla and are used in topical products.