CBD extraction might sound overly scientific but it’s really not that complex. The goal of any extraction method is to pull the CBD and other beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes out of hemp plant material.
The resulting extract can then be used to make CBD oils, capsules, topicals, edibles, vapes, and more. Although most CBD companies will claim that their extraction process is the best, the truth is that each CBD extraction method has its advantages and disadvantages.
In this article, we’ll explore the three most common CBD extraction methods — CO2, ethanol, and lipid infusion — to help you understand how they differ.
Table of Contents
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Extraction
Carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is the most popular method for extracting CBD. CO2 extraction is not a new process; it’s been extensively used to decaffeinate coffee beans, extract spices, and remove nicotine from tobacco.
The main advantage of CO2 extraction is that it’s highly tunable, which means you can choose what to extract by changing the temperature and pressure (1). But CO2 extraction equipment is costly and requires expertise.
There are two CO2 extraction methods: supercritical and subcritical. Both rely on the use of pressurized carbon dioxide to pull CBD and other beneficial ingredients out of hemp plant material. The CO2 acts as a solvent but without leaving behind any harmful residue.
CO2 extraction is considered a sustainable and eco-friendly option. The CO2 used during the extraction process is recaptured each time for later use, doesn’t leave behind any harmful residue, and is completely non-toxic and renewable.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
Supercritical CO2 extraction uses high pressures and temperatures to make carbon dioxide behave as both a gas and liquid at the same time. This makes it a very efficient solvent and is the most common CO2 extraction method.
Subcritical CO2 Extraction
With subcritical CBD extraction, a lower temperature and lower pressure are combined for the extraction process. This makes the extraction slower and less efficient but helps retain the plant’s delicate compounds, such as terpenes.
Ethanol has been used for botanical extraction for thousands of years, especially for making herbal tinctures. Ethanol extraction can be done at cold or warm temperatures.
Cold Ethanol Extraction
The cold method involves soaking hemp in pre-chilled ethanol to effectively separate the plant’s cannabinoid and terpene-containing trichomes.
Warm Ethanol Extraction
Meanwhile, the warm method is more efficient (produces higher yields) but has the downside of pulling out undesirable compounds like fats and waxes, which require additional processing to remove. That’s why cold ethanol extraction is more popular.
Following the extraction process, the ethanol is evaporated to leave behind a crude extract.
Ethanol extraction is relatively simple, inexpensive, and suitable for both large and small-scale cannabis processors. It also does a great job of dissolving all of hemp’s compounds, including elusive flavonoids (2).
The main downside of ethanol extraction is losing many of the terpenes when the ethanol is evaporated after the extraction. That’s why companies that use this method often add terpenes separately.
Lipid Infusion/Olive Oil Extraction
The last major CBD extraction method to mention is lipid extraction.
Despite the name, the process is quite simple: the hemp is soaked in olive oil, coconut oil, or another type of fat, and heat/pressure is applied. That way, the oil is infused with cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds.
This extraction method is the mildest and least intrusive. It does a great job of preserving all of the plant’s ingredients, especially fragile terpenes (2). If you’re looking for products that are as close to natural as possible, lipid infusion is a good choice.
But the downside is that it’s not very efficient and works best in small batches, which is why few CBD companies use it.
Which CBD Extraction Method is Best?
There are many ways to extract CBD and other beneficial compounds out of hemp. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and there isn’t a single “best” method.
The bottom line is that all three extraction methods we covered can be used to make effective, high-quality, full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, and isolate CBD products.
That’s why it’s more important to choose brands that tell you which extraction process they use rather than favoring one over the other. If a brand does not disclose such information, then you would be wise to avoid their products because transparency is important for a poorly regulated industry like CBD.
Still, if you have certain preferences then a specific extraction method might be more suitable. For example, if you want a minimally processed product, lipid infusion is arguably the best choice. Meanwhile, CO2 is considered the most eco-friendly option.
- Rovetto, Laura J., and Niccolo V. Aieta. “Supercritical carbon dioxide extraction of cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa L.” The Journal of Supercritical Fluids 129 (2017): 16-27.
- Lazarjani, Masoumeh Pourseyed, et al. “Processing and extraction methods of medicinal cannabis: a narrative review.” Journal of cannabis research 3.1 (2021): 1-15.
Gleb is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada specializing in CBD and cannabis. He’s read thousands of studies on CBD and other supplements, helping him translate complex science into plain language. Gleb has tried and reviewed dozens of CBD brands and products, written third-party testing reports, and knows the CBD industry inside and out. When not writing, he likes to kickbox, travel, and tell everyone how awesome intermittent fasting is.