CBD Extraction Methods – The Production of Healthy Products

8th June 2020

Proving to be more than a passing craze, hemp-derived CBD products have swept the world’s markets in the form of promising supplements, topicals, and medicinal alternatives. But, with so many new products being formulated every year, the CBD market has turned into a kind of “wild west” with some businesses that keep customer health in mind, and others that disregard safety in the interest of profit. 

But, what is it that differentiates the trust-worthy products from the shotty, profit-focused ones? While there are many tip-offs that customers can pick up quickly when determining the quality of their CBD products, there are several underlying factors that are lesser-known that are vital to determining the quality and safety of a CBD product. One of those factors is the method by which it was extracted.

CO2, Ethanol, or Hydrocarbons CBD Extraction? 

Whatever kind of CBD product you like to use, it wasn’t created simply by cutting up hemp flowers and mixing it in. The CBD itself must be extracted from the hemp plant, distilled and isolated before being formulated into a final product and there are several methods by which CBD can be extracted. But, are all of them similar in safety and quality? Let’s take a look at the common methods to find out: 

There are typically three common extraction methods in the world of hemp products: hydrocarbon, ethanol, and supercritical CO2. You may be asking, “what’s the difference if they all make the same products?” Well, it may be surprising, but some of these extraction methods can be hard to guarantee safety when consumed daily. 

Hydrocarbon Extraction 

One relatively common kind of cannabinoid extraction is hydrocarbon. This technique involves an extremely volatile solvent such as butane or propane to extract the desired CBD. The residual solvent is then removed through applied heat which in turn results in a usable CBD oil. 

There are several concerns to think about with this extraction procedure – the first being the volatile tendency of those solvents. There are several reported cases of hydrocarbon extractions gone wrong resulting in explosions, home fires, and even death. While reports of these dangerous errors are less prevalent in a proper extraction setting, it is still more dangerous for producers and their employees to extract CBD using such volatile solvents. 

When it comes to customer safety, there’s no absolute way to eliminate the entirety of a hydrocarbon solvent in a final product. This ultimately means that continual usage of a butane or propane extracted CBD merchandise will inevitably entail the ingestion of those solvents. While the remaining quantities of the solvents may be reported as low as just a few parts per million (PPM) there are still unknown concerns that could result from daily use of CBD products with trace amounts of hydrocarbons in them. 

Ethanol CBD Extraction 

Another widespread extraction system, ethanol is a common solvent used to extract cannabinoids from hemp and cannabis. Though the FDA does indicate food grade ethanol to be “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS), the challenge is that ethanol considered to be organic or “food grade” is quite expensive to use for extraction purposes. Because of this, many producers resort to what’s referred to as “denatured ethanol.” 

Even though it is less costly, denatured ethanol may have a range of chemical contaminants that will necessarily wind up in a CBD distillate to some degree that may include ketones, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, and others. Despite this, the FDA classifies these contaminants as “safe” and permits maximum levels of them in a final hemp or cannabis product. 

But, there are several unknowns when it comes to prolonged ingestion of chemical denaturants. It may be possible that continued ingestion of those residuals could have negative outcomes that have been unstudied as of today. These unknown variables coupled with what we do know about the risks of chemical denaturants should beg into question whether or not this extraction method is entirely safe. 

Supercritical CO2 CBD Extraction 

The final common extraction system uses CO2 as a solvent. Contrary to hydrocarbons and ethanol, supercritical CO2 extraction includes no dangers for chemical contamination and isn’t volatile like butane, ethanol, or propane. With this assumption alone, products extracted through supercritical CO2 are undoubtedly safer for customer health. 

In fact, CO2 extraction is so safe, it has been used for many years as a way to decaffeinate coffee. Because CO2 is a chemical fee solvent, it allows for a safe way to create a consumable, decaffeinated coffee product without the risk of residual chemical contaminants. While you may hear of companies using certain hydrocarbons for this purpose (a questionable method at best), you will not find a single reputable company using denatured ethanol. Perhaps the same should be said of manufacturers in CBD extraction. 

What makes a CBD product safe? 

As stated previously, the cleanest and safest CBD goods are produced using CO2 as an extraction method. This process of extraction creates a product that is completely free from any residual compounds and enables a particularly pure and health-conscious product. 

So, when looking for a CBD product with health and safety in mind, it is important to check what extraction method a company uses for their brand. If they use butane, propane, or denatured ethanol to create their product, the healthy choice would likely be to steer clear. If a product has been extracted with clean and natural CO2, there is no doubt that it will be the safest, healthiest CBD product on the market. 


Jon Thompson, PhD, is a separations scientist and CEO of extraktLAB, an accredited engineering company for the CBD, hemp and cannabis industries.

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