Vanilla oil: The sweet smell of nature

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Vanilla Oil

Story at-a-glance -

  • The word "vanilla" comes from the Spanish word "vainilla," which means little black pod. Vanilla oil is derived from Vanilla planifolia, a native species of the Orchidaceae family, with large climbing vines and clusters of yellow-green flowers that turn into fragrant brown-colored pods
  • Vanilla oil has been particularly found to be useful in helping improve one's emotional and physiological health and well-being, especially when used in aromatherapy

Beyond its fantastic aroma and delicious flavor, vanilla oil boasts of a variety of health-promoting properties. Read on to learn more about my recommendations regarding this sweet-smelling essential oil.

What is vanilla oil?

Vanilla oil is derived from Vanilla planifolia, a native species of the Orchidaceae family, with large climbing vines and clusters of yellow-green flowers that turn into fragrant brown-colored pods.

The word "vanilla" comes from the Spanish word "vainilla," which means little black pod.1 Vanilla is indigenous to Central America and Mexico, but has been widely grown in the subtropics of Asia, Northern Europe and Canada. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla in the world.

Looking for pure vanilla oil in the market can be very time-consuming and oftentimes confusing. Vanilla oils are usually classified based on the place of origin of the vanilla plant that was used, such as:

  • Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar
  • Mexican vanilla from Mexico
  • Tahitian vanilla from French Polynesia
  • West Indian vanilla from the Caribbean and Central and South America

They can also be identified through the type of extraction method used — vanilla CO2, vanilla absolute and vanilla oleoresin. I will discuss more about these later on.

Uses of vanilla oil

In Mexico during the time of the Aztecs, vanilla was added to foods to enhance their flavoring.2 They were also known to add vanilla to a drink they called cacahuatl, which includes cacao beans, corn, honey and chili peppers, a special concoction only fit for their gods and kings.3

Through the years, vanilla has been extensively used in:4

Cooking — as a flavoring ingredient in ice cream, milk, candies, desserts and in almost every food product imaginable

Pharmaceutical and chemical industries — to manufacture drugs to help with treatment of Parkinson's (L-dopa), hypertension (methyldopa) and heart problems (papaverine)

Perfumery — Francois Coty, who is known to be one the greatest perfumers of modern times, used vanilla in L'Aimant in 1927. Afterwards, vanilla became a staple scent in 23 percent of all quality fragrances.

Vanilla oil has been particularly found to be useful in helping improve one's emotional and physiological health and well-being, especially when used in aromatherapy.5

Composition of vanilla oil

The main chemical components of vanilla oil are vanillin and traces of other constituents such as eugenol, piperonal and caproic acid.6 Vanillin and piperonal are responsible for vanilla's delicious taste and many of its beneficial health effects. Vanilla oil contains approximately 150 aromas, many of which are present in very small amounts. Vanillyl ethyl ether, acetic acid, p-hydroxybenzaldehyde and caproic acid are among the chemicals present in it.7

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Benefits of vanilla oil

In ancient Africa, healers used vanilla for stomach problems. The European doctors of the 16th and 17th centuries used it as an antidote for poisoning and stomach complaints, and as an aphrodisiac. Vanilla oil has been documented to have antispasmodic, balsamic, calming, emmenagogue,8 antioxidant, antidepressant and aphrodisiac properties,9 which enables it to assist in the following:

  • Regulate menstruation
  • Enhance your libido10
  • Ease stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia
  • Relieve nausea
  • Heal wounds
  • Induce sleep and encourage dreaming11

Vanilla oil can also work as a potential fever reducer due to its eugenol and vanillin content, the same compounds that lessen inflammation and strengthen the body's immune system.12

How to make a vanilla oil tincture and infusion

It's important to establish that finding 100 percent pure vanilla oil today is highly unlikely, as it is extremely expensive. Most of the cheap vanilla oils available commercially are either heavily processed or contain loads of synthetic materials, and are unfortunately passed off as the real deal by unscrupulous manufacturers.

Unlike other essential oils, vanilla oil cannot be obtained through steam distillation because of its very delicate structure. There are three types of vanilla oil extracts:

Vanilla carbon dioxide (CO₂) — The vanilla pods are put inside a stainless steel chamber that has been injected with CO₂ gas. The air inside the chamber is then pressurized. Under these conditions, CO₂ liquefies and becomes a supercritical fluid that pulls the oil from the pods. In the end, the CO₂ turns back into gas again, leaving the vanilla essential oil.

Vanilla absolute — Preferred in perfumery products, absolute vanilla is obtained by selective solvent extraction, using initially non-polar solvent such as benzene, followed by a polar solvent such as ethanol.13

Vanilla oleoresin — This is a semi-solid concentrate produced by solvent extraction from macerated beans. Vanilla oleoresin is actually just a commercial term, as the liquid extract is not really an oleoresin but a resinoid obtained from the vanilla pods.14

Each type is claimed to be better and purer than the other. But remember, the more processed it is, the less pure and the lower quality your vanilla oil will be. More often than not, the natural aroma and essence of vanilla oil is lost during these processes. To avoid the risk of being duped into purchasing chemical-laced vanilla oil, I recommend making your own vanilla tincture and infusion at home. Try using these recipes:

DIY Vanilla Tincture


Simply soak whole vanilla pods in a jar of 151-proof rum. After two weeks, transfer the mixture in a separate container. Sift the solid particles away using a strainer, and you've got a high-quality vanilla tincture.15

DIY Vanilla Oil Infusion


Here are two ways to do vanilla oil infusion:

1. Mix 1 teaspoon of your homemade vanilla tincture with 8 ounces of an essential oil of your choice, or

2. Get whole vanilla pods or beans. Chop them into pieces and remove their seeds. Add them directly to your carrier oil. Although it's ready to use after a week, letting it sit longer will make your vanilla oil infusion stronger and more effective. It's okay not to filter out the vanilla pods from the oil if you want, but make sure that it's completely immersed and it's kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation.

For carrier oils, I recommend jojoba or almond oil, for they don't have a strong odor that may overpower vanilla oil's sweet smell.16 I also advise using only organic vanilla pods to get optimum benefits.

How does vanilla oil work?

Vanilla oil is usually directed for topical applications to help soothe burns, promote healthy skin and encourage hair growth and as a massage oil to reduce muscle or joint pain. Vanilla oil also has a range of positive effects when used in aromatherapy. Aside from being recognized as a potent mood enhancer, antioxidant and calming agent, vanilla oil also exhibits potential in vitro antifungal activity against Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans yeast infections due to its vanillin.17

Is vanilla oil safe?

Vanilla oil has no known toxicity. However, this may not be true for all types of vanilla oil sold in the market today. Beware of products with lab-produced vanillin sold as pure vanilla oil by disreputable manufacturers. Some vanilla oil from Mexico may be mixed with tonga bean that contains coumarin, a harmful chemical that has been banned in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the 1950s.18

Rather than expose yourself to these risks, it's better to make your own vanilla oil infusion or tincture at home using whole organic vanilla pods. Vanilla is deemed safe even for pregnant women or nursing mothers. But I strongly suggest you consult your doctor before taking it to avoid any adverse reaction.

Side effects of vanilla oil

There have been no reports of side effects from the use of vanilla oil, although results may vary individually. As with all essential oils, perform a skin test first to check for any possible allergic reaction. Prolonged exposure to vanilla scent may have a deleterious effect on your nervous system.19 If you start to experience headache or nausea, discontinue its use immediately.