Unrefined vs refined carrier oils: which is best?

Do you pay attention to all of the different jargon about how your ingredients are sourced or processed… unrefined, virgin, cold-pressed, and so on? In this article we’ll explore unrefined vs refined carrier oils.

When you are starting out formulating natural products with oils, butters and other ingredients, it is easy to become dazed with the different terminology around processing and sourcing.

From a very basic level, it is important to be aware of whether your oils and butters are refined or unrefined.Most of us understand that unrefined likely means it was minimally processed, while refined would indicate further refinement or processing of the oil.

There is significant benefit, however, to further understanding how your ingredients are processed and treated before you purchase and incorporate them into your natural products. While purchasing ingredients for your natural product formulations, pay particular attention to how the ingredient was processed, and of course who you are purchasing from.

Ensuring you have the highest quality, most potent phytonutrients in your base ingredients; from a credible, reliable and consistent source, is key. It ensures a superior quality, safe and optimally effective product for you and your customers.

So let’s take a look at how our favourite oils are sourced and processed.

What does it mean when an ingredient is unrefined?

Starting with a basic definition of unrefined, it refers to an ingredient being unprocessed, untreated or crude – having not been processed to remove all of the ‘impurities’ or ‘elements’.

Unrefined oils are either cold-pressed or expeller-pressed,
 which means they are minimally processed using mechanical extraction (pressure) and low-temperature controlled conditions to extract the oil from the seed, nut, etc. They can also be referred to as ‘virgin’ or ‘extra virgin’.

In cold-pressing, the temperatures are controlled at 80-90°F (26-32°C), which is actually not a ‘cold’ temperature processing as you would expect, but rather low-heat.

In expeller-pressing, the oil is extracted from the seed or nut using mechanical pressure along with heat (usually from friction created during the pressing), at approximately 120-200°F (49-93°C).

The phytonutrient-rich oil is then fine-filtered using a screen, to remove any significant solids or undesired impurities from the oil. No chemical solvents, no high-heat temperatures, and no further refining to alter the condition (colour, scent) of the oil.

Pros and cons of UNREFINED ingredients

Unrefined oils are the most desired, as the minimal processing ensures a high quality, nutrient-rich, authentic-to-nature oil which is true in its flavour and colour.

The downfall of unrefined oils is that they are often less stable than refined oils, meaning they are more prone to going rancid in a shorter time, which may affect the shelf life of your products.

Some unrefined ingredients carry a strong color or smell (such as avocado and seabuckthorn oil), which you or your customers may find unappealing or which may dominate other scents such as essential oils that you may add your products.

What does it mean when an ingredient is refined?

The definition of refined is of course the opposite of unrefined, so to process or treat a substance to remove all of the impurities or ‘undesired’ elements.

Beyond the initial stages of processing above, the oil would undergo various further methods of processing – temperature treatments with heat up to 450°F (232°C) or cold-conditions as low as -30°F (-34°C); solvent treatments for deodorization; and bleaching to fade the colour or further remove scent, for example.


Pros and cons of REFINED ingredients

Refined oils have less active compounds when compared to unrefined oils, as the further processing damages or denatures these elements.

Refined oils are often less expensive, and have a longer shelf life than unrefined oils. They may also be more heat-stable, therefore perhaps better ingredients to consider for any products which may require a heated stage to produce.

Oils and butters may also be partially refined, meaning they have some of the above processing to increase the stability  of the ingredient, or to reduce some of the intense natural scent or colour.


When to use unrefined and refined ingredients

Ideally look for unrefined, virgin, cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils. This will offer you the least processed oils and butters, potent with active compounds and real benefits. The more refined the oil or butter, the less potent the actives, as some will be denatured with heat, chemical or extreme-pressure treatments.

You may like to use mainly unrefined oils and butters for facial products, to create the most powerful and effective products.

Refined oils and butters make great ingredients or bases for body care products, as they are often less expensive than unrefined.

When unrefined oils carry a strong smell or scent, you may wish to use the unrefined version instead. An example of this is avocado oil, which is thick and green with a distinctive smell when bought in its unrefined state. Another example is unrefined shea butter, which carries a strong smell that some like but others don’t. Unrefined cocoa butter has a lovely chocolatey smell that may enhance your product  but you may decide that a chocolatey smell isn’t appropriate for your product.

Also consider using refined ingredients when you are adding essential oils to your product, in order for the true fragrance to come through untouched.

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