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How is CBD made?

CBD is easily one of the buzziest wellness products in recent years — and for good reason. 

As awareness grows over the health and wellness benefits of cannabidiol — better known as CBD — many people have naturally grown curious about how CBD is made, whether or not CBD oils and tinctures have the psychoactive effects of cannabis and if all CBD products are made the same way. In this guide, we’ll provide a brief overview of CBD, including where it comes from, how it’s made, as well as the common methods of extracting CBD.

What Is CBD?

Discovered in 1940, cannabidiol, or CBD for short is a cannabinoid — one of the 144 naturally-occurring chemical compounds found in Cannabis sativa, or what we know as the cannabis family of plants.  For years, scientists have known about the potential health benefits of cannabis and its components. True enough, early experiments show that CBD may provide relief against chronic pain, anxiety, epilepsy and other neurological conditions. 

However, cannabis also contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive cannabinoid that causes the “high” associated with smoking or ingesting marijuana. Fortunately, there is a way to extract CBD and get the health benefits of cannabis without its intoxicating properties.

Where Does CBD Come From?

Although CBD is widely available in the UK, there are still lingering concerns about whether CBD-based products are safe and legal. It all boils down to where the CBD is sourced from. Commercial CBD is derived from industrial hemp — a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species grown specifically for industrial purposes. The cannabis family of plants can be roughly categorised into two primary groups: hemp or marijuana.

All types of cannabis plants contain CBD, which, by itself, does not have any psychoactive effects. As a World Health Organization report states, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential… To date, there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.” Similarly, all cannabis plants contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a cannabinoid with psychoactive properties — it’s the chemical that causes the “high” we associate with marijuana use. However, hemp conveniently has high concentrations of CBD but very low levels (usually no more than 0.2%) of THC. What little THC hemp has is isolated in its leaves and flowers. 

Since the 1990s, the Home Office has provided licenses allowing farmers to grow and process hemp fibre with no more than 0.2% of THC. Hemp fibre can then be refined into a wide range of commercial products, from paper, rope and textiles to paints, biofuel, cosmetics and food items. Because the government’s guidance refers explicitly to hemp fibre, farmers can only harvest and process hemp stems — the THC-containing flowers and leaves must be discarded. This also explains why pure CBD can be legally extracted from dried and milled raw hemp stalks.

Hemp Cultivation Explained

To understand the process of extracting CBD, we need to look at where it comes from in the first place. CBD oil is extracted from the flowers, leaves, stem and stalk of the hemp plant — a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp contains a broad range of cannabinoids but not enough THC to be intoxicating or illegal. In the United Kingdom, for example, farmers need a license to cultivate industrial hemp with no more than 0.2% THC content. What hemp has a lot of, however, is CBD. And at the industrial level, hemp farmers take great care to cultivate seeds with high CBD levels and virtually no THC content. Hemp is typically grown for 120 days and harvested as the plant nears the end of its flowering period. The stalks then go through a three-step process that strips the fibres from the plant. 

  1. Retting

Unprocessed hemp stalks are tough and need to be dissolved through a process known as retting. This is done in one of three ways:

  • Field retting – This is the traditional method of cutting the stalks and drying them under the sun for at least four to six weeks
  • Water retting – The stalks are dried and submerged in water for days
  • Chemical retting – The stalks are submerged in a chemical bath to expedite the breakdown of the outer fibres
  1. Decortication

At this stage, the stalks are broken to separate the outer fibres from the inner core. This process is usually done using a decorticator, a machine that passes stalks through a series of rollers to break the fibres apart. For decorticating to work, the stalks must have no more than 15% moisture — dry enough to prevent mould and bacteria growth but containing enough moisture to keep the stalks from disintegrating into powder. 

  1. Baling and Storage 

The hemp stalks are baled and prepared for transport and long-term storage. At this point, the hemp fibres have been removed from their stems and can be processed for CBD extraction,

4 CBD Extraction Methods

CBD extraction is the process of isolating CBD from hemp fibres and other cannabinoids. There are different methods of extracting CBD, each one with its pros and cons. 

  1. Hydrocarbon Extraction (The Rick Simpson Method)

Hydrocarbon extraction is also known as the Rick Simpson method, due to the man who initially used it. It is a common form of CBD extraction. It’s also the cheapest and most straightforward. Having said this, it’s also the worst extraction method when it comes to isolating CBD. Hydrocarbon extraction involves a solvent such as butane, pentane, hexane or propane — extremely volatile substances. This process involves submerging the plant material in the solvent and steeping it. The compounds are then stripped from the plant and left in a liquid form. Hydrocarbons have a low boiling point, so when heat is applied, they evaporate, leaving behind CBD oil. 

There are two main concerns regarding this extraction method. First, the solvents used are highly volatile and flammable, which means it’s a dangerous form of extraction that could result in explosions and fires. Secondly, there is a customer safety issue, as there is no way to completely eliminate the solvent from the finished product. Meaning that the end-user could be regularly consuming a small amount of hydrocarbon. It’s hard to know exactly what damage, if any, this could cause in the long-term (given that the quantity is so low) but we don’t believe it’s worth taking the risk when there are cleaner extraction methods.

  1. Ethanol (Alcohol) Extraction

Another extraction method for CBD is ethanol (or ethyl) alcohol extraction, although this method has dwindled in popularity over recent years. To keep costs low, denatured alcohol is sometimes used for this method, which may have a range of chemical contaminants including ketones, methanol and isopropyl alcohol. These components then end up in the CBD distillate. It is unknown what prolonged ingestion of these components will do to a person’s health. This method can also pull more chlorophyll from the hemp plant than other extraction methods.

The ethanol extraction method involves decarboxylating plant matter and packing the plant fibres tightly into a container. Ethanol drips into the plant matter, which strips away the cannabinoids into a collection reservoir. Alternatively, you can soak plant matter with ethanol, then boil the ethanol away. But given that alcohol has a high boiling point, this may involve a lengthy purification process. It’s worth noting that it is not possible to make all CBD products using this extraction method.

  1. Carrier Oil Extraction

The carrier oil extraction method most commonly utilises olive, coconut or hemp seed oil. The plant material is first decarboxylated, then added to the carrier oil and heated for several hours. This process draws out the cannabinoids of the plant and into the carrier oil.  This process is affordable and avoids the risk of contaminant consumption, but the extraction method isn’t considered very effective. CBD oil extracted in this manner is highly perishable unless you add preservatives. CBD oil produced in this way also tends to be less potent, as you cannot concentrate the CBD oil using this method.

  1. CO2 Extraction

Generally regarded as the best (and safest) way to extract CBD, this method uses Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as a solvent — meaning there are no dangers for chemical contamination. It’s also worth noting that, unlike butane and ethanol, CO2 is not highly volatile. This method is quickly becoming the industry standard due to its purity and efficacy.

With this process, specialised equipment converts CO2 into a liquid. This liquid is ideal for extracting cannabinoids because it can’t damage the plant matter or the plant’s compounds. The CO2 is passed through the plant, pulling the CBD out so it can be filtered. This solution is then passed through a separator to draw out all of the terpenes and cannabinoids. CBD produced this way is extremely pure and non-toxic. Lower-quality manufacturers of CBD may avoid this method as it is more expensive. After extraction, the CBD oil is processed to create a wide range of products, from tinctures and soaps to balms and topicals.

What Equipment is Used to Extract CBD?

The equipment for extracting CBD from raw hemp will depend on the particular extraction method used. Although it’s possible to extract relatively small amounts of CBD oil using entry-level, consumer-grade machines, CBD extraction is best performed using industrial-grade equipment in laboratory environments. 

Below is a basic overview of commonly used CBD extraction equipment.

  • Carrier oil extraction – The carrier oil extraction method is the simplest and easiest way to produce CBD in your own home.  All you need is a basic home distillation kit — the same used for extracting essential oils from lavender, myrrh or cedarwood.
  • Hydrocarbon extraction – Rick Simpson himself is said to have used a rice cooker to slowly burn off the alcohol solvent from a cannabis mixture. However, this method can be hazardous as the fumes from the evaporating solvent are highly flammable. This same process can be done at scale using hydrocarbon extraction equipment from brands like Precision Extraction Solution.
  • Ethanol extraction – Alcohol distillers range from entry-level machines like the Source Turbo to industrial-grade solutions like Across International’s rotary evaporators, which can accommodate several litres of solvent.  

CO2 extraction – As the gold standard in cannabis extraction, the use of CO2 as a solvent requires specialised equipment built for this specific purpose. Examples of industrial-grade machines designed for CO2 extraction include the BOSS CO2 Extraction System and the CannabisSFE.

Why Is the Extraction Method for CBD Important?

The process of extracting CBD from hemp will have a massive impact on CBD oil’s purity and potency. For instance, the use of solvents like butane and propane can result in the final product having small traces of hydrocarbons. Most people will agree that the best and cleanest extraction method for CBD is the CO2 method. There are no dangers for chemical contamination, and the result is safe, pure and potent CBD oil. However, the need for specialised equipment to keep CO2 in liquid form also makes this extraction method expensive.

At Nutrivive, our premium CBD-based oils and creams are created using the CO2 extraction method, guaranteeing the purest CBD you can buy. Take advantage of our Try Before You Buy programme to get a sample shipped to your doorstep before you commit to a full purchase.