Solvent Vs. Solventless Cannabis Extraction

With so many concentrates and other cannabis-derived extracts on the market, it’s not easy to choose the right one. 

One way to help your customers is to highlight the different extraction methods used to turn raw cannabis plant material into oils, vape e-liquids, topicals, waxes, shatter, and other end products.

There are multiple methods of cannabis extraction. Read on for a quick primer on how they work.

What Is Cannabis Extraction? The Basics

Put simply, cannabis extraction is the process of isolating the desired active compounds out of the cannabis plant.

The goal of any type of cannabis extraction is to separate the trichomes — tiny hair-like structures that store the sought-after cannabinoids and terpenes made by cannabis plants.1

Trichomes are most abundant on cannabis flowers, which are usually the starting material for extraction. There are two major ways to isolate trichomes: solvent-based and solventless.

Solvent-Based Extraction

As the name suggests, these methods use a chemical solvent to dissolve and isolate the trichomes from the cannabis flower. The three most popular cannabis extraction solvents are ethanol, carbon dioxide (CO2), and hydrocarbons (butane, propane, and others).

Solvents are widely used to create cannabis concentrates such as distillate, shatter, and live resin, and can be refined further for use in tinctures, vape e-liquids, edibles, and other products.

Ethanol, the intoxicating component of alcoholic drinks, is a popular solvent because of its relative safety and ease of use. It’s used by both large companies and individuals making their own cannabis extracts.

The main advantage of ethanol is that it can dissolve a wide variety of substances, including flavonoids, an often-overlooked group of active cannabis compounds.2 But this also means that ethanol can pull out undesirable components, such as chlorophyll, which can add undesirable flavors.

Hydrocarbon-based extraction is preferred for its efficiency. It can filter out waxes and other unwanted compounds and create potent extracts that require less refinement. However, hydrocarbon extraction is more tricky because these solvents are highly flammable.

A CO2 extracted product - available on Producer Connect

Some customers might also be concerned about the possibility of small amounts of residual hydrocarbon solvents being left behind in the final product, even if these levels are considered safe by Health Canada.

CO2 extraction uses high pressures and specific temperatures to turn carbon dioxide into an effective solvent.3

The CO2 method is touted as the cleanest, safest, and most tunable, which means it can be modified to extract different compounds. However, it’s also considered less economical than ethanol and hydrocarbon extraction and requires expensive equipment.

Solventless Extraction

Unlike solvents that use chemistry, solventless extraction methods physically separate cannabis trichomes from the flower. These methods have grown in popularity as some consumers perceive them as cleaner and safer than solvent-based techniques. 

However, solventless extraction is not easy to scale up. It’s mostly used to make small batches of flavourful, artisanal products, such as hash and rosin.

One example is cold water extraction, which uses ice and cold water to break off the trichomes. The trichomes don’t dissolve in water and can then be separated and dried. 

Another popular method is the rosin press, which uses heat and pressure to squeeze the trichomes out of the plant material. Other solventless methods include grinders, screens, and even hand-rolling to make hash, though you won’t likely find hand rolled hash on the shelf.

Which Method is Best?

There are many methods of cannabis extraction, each with its strengths, weaknesses, and variety of resulting products. 

There isn’t necessarily a “best” extraction method as it depends on your needs and preferences. That’s why many cannabis companies use multiple techniques.

Having said that, there are some tips you can give to customers. For example, people concerned about residual solvents should avoid products made with ethanol or hydrocarbon extraction.

Meanwhile, people looking for the richest flavor, minimal processing, or artisanal products would be best suited by solventless products.

You can find cannabis products made with all of the different extraction methods in our Producer Connect platform.

Gleb Oleinik

Gleb Oleinik is a freelance writer from Vancouver with a passion for educating people about the benefits of cannabis. He’s read hundreds of studies about cannabis, cannabinoids, and terpenes, helping him translate complex scientific research into plain language. When he’s not writing, Gleb likes to spend his time in the gym, out in nature, and working on his website projects.