Ethanol-based herbal tinctures


Ethanol has a long history of use for medicinal herbal tinctures. Before humans had the technological abilities to manufacture drugs, we relied heavily on ethanol to extract and preserve bioactive compounds in plants. Even today, herbal medicine is alive and well. In this article, we’ll discuss the relevance of medicinal tinctures, and why food grade, organic ethanol is such an essential ingredient.

What is a tincture?

In herbal medicine, it is common practice to extract plant compounds using either water, ethanol, or a mixture of the two. These solvents would have been readily available during the development of herbal medicine. For water-based decoctions, water is heated with the herbs to make a medicinal tea. Another approach is to soak the herbs in a mixture of ethanol and water. This second approach is known as an herbal tincture.

Advantages of tinctures in herbal medicine

Herbal tinctures have always had a time and place in medicine. Even today, when western drugs are readily available for many conditions, herbal medicine may be preferred for improved efficacy and reduced side effects.

Tinctures might be preferred over decoctions for several reasons. First of all, in many herbal traditions, the ethanol itself is considered to have warming and moving properties. While alcohol has detrimental health effects at full serving dosages, the small amounts used in tinctures might be considered to contribute to the medicine itself. A typical dosage for an herbal tincture is just 5 mL, or about one-sixth a serving of alcohol.

Secondly, the alcohol has a preservative effect. While water-based decoctions must be consumed almost immediately (within a day), ethanol-based tinctures can be prepared ahead of time. When herbal tinctures were the primary medicine (as they still are in some parts of the world), this was a particularly crucial feature. In emergencies, the medicine would be already on-hand, without any required preparation. On another practical note, ready-made tinctures are more convenient since they can be quickly and easily administered.

Tinctures are also more concentrated compared to decoctions, so just a small volume can deliver the same total quantity of bioactive compounds. This brings us to a final very important aspect of herbal tinctures, that we now have the technology to further explore: ethanol is especially well-suited to extract many important phytochemicals.

Throughout history, herbalists have observed in their practice that certain herbs or certain diagnoses are best treated with tinctures as opposed to decoctions. Although herbal medicine pre-dates the invention of mass spectrometry and NMR, doctors could observe through their clinical experience that ethanolic tinctures were more effective in certain cases.

Recall from basic chemistry the principal of “like dissolves like.” Phytochemicals have a higher affinity for solvents that have similar polarity. The energy required to disrupt intermolecular forces, especially hydrogen bonding, cannot be very different from that of the forces in the new mixture. Ethanol, being slightly less polar than water, is sometimes a better solvent. Also, the use of ethanol-water mixtures in tinctures gives the herbal chemist room to manipulate which molecules are getting extracted. If they require a more polar solvent, they can use a higher ratio of water to ethanol. If they require a less polar solvent for the desired bioactive compounds, they can use a higher percentage of ethanol. In fact, some phytochemicals are insoluble in water, and would be impossible to extract without the availability of food grade ethanol.

Now that we have techniques like HPLC and mass spectrometry available to us, we can confirm the empirical evidence we have from herbal traditions. This table shows examples of how the percentage of ethanol can be optimized to extract different classes of phytochemicals:

Percentage Ethanol in Water

Desired phytochemical


Tannins, some glycosides (flavonoids, saponins)


Essential oils, alkaloids, saponins, some glycosides


Resins, oleoresins


Myrrh is an example of a resin that is pretty much impossible to extract using water or even other food-safe solvents like glycerin. Myrrh is used in Ayurvedic medicine, and is also part of the Chinese Materia Medica with the name Mo Yao. Furthermore, water and glycerin are poor preservatives and do not have the same warming or invigorating qualities that are coveted for certain medical treatments.

The importance of food grade, organic ethanol

Medicine is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. That is why it is of the utmost importance that herbal tinctures are made with the highest quality, certified food grade and organic ethanol. At Lab Alley, our ethanol meets the standards for USDA Organic certification, which restricts the use of bone char in processing, as well as the types of pesticides/fungicides permitted during farming.


Herbal tinctures are still widely used for medicinal purposes around the world. Ethanol is often the best solvent for extraction of bioactive phytochemicals, thanks to improved extraction efficiency, preservation capabilities, and possibly the medicinal powers of ethanol itself. Although long-held traditions have dictated the best preparation method for various medicinal plants, modern technology has enabled us to identify the bioactive compounds that are the driving force behind the therapeutic benefits of some plants. And since medicine is only as good as the quality of its ingredients, it is imperative that herbal tinctures are made from the highest quality, food grade and organic ethanol.


Apers, Sandra, et al. “Quality control of liquid herbal drug preparations: ethanol content and test on methanol and 2-propanol.” Journal of pharmaceutical and biomedical analysis 33.4 (2003): 529-537.

Kumadoh, D. O. R. I. S., and K. W. A. B. E. N. A. Ofori-Kwakye. “Dosage forms of herbal medicinal products and their stability considerations-an overview.” J Crit Rev 4.4 (2017): 1-8.

Morgan, Michelle. “Ethanol in herbal medicine.” Mediherbal phytotheraphist’s perspective 129 (2009): 1-4.

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