What is the Difference Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation

Distillation is a process that separates substances in a mixture based on differences in their boiling points. Water distillation and steam distillation are two common types of distillation. The difference between water distillation and steam distillation lies in their process and uses.

What is the difference between water distillation and steam distillation? Water distillation focuses on purifying water itself, boiling it to separate it from contaminants, and leaving them behind. Steam distillation, on the other hand, uses steam to gently extract volatile compounds.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Water Distillation 
      – Definition, Properties
2. What is Steam Distillation
      – Definition, Properties 
3. Similarities Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation
      – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation
      – Comparison of Key Differences
5. FAQ: Water Distillation and Steam Distillation
      – Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Key Terms

Distillation, Water Distillation, Steam Distillation

Difference Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation - Comparison Summary

What is Water Distillation

Water distillation is a time-tested method for purifying water. It essentially boils impurities out, leaving behind clean water. Contaminated water is placed in a chamber and heated to its boiling point. This turns the water into vapor, leaving behind dissolved salts, minerals, and other impurities in the chamber. Then, the water vapor, free from contaminants, rises and travels to a separate condensation chamber. Water vapor then condenses back to liquid form as the condensation chamber is much cooler than the boiling chamber. The condensed water thus obtained is pure distilled water. This distilled water is collected in a container, separate from the remaining impurities in the boiling chamber.

Water Distillation

Distillation is highly effective at removing contaminants such as heavy metals, salts and minerals, bacteria, and viruses. There are numerous uses of distilled water. In situations where the safety of tap water is uncertain, distillation provides a reliable way to obtain clean drinking water. Distilled water is used in medical equipment for sterilization and in preparing medications. It is essential for scientific experiments where pure water is needed to avoid unwanted reactions caused by impurities.

Though distillation removes a considerable amount of contaminants, there could still be contaminants like volatile organic compounds along with the water. Moreover, this process is slow and energy-intensive.

What is Steam Distillation

Steam distillation is a specialized technique used to separate temperature-sensitive materials from unwanted components. Unlike regular distillation, where a liquid is directly heated, steam distillation uses steam to gently coax out these delicate compounds.

Imagine a pot of water steaming. That steam, lighter than air, carries volatile compounds (those that evaporate easily) along with it. In steam distillation, the steam passes through plant material, such as lavender flowers or orange peels, vaporizing the volatile compounds, often essential oils with desirable aromas. The steam and vaporized compounds then travel through a condenser, where they cool back into liquid form. Since essential oils do not mix with water, they separate after condensation, allowing for easy extraction.

Steam Distillation

Because steam distillation uses a lower temperature than the boiling point of the target compound, it prevents heat-induced decomposition, a major concern with delicate materials. This method is ideal for extracting essential oils from plants, as the fragrant compounds can break down at high temperatures.

Similarities Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation

  1. Both techniques rely on the principle of separating components based on their boiling points.
  2. After vaporization, both processes utilize condensation to collect the desired product.
  3. The basic setup for both methods involves similar equipment like a distillation flask, condenser, and collection vessel.

Difference Between Water Distillation and Steam Distillation


  • Water distillation uses direct heating to boil a liquid, creating vapor that is collected and cooled back into a liquid to separate it from other components. Steam distillation involves using steam to separate substances from a mixture by vaporizing them and then condensing the vapor back into liquid form.

Substance Heated

  • In regular water distillation, the only substance in the boiling flask is the liquid you want to purify. In steam distillation, the target component is usually a solid or immiscible liquid mixed with water.


  • Steam distillation often allows working at lower temperatures compared to regular distillation.


  • In water distillation, the liquid itself is heated to boiling, vaporizing it. In steam distillation, steam from boiling water carries the vapor of the target component, even if its boiling point is much higher.


In conclusion, water distillation and steam distillation are distinct methods with similar principles. Water distillation purifies water by boiling it and condensing the steam, removing impurities. Steam distillation, on the other hand, extracts temperature-sensitive compounds using steam, ideal for delicate materials like essential oils.

FAQ: Water Distillation and Steam Distillation

1. What are the advantages of steam distillation over distillation?

Steam distillation has several advantages. The equipment used for steam distillation is quite inexpensive. This process generates organic solvent-free products. Moreover, it possesses a large capacity at the industrial scale for processing oils.

2. Which distillation is more effective?

Fractional distillation is more efficient and is suited for mixtures of volatile liquids. Fractional distillation leads to a better separation than simple distillation because the glass beads in the fractionating column provide “theoretical plates” on which the vapors can condense and then re-evaporate, and re-condense, essentially distilling the compound many times over.

3. What are the disadvantages of steam distillation?

The main disadvantage of steam distillation is that it may not be effective for substances with very high boiling points or those that are thermally unstable.

4. How long does steam distillation take?

Steam distillation may take from half an hour to several hours. Factors like the volume of the material, its nature, and the desired purity of the distillate can all impact the duration of the distillation process.

5. What is the conclusion of steam distillation?

In the separation process of steam distillation, temperature-sensitive materials such as natural aromatic compounds are purified or isolated from the rest of the mixture.


1. “Distilled Water.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation.
2. “Steam Distillation – An Overview.” Science Direct.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Distillation 3” (CC0) via OpenClipArt
2. “Steam Distilation” By Lazar.zenit – Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasini A

Hasini is a graduate of Applied Science with a strong background in forestry, environmental science, chemistry, and management science. She is an amateur photographer with a keen interest in exploring the wonders of nature and science.

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