By Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, RA, LMT
Pictured: Carrier oils, butters, waxes, and salts. Thank you to Mountain Rose Herbs for providing the products to write this post.
“What’s the difference between a carrier oil and an essential oil?”
This is a very common question I hear these days, especially as more people are getting interested in essential oils. Here’s the answer in a nut shell (no pun intended)!
A carrier oil, also called a fixed oil, is comprised of fatty oils along with valuable vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that can offer great nourishment for the skin. It is typically pressed from plant parts such as the seeds, nuts, and fruit. Carrier oils can have varying degrees of texture, thickness, and aroma.
An essential oil is extracted differently than a carrier oil. It is typically steam distilled from aromatic plant material, and only the lightest weight components are extracted. Therefore, an essential oil is described as “volatile,” because its constituents are light weight, chemically reactive, and evaporate easily.
While essential oils offer valuable therapeutic benefits, they do not contain the nourishing fatty oils or nutrients found in carrier oils. This is because those components are too heavy to be steam extracted.
Further, essential oils contain the very chemically reactive components of a plant. This gives them a much lower therapeutic margin. In other words, a tiny amount goes a very long way!
How best can I enjoy using carrier oils with essential oils topically?
Diluting essential oils in a carrier oil with topical use offers therapeutic benefits and is recommended by experts. Applying essential oils undiluted can cause unpleasant skin reactions.
For general use to make body oils, lotions, or sprays, it is suggested to dilute essential oils to 2% in a carrier oil. This equals about 10-12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil.
It is suggested to dilute more heavily with sensitive skin, the elderly, pregnancy, and children. Further, one should review possible contraindications of essential oils before use. Some botanicals may not be appropriate for young children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, sensitive skin, and those with certain medical conditions.
Benefits of Carrier Oils
Carrier oils help improve the skin and aid in the absorption of essential oils by reducing their evaporation rate. Carrier oils contain valuable proteins, fatty oils, and nutrients that can provide a variety of benefits to our skin and hair. Benefits can include moisturization, adding a protective layer, and soothing irritations.
Plus, carrier oils can help reduce the evaporation rate of essential oils. Since essential oils contain only light weight constituents, they evaporate quickly. Mixing with a heavier carrier oil not only reduces evaporation, but it also can improve absorption into the skin.
Which carrier oil should I choose?
Here are a few pointers to consider when choosing the best carrier oils. First off, it’s equally as important to use quality carrier oils as it is to use quality essential oils. What you put on your skin absorbs into your body! These are some general guidelines.
- Buy from a reputable source.
- Check expiration dates.
- Choose cold pressed if possible.
- Select organic products when available.
- Choose an unrefined carrier oil for more nutritional value.
What is a hot pressed versus a cold pressed oil?
While hot processed oils are usually more affordable, the heat process can destroy fatty acids and other important nutrients. Heat can also increase oxidization of an oil. With some carrier oils such as jojoba, the heat does not affect the oil as much. But with other carrier oils like olive, heat could reduce the nutritional value of omega fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Why should I choose an organic carrier oil?
Organicly grown plants are exposed to less harmful chemicals, including pesticides, biocides, and fertilizers. The skin, being the largest organ of absorption of the body, is like a sponge. It soaks up the topical products. So, it is important to avoid applying carrier oils that may contain harsh chemicals. If a product is organic, it should have the official USDA organic logo.
What is a “refined” carrier oil?
Refined oils have had components removed to change the color, texture, aroma, or chemistry. Some people may prefer refined oils for various reasons. For example, cocoa butter can be refined to remove the strong aroma. Or, coconut oil can be fractionated so that it is liquid at room temperature. A disadvantage of a refined oil is that it may lose significant nutritional value.
Carrier Oil Overview
There are many carrier oils, so which one(s) should you choose? Generally, lighter textured carrier oils permeate the skin more readily than the thicker carrier oils. Thicker carrier oils can be more nourishing, especially for dry skin. However, thick oils may clog the pores, especially in those with oil or blemish-prone skin. Below is a description of some of the most popular carrier oils.
Rich in fatty oils and vitamins, unrefined avocado oil (Persea gratissima or P. Americana) is greenish in color and extra thick. (Refined oil is yellowish in color.) The oil is extracted from the fleshy portion of the fruit. Containing vitamins A, E, and high in fatty acids, it is a superb choice for very dry or damaged skin. To reduce the thickness, it can be mixed with lighter carrier oils like sweet almond or sunflower oil.
Coconut oil (Cocos nucifera) is extracted from the white flesh inside the coconut. Or, the seed can be boiled, pressed, or solvent extracted (1).
Coconut oil absorbs easily and can be protective, moisturizing, and conditioning for both the skin and hair. It can be purchased fractionated (refined) or unrefined. Fractionated coconut oil remains liquid at room temperature and does not have a strong aroma. It has a long shelf life.
Unrefined coconut oil is solid at room temperature and retains a strong coconut aroma. It is morerich in fatty acids than the refined oil, but has a shorter shelf life of about 2 years.
Jojoba (Simmondsia sinensis) seeds are cold pressed, filtered, then pasteurized to make a liquid wax. The wax is processed to make a golden oil that is very light, and similar to our skin’s sebum. Thus, it is easily absorbed (2).
It is a great oil for the face since it does not clog the pores. It may also be helpful for occassional skin irritations, aging skin, dry skin, brittle nail cuticles, and shining up the hair.
Unrefined oil is golden in color with a mild aroma. Refined varieties of the oil are bleached to remove color and aroma (1). Both varieties are very tolerant to heat and have a long shelf life.
Olive oil (Olea europaea) comes from the flesh of the fruit, which is fermented, pressed, and filtered. The first pressing is considered extra virgin, with re-pressings of the same fruit producing a lesser quality olive oil.
Olive oil is rich in fatty acids and is widely used for both skin/hair products and as a culinary delight. Unrefined oil is more bold in flavor, color, aroma, and thickness.
Avoid olive oil on the skin of people who have pimples or acne, as it can clog the pores.
Sunflower oil (Helianthus annus) is preferably cold pressed from the seeds of sunflowers. Lesser qualities maybe solvent extracted (1). It is light and has a good shelf life of about two years.
Sunflower oil contains vitamins A, D, E, and is rich in fatty acids. The oil has a non-greasy texture and penetrates the skin readily. It is good for softening and moisturizing and may also help with mild skin irritations.
Sweet Almond Oil
Sweet almond oil (Prunus dulcis or P. amygdalis) is pressed from the kernels of an almond tree. The oil has a very mild aroma, and a light consistency that is non-greasy and easily absorbed. It contains vitamins A, E, and is high in fatty acids, and may be helpful to dry or irritated skin. It is one of the most used carrier oils because it is affordable, has a long shelf life, and has a delightfully light consistency.
Additional ingredients to use in topical recipes often include butters, waxes, and salts.
Butters, waxes, and salts are often ingredients in topical recipes such as lotions, salves, and lip-balms. Butters and waxes are melted via heat at a low temperature. Then, additional carrier oils and essential oils can be combined following recipe instructions.
Cocoa butter comes from fermented seeds that are roasted and then hot pressed or solvent extracted (1). Unrefined butter is strongly aromatic and smells like chocolate. Refined butter has the aroma removed. Both butters are creamy, thick, and protective to the skin.
Beeswax offers protection, hydrating, and healing benefits to the skin. These include potential anti-inflammatory, regenerative, and antimicrobial uses (3). It should be avoided by people with allergies to honey.
Salts such as epsom salt and pink Himalayan sea salt are often used in skin products such as body scrubs and bath oils. They contain valuable vitamins and minerals and are good for exfoliating the skin. Making a body scrub is simple, just add equal amounts of a carrier oil and salt. Additionally, essential oils can be added at a 2% dilution rate (10 – 12 drops per ounce of carrier oil in the recipe).
Carrier oils offer great benefits to the skin and are important for safely diluting essential oils with topical use. There are a variety of carrier oils to choose from, or multiple oils can be blended together in recipes for additional benefits.
- Price, L. & Price, S. (2008). Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage, 4th England: Riverhead Publishing.
- Christenhusz, M. J., Fay, M. F., & Chase, M. W. (2017). Plants of the World: an illustrated encyclopedia of vascular plants. University of Chicago Press.
- Fratini, F., Cilia, G., Turchi, B., & Felicioli, A. (2016). Beeswax: A minireview of its antimicrobial activity and its application in medicine. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 9(9), 839-843.
Glass 1: Olive Oil
Glass 2: Sunflower Oil
Glass 3: Avocado Oil
Glass 4: Fractionated Coconut Oil
Glass 5: Jojoba Oil
Bowl 1, left: Epsom Salt
Bowl 1, right: Himalayan Pink Salt
Bowl 2: Beeswax
Ball 1: Raw Coconut Oil
Ball 2: Babassu Oil
Front: Cocoa Butter
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