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When reading about essential oils – whether you are brand new to essential oils or digging for new recipe blends – you'll often see a carrier or base oil included in the discussion, or see mention of dilution. So what is a carrier oil, and how do you know which one to get?
The carrier oil is a fatty extract, usually cold pressed from its source. Individual allergies aside, a carrier oil is not likely to cause sensitization and therefore makes an excellent medium to disperse the more concentrated essential oil across your skin.
When to Use Carrier Oils
Before you ask – yes, carrier oils are necessary! Once you get the hang of it, adding your essential oils to a carrier first is hardly any extra work, and in return you are actually amplifying the efficacy of your healing application.
It might seem backwards to say that diluting a substance makes it more effective, but in this case it is true. Essential oil applications without a carrier (called “neat” applications) put the oil directly onto your skin. A few things of note are happening here:
- The skin may be sensitized to the concentrated oil, harming the body by creating an allergic response.
- The essential oil may quickly evaporate off the surface of the skin, whereas the lipids in a carrier can help drive it into the pores. Remember, essential oils are “volatile organic compounds,” which means that they are emitted as gas when exposed to open air. This is why you may notice their aroma within seconds of opening the bottle.
- You can't massage it in or disperse it across wider spaces.
- An ingested neat oil may cling to the mucous membranes and never make it to the intended site of application.
- Not to mention, ingesting neat oils can easily burn your mouth and irritate your esophagus!
Bottom line: using essential oils undiluted is largely a waste of time, money and can place your body in harm's way. While there are instances when neat is acceptable – gentle oils, or oils under the supervision of a trained aromatherapist – your best bet is to dilute essential oils into a carrier every time.
Without essential oils, you will also use carriers as the base of most DIY herbal preparations, from lotion bars to chapstick to salves. Start with the most accessible carrier oils, then work through others as you learn their benefits and ideal uses.
4 Categories of Carrier Oils to Know
Herbal supply stores, health food stores, and online supply shops will offer you dozens of carrier oils to choose from. Don't get overwhelmed at your options! Carrier oils are relatively simple to understand, and for most preparations, you can't really go wrong.
We'll walk through the more common of the carrier oils here, but if you run into one you aren't sure about that isn't covered here, take the time to look it up and learn what it is and does. Self-education may not teach us everything, but it can take us a long way if we pursue it.
1. Beginner Oils: Olive and Coconut
The best place to start is at the beginning, and for DIY aromatic and herbal preparations, that's right in your own kitchen. Really, if we take it back to Hippocrates encouraging us to find our medicine in our food, the kitchen has been the starting point for many generations!
Let's spend a bit of time on these two, as this is likely where you'll start with carrier oils and diluted topical preparations before branching out to other carrier oils.
Olive Oil – Almost undoubtedly in your kitchen, as it is probably the most commonly used culinary and carrier oil out there. Because it is used so much, however, it may be adulterated with similarly-colored sunflower and corn oils. (1) Once again, we are reminded to check our product sources carefully!Extra virgin olive oil – which is cold pressed and minimally processed – is the ideal, and it will be a light green color with a thick scent. Sometimes, the scent can be off-putting, so you'll want to choose olive oil when making a highly aromatic blend or preparation.In 2015, a double-blind, randomized study took place in which olive oil was used on diabetic patients with ulcers on their feet. After four weeks of treatment, the patients who'd received olive oil topical treatments had smaller, less pronounced ulcers than those who received placebo or nothing. (2) The use of olive oil as a carrier can add to the soothing, healing effects of your dilutions and preparations.
Choose this when: Making homemade salves, creams and oil pulling. Good for dry skin.
Coconut Oil – A saturated fat taken from coconuts, which are actually giant seeds. The oil drives into the skin easily with very little greasy residue, taking the oils you've blended in with it. Even without anything blended into it, coconut oil has been shown to enhance the wound healing process. (3) You probably already use coconut oil regularly; its popularity has recently sparked internet jokes about how much you can do with coconut oil: fix your hair, fix your budget, fix your significant other…The jokes, of course are rooted in reality, poking good-natured fun at the almost comical range of things you can do with coconut oil.
Choose this when: Making most of your DIY projects and is a nice massage oil carrier. Tasty addition to your oil pulling ritual. And is best for dry skin as it leaves a little oily residue.
The way coconut oil is processed will affect its uses. Cold pressed coconut oil (virgin, extra virgin) will retain the coconut scent and will become solid when room temperature or cooler. Heat processed coconut oil will not have the taste and smell of coconut, and fractionated coconut oil (the most processed of the options) will not become solid. The tendency to solidify can be good or bad for your preparations – for quick dilutions, it is sometimes nice to mix up the essential oil into a semi-solid coconut oil and then be able to rub on a quick-melting preparation as it warms to your skin.
Fractionated Coconut Oil – Literally a fraction of the coconut oil – being that all of the long chain triglycerides have been removed – fractionated coconut oil is a lightweight emollient that is a must-have for dry or sensitive skin. Also referred to as FCO, It provides an effective barrier without clogging pores and leaves your skin feeling smooth and never greasy. It is considered to be the most cost-effective oil because it will never go rancid, and helps preserve the shelf life of your essential oils if blended. In fact, some suppliers claim that it can be mixed with other (more expensive) carrier oils to extend their shelf life. It is colorless and odorless, and it incorporates perfectly with other oils without altering their scent, appearance or effectiveness.
Chose this when: Quick dilutions with what you have on hand; enhancing skin healing; perfect to treat health conditions like infections, open wounds and chronic disease.
2. Nut & Seed Oils: Almond and Jojoba
These oils are probably not in your kitchen for cooking, but they are still very commonly purchased, easy to work with, and rich sources of skin-health nutrients. If you are ready to take a step beyond your pantry, these make a good place to start.
Almond Oil – Very mild in scent and flavor, almond oil is nutrient dense and versatile. Almond oil is a good topical source vitamins A & E, adding to the many nutritional benefits that almonds have simply as a food. Traditional uses indicate almond oil for dry skin conditions, like psoriasis and eczema, and its nutrient level and ability to penetrate the skin seems to support this use. As an emollient, almond oil can be soothing for sore skin. (4)
Jojoba Oil – If you've not yet heard of jojoba (or heard it pronounced), it's ho-HO-ba that you are looking for. Derived from the seeds, jojoba is actually classified as a liquid was, which adds another layer to your carrier oil choice. It doesn't solidify as quickly as coconut oil does, but the consistency is well suited to deep penetration and moisturizing. Jojoba has an excellent shelf life, which is perfect for storing until you need it for small dilution preparations. It has been studied for anti-inflammatory properties, wound healing ability, and efficacy in face-mask treatments for acne. (5, 6, 7)
Choose these when: Skin is dry or inflamed; nutrients are lacking; versatility and ease of use are desired. Good for most DIY projects.
3. Fruit Oils: Apricot, Avocado, and Grapeseed
Easy to remember thanks to kitchen staples, these oils typically come from the seeds of their respective fruits, as is the case with the other carrier oils. These choices are as affordable and accessible as they are versatile.
Apricot Oil – Available as expeller pressed or cold pressed, the difference is simply texture and preference. Apricot oil's nutrient profile includes vitamins E and A as well, or at least the carotenoid precursor to vitamin A. It is edible as well as beneficial topically. (8)Because it is so incredibly gentle as well as nourishing, apricot oil is a good choice for applications that will cover a good deal of skin or that will be applied on children heavily.
Avocado Oil – Avocado as a fruit is one of the best sources of fat and nutrients (and dip!) you can find. The oil itself, as you might imagine, is an emollient, taken from the smooth flesh around the pit. An exception to the typical seed-derived oil, avocado oil is rich in nutrients and excellent at penetrating the skin. In another animal trial, this one occurring in 2008, avocado oil was also found to have good wound healing ability. Before elaborating on the study, the researchers noted that the oil is “rich in nutrient waxes, proteins and minerals, as well as vitamins A, D and E…an excellent source of enrichment for dry, damaged or chapped skin.” (9)
Grape Seed Oil – Also a culinary oil, grape seed oil topically is used for its light texture and lack of residue. Once on and in the skin, grape seed is another oil verified for its contributions in wound care and healing. (10) The high levels of fatty acid content and antioxidants in grape seed oil contribute to much of its beneficial composition. (11) Without the heaviness of more saturated oils, grape seed makes a cleaner topical application with less of a greasy film.
Choose these when: Creating a massage oil; looking for deep hydration; creating chapsticks and balms.
4. Essential Fatty Acid Oils: Borage and Evening Primrose
While most of the carrier oils we've talked about and what is on the market are decent sources of essential fatty acids, some oils are considered good sources of these vital nutrients.
Borage Oil – Taken from the seeds of a flowering perennial herb, borage oil is a potent source of omega-6 essential fatty acids. While we usually take omega-3 to counter the unhealthy balance of essential fatty acids that our diet affords, borage oil as a natural source is a different story.Omega-6, at its root, is actually as anti-inflammatory as omega-3, which likely aids in the topical benefits of borage oil. It's in the overconsumption of junk-food-sources and lack of balance in the omegas that we begin to see trouble.Borage oil has been used for dermatitis and other anti-inflammatory preparations. (12)
Evening Primrose Oil – Named for the flowers that open only in the evenings, evening primrose oil is a more delicate oil that must be cold pressed, refrigerated, and should not be added to any heat preparations.Typically, evening primrose is consumed in supplement or culinary form, and of those uses it is highly researched and evaluated for its benefits as a source of essential fatty acids. For topical use, results seem to be similar to that of borage: anti-inflammatory effects that relieve flare ups such as dermatitis. (13)
Although these are culinary oils, we already get large amounts of omega-6 in the diet. Be cautious with long-term culinary ingestion without professional guidance.
Choose these when: Resolving topical inflammation; essential fatty acid deficiency/imbalance is a problem. Creating hormone-balancing serums and women's health blends.
How to Use a Carrier Oil
For simple dilution purposes, start with small amounts of your carrier oil and work up as you become comfortable and have sanitary ways of storing your blend. Always place blends into heat-sanitized containers, particularly if they will stay there for any amount of time.
Start with 1 tsp of carrier oil, which roughly translates to 60-100 drops. Since it's oil we are dealing with, the assumption is that it will be closer to 60 than 100. You can assume 100 for extra safety and simple dilutions (1% = 1 drop), or you can calculate based on the more generous (and likely more accurate) 60.
Here’s a simple dilution guide:
- 1% dilution = 6 drops of essential oils per 1 ounce of carrier oil = good for sensitive skin face, genitals, underarms, babies to toddlers
- 2-3% dilution = 12 – 18 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil = standard adult concentration for massage oils, creams and DIY recipes
- 5% – 10% dilution = 30 – 60 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil = more for acute conditions like infections. Don’t use for more than a week at a time.
- 25% dilution = 150 drops of essential oils per 1 ounce of carrier = for one-time application like wart removal, scraps, cuts, and other wounds.
- 50% dilution = 1:1 ratio of carrier to essential oils = not recommended unless under the supervision of a trained professional.
Stir the essential oil into the carrier, then apply as indicated. And that's that! You've successfully diluted your essential oil and enjoyed the added benefit of a nourishing carrier oil.