When you’re working with essential oils, you need a carrier oil to dilute and carry your blend safely onto the skin. I’ve been working with, studying and teaching about carrier oils, fixed oils and lipid oils for over 20 years now, and here are a few examples of the carrier oils for essential oils:
- Apricot kernel oil
- Argan oil
- Avocado oil
- Baobab oil
- Camellia seed oil
- Chia seed oil
- Cranberry seed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Hazelnut oil
- Hempseed oil
- Jojoba oil
- Kukui nut oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Meadowfoam seed oil
- Passionfruit oil
- Plum seed oil
- Pomegranate seed oil
- Raspberry seed oil
- Rosehip seed oil
- Sesame oil
- Sweet almond oil
- Tamanu oil
And this is just the beginning of the list. Since beginning my research, I’ve discovered hundreds of carrier oils, and I continue to discover new oils.
So What Are Carrier Oils?
All carrier oils belong to the lipid oils. These oils are made up predominantly of fatty acids with small percentages of anti-oxidants, minerals and other healing compounds. This percentage is called the healing fraction, or unsaponifiable portion of the oil.
The term called carrier oil don’t describe the range of applications these oils possess. These oils of substance come from plant seeds; the reproductive, regenerative seed that produces the next generation to propagate the species.
Names vary and include, seed, bean, kernel, nut, grain even fruiting body, as happens with avocado or palm, but each is the reproductive kernel of the plant. The fat and oil produced by the seed is energy derived from sunlight that nourishes the future tree, or bush, or flower in its infancy as a seedling. Ultimately this sun energy is used up by the growing seedling while it makes its way to maturity, able to produce its own nourishment by photosynthesis.
And what are Essential Oils?
The essential oils are not located in a single plant part liker the carrier oils are. They are produced in specialized glands from all parts of the plant, from flower, to leaf, to root and more, they consist of volatile compounds that evaporate. This is how we enjoy their aromas. The need to marry the essential oils with the fixed seed oils is due to the high concentration of volatile compounds in the aromatic essential oils. Alone they can cause sensitization, burns, irritations and problems in and on the body.
Dilute them in the carrier fixed oils and you have a marriage made in heaven.
What makes a Carrier Oil a “Fixed Oil”
Carrier oils are made up of long chains of carbon, too heavy to disperse or evaporate into the air like the short volatile carbon compounds of the aromatic oils. Structurally and chemically different from each other, the seed oils stain paper or cloth while the essential oils evaporate into their surroundings.
While lipid oil chemistry is a large and complicated subject there are a few basic structural facts to help the understanding of these oils.
Carrier Oils: Solid to Liquid Depending on Saturation
Carrier oils, you will have noticed can be solid or liquid. In very hot weather the solid oils like coconut or shea butter can change states and turn liquid and they all melt in the presence of heat. The fat of animals also falls into this category of oil/fat/lipids. Just as the tropical butters are solid, animal fats are too and share similar fatty acids.
Solid, or liquid, these fatty oils are all considered lipids.
Lipids then, are the group of molecules that include the fatty acids that in turn, make up to 99% of each oil in the form of triglycerides. Also included in the lipids are the waxes and phospholipids, lecithin.
But oils have another important, if minor portion that are not lipids. This is the unsaponifiable portion or healing fraction. Consisting of between 1% to as much as 15% of some oils, the color, taste, vitamins, minerals, scent and other compounds are found in this unsaponifiable portion, a term that relates to making soap from oil. To saponify is to make soap. Only the lipids, fatty acids can be turned into soap.
Carrier oils can be clear to dark green, pale yellow to orange to deep red. Every plant produces its own oil with a variety of characteristics along with its own fatty acid profile that is uniquely its own.
Structure and Form, Simple Chemistry of Oils
The oils that are solid at room temperature are called saturated. They resist oxidation and have few places within their structure where oxygen can attach. They don’t go rancid easily or quickly and can be stored at room temperature. These are the oils to cook with, to use with heat when preparing food; coconut oil has become popular in the kitchen but also shea butter, cocoa butter, palm oil and mango butter. All can also be used topically to protect and moisturize the skin. Here we’re focusing on carrier oils for essential oils so we won’t go into the saturated oils and butters. Here’s a post on What Makes Lipid Butters Solid
Unsaturated Oils The liquid oils are called unsaturated, they can oxidize, react with oxygen and become rancid. Rancid oils aren’t suitable for food as the degradation creates toxic compounds in the body. There are different degrees of the unsaturated oils as listed below.
Each group is increasingly subject to oxidation and these oils need protection from heat, light and air. Time will also degrade them so use in a timely manner and refrigerate.
The categories of oil by saturation
Saturated, solid at room temperature, good for cooking and skin protection against weather extremes.
Monounsaturated, liquid but some portion can solidify when cold, good for low heat and flavoring, protects the outer skin layers.
Polyunsaturated, liquid, needs protection from heat, light, absorbs into the outer skin layers.
Super polyunsaturated, liquid, keep refrigerated, absorbs quickly into the top layers of skin.
The monounsaturated oils, olive, almond, avocado, apricot kernel, and macadamia are the minimally unsaturated and can be stored in cool temperatures and used for low heat cooking and flavoring foods. There is only one double bond in the fatty acid chain, the place where oxygen can attach. The monounsaturated oils provide some protection for the skin against weather and dryness. They absorb into the skin slowly yet better than the saturated oils.
Polyunsaturated oils are more delicate and more prone to oxidation, they will go rancid quickly if not protected from heat light and air. In this group are grape seed, evening primrose, non hybridized safflower and sunflower oils. These oils should be stored in cool temperatures and used quickly. Do not use with heat as they oxidize easily. On the skin they are light enough to absorb well into the top layers of skin.
In the polyunsaturated group are oils that are even more unsaturated, super polyunsaturated, flax, hemp, chia and walnut. These are the oils that are best stored under refrigeration to prolong their useful life. Their ability to go rancid as food makes them suitable for industry. It is the oils in this group that are used to make oil paint and flooring (linoleum). The fatty acids contain multiple places where oxygen can attach so that in time, they become dry to the touch.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
The polyunsaturated group of oils gives us the essential fatty acids, the omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. These EFA oil compounds we must take in as food to maintain health. When we don’t get enough of these nutrients or in unbalanced proportions our health suffers and chronic conditions can set in. They are among the essential food nutrients needed for life processes.
Storing unsaturated oils in the refrigerator keeps them fresh longer than at room temperature.
Carrier Oils for Skincare
Using the lipid carrier oils on the skin helps to maintain its health by nourishing and protecting the outer layers. As skin cell walls are 50% lipids, the plant oils with their similar fatty acids provide an abundance of help and nourishment for our skin. Used for massage, for protection, to defy skin aging while nourishing skin cells, the plant oils are natural beauty tonics.
All can be used on the skin with few exceptions. The different types of oils provide different properties depending on weather, climate and skin type.
As a rule the saturated oils grow in the tropical regions and provide natural sun protective compounds that protect the skin when in the sun. Coconut, cocoa and shea butters are the most popular. The saturated nature of these oils protects the skin from drying and helps maintain moisture in the cells.
The monounsaturated oils like olive, macadamia and almond protect and shield the skin from weather extremes. Some oils like camellia seed or hazelnut are high in plant compounds that help tame and balance oily skin.
The polyunsaturated oils absorb into skin layers more readily to deeply nourish the outer layers. Grape seed oil, evening primrose, borage and camelina help skin that is troubled and prone to breakouts.
The world of oils for skin care is rapidly expanding. New oils are brought to market regularly increasing the variety of skin nourishing compounds available to the food and skin care industry. New sources from the food industry are making interesting combinations of fatty acids available. Some of the newest are raspberry and blackberry seed oils and new and different forms of shea butter to name just a few.
Combining Essential Oils with Carrier Oils
Aromatic essential oils and carrier oils are the perfect marriage of plant based ingredients for use on the skin. Using just these two plant based raw materials a wealth of body care applications can be created.
Carrier oils are warmth carrying products produced by nature. Using them the on body protects the skin; it is warmed in winter and nourished with compatible fatty acids and botanical compounds. Carrier oils are best experienced, used on the skin to protect, nourish, and support its healthy functioning. Massaged in, or oiled against dryness, scented or left unscented, a blend of many oils or a single oil treatment, the possibilities are endless. Finding the combinations that your skin responds to best is an art in itself.
Climate, weather, seasons, indoors and out, even our age effects our skin. Its care needs to be adjusted depending on conditions throughout the year. Hot humid summers are not the same as cold dry winters. The skin’s needs throughout the year can be addressed by a wide variety of oils in conjunction with the underlying skin type. Many aspects of our lives play a part and determine our choices for caring for our skin.
The concentrated nature of essential oils when diluted in a carrier oil, makes for beautiful, aromatic and often therapeutic skin care. Using them directly on the skin however, can burn and irritate the skin layers. Over time, with concentrated use, the body develops sensitivity and reacts by developing either allergic reactions or physical damage from too strong and concentrated compounds in the oils.
Yes, these are natural compounds from nature but it’s never wise to disrespect Momma Nature! Using any of her gifts indiscriminately is to disrespect her. Not a good idea.
Note: Except for rare instances essential oils are not to be ingested into the body or used directly on the skin without dilution! Caution; over time, with continued exposure the possibility of developing sensitivities is a real danger, and may limit their use at all in the future. If an individual or group recommends using them ‘straight’ you have found the wrong source, keep looking.
Essential oils used in a one to three percent dilution deliver the aroma therapeutic properties without sensitizing the body unnecessarily.
Try This: A Simple Experiment
Experiential learning is an important aspect to getting to know the oils and their properties.
Talking about lavender essential oil is not the same as smelling it or of feeling it in almond oil massaged into your skin. By experiencing the world around us we come to know it. We can rely on our own reactions and engagement with the materials. Over time we gain body knowledge and when balanced with research into the subject we become truly knowledgeable.
Go into your kitchen, put a little olive or coconut oil on your hands and rub it into the skin on your forearms. Feel them, experience them. Or, if you have other oils try one oil on the right arm and another on the left arm; compare the feel, the soak in time and how each arm feels after an hour, two hours, or the next day.
As a further experience, add a few drops of a scented essential oil to one of the oils above and massage into your body after showering.
When oils are used on the skin while still damp, moisture is held in the skin by the oils. As our skin cells are half fats/oils/lipids, the fixed oil is the protection that holds moisture inside the body. The skin functions as a balance between moisturizing watery elements, protected by oily barriers.
Once you experience the oils you’ll have a deeper knowledge than theoretical information. You won’t mix them up or group them with the very different aromatic essential oils.
Whether for skin care or kitchen use, use high quality oils, organic if you can find them. Your health depends on it.
The carrier oils and the essential oils are a world apart in use and function as we’ve learned. Yet both types of oil enhance our health and enrich our lives. Using them appropriately enables each to provide their own benefits and health supporting properties.
To review, using the very concentrated essential aromatic oils on the skin without diluting them can compromise health and cause harm. They are strong medicine!
In contrast, the seed oils as carriers for the essential oils, as food and nutrition, and as skin conditioners can be used freely.
The following suggestions for massage oil and a face care oil are just a beginning. Remember, experience is important, so smell the essential oils, add them lightly to the seed oils you choose to experiment with.
Recipe ideas for Massage oil
Oils used for massage need the right amount of slip so that the hands glide along the skin for the duration of the treatment. But the oil also needs some tack and resistance, so the skin and underlying tissues can be worked.
Equal parts of several oils such as avocado, coconut, light olive oil, jojoba, macadamia, sesame and shea oil will provide the right mix of slip and tack.
To scent your massage oil, add between 10 and 15 drops total of essential oil per ounce of oil. Suggested essential oils are lavender, yang yang, geranium, rosemary, or other combination.
Recipe for a Facial oil
Facial oils are usually designed to provide a nutrient dense oil for face and neck areas; rose hip seed, sea buckthorn, argan, jojoba, apricot kernel, grape seed, avocado and others. The skin is nourished and moisture levels in the tissues is maintained by the fixed oils protecting the outer layers of skin.
Equal parts of a variety of nutrient dense oils make wonderful face oils. Facial oils are used in very small quantities so use teaspoons to measure small amounts. As oils age and oxidize over time, reformulate rather than make a large batch at one time.
Put the oils in a small dropper bottle and use just a few drops after washing morning and evening.
Essential oils for the face can include geranium, lavender, rose, yang, neroli.
Just remember that for each half ounce you’ll want to keep the essential oils to 9 to 10 drops or less.
What are your favorite go to carrier oils? leave a comment below.