In the herbal and aromatherapy world, you might often hear the phrase “just use a carrier oil” with no explanation. But what does that mean? Herbalists, aromatherapists, and crafters of topical essential oil preparations rely on carrier oils to safely get the job done. However, carrier oils are more than simply a vessel to deliver plant medicine. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of carrier oils, their dynamic properties and benefits, how to use them, and tips on proper storage for maximum health benefits.
What is a Carrier Oil?
Essential oils are highly concentrated, potent aromatic oils that can be dangerous to use directly on the skin because they have the potential to cause adverse reactions, painful side-effects and allergic responses. Therefore, it is common practice to dilute essential oils with a carrier or base oil to help disperse the oils more evenly, and sometimes even enhance their therapeutic benefits.
However, calling an oil a “carrier oil” can be quite limiting; it’s true that in this circumstance it’s being used to carry or deliver an essential oil, but carrier oils have diverse health benefits and can do so much more than simply carry in beauty and healthcare products.
These types of oils are extracted by pressing the seeds of plants, which can include nuts, legumes, beans, kernels, grains, and even the pulps around seed kernels, like avocado . Different oils are quite diverse in chemical makeup, which means that each one can have unique properties and therefore, various ideal uses.
Carrier oils are an important part in skin and hair care formulas and other topical preparations, so it’s important to understand their strengths to be able to use them accordingly for your DIY botanical crafting. Additionally, not all botanical-derived oils make good carriers, since they vary in color and viscosity, so learning their different properties will help you decide which oil is best to use in a particular application.
Some of the most common types of carrier oils used include olive, jojoba, coconut, apricot, argan, avocado and sweet almond, but there are many others.
Composition of Oils
Oils are made up of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and contain many healthy compounds, such as vitamins and minerals, antioxidants including carotenoids and flavonoids, poly-phenolic compounds, tannins, phospholipids, terpenes and terpenoids, and lignans .
It’s common to see both refined and unrefined oils available for purchase. Refining processes vary depending on how the oil will be marketed and sold; sometimes it’s only filtered, or partially refined of scent, color or wax, or it’s fully refined so that only the fatty acids remain .
The color of the oil can indicate what compounds are in it and how refined it is; oftentimes the refining process changes the color and composition of the oil. A reddish or orange color in an oil suggests the presence of carotene, the source of Vitamin A. Flavonoids, antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, are often present in yellow and orange colored oils . Lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, is red and purple in color. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin create a green color. If the oil is very light in color, that usually indicates that it still maintains it’s healing fraction, also known as unsaponifiable fraction, and it contains powerful therapeutic actions for healthy skin .
How To Use a Carrier Oil
The most common ways carrier oils are used are for essential oil dilution and making herbal infused oils, which can be used in countless topical preparations for health and beauty.
Essential oil dilution
As previously mentioned, there can be potential negative side-effects when applying undiluted essential oils directly on the skin, so it’s recommended to dilute them with a carrier oil first. Once you pick your preferred carrier oil, you can begin to dilute essential oils according to the dilution ratio you want.
For one teaspoon of carrier oil, add 1 drop essential oil for a 1% ratio, 2 drops for 2% ratio and 5 drops for 5% ratio. For one tablespoon of carrier oil, add 3 drops of essential oil for 1% ratio, 6 drops for 2% ratio, and 15 drops for 5% ratio. Gently stir to mix well and it’s ready to use.
Herbal infused oils
The medicines of various botanicals and plant parts are commonly infused into a carrier oil, allowing the plant’s medicinal properties to be applied topically. Herbal infused oil can be safely applied directly to the skin or used in herbal salve recipes or other preparations.
To make a plant infused oil, you’ll need a carrier oil, dried plant material, and a double boiler. You want to avoid applying direct heat to oil so it doesn’t overheat or burn. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can use a heat-proof glass bowl or a jar placed in a crock pot or other pot full of water (a quick Google search for DIY double boiler should give you some great guidance).
Make sure to use dried plant material because fresh plants have a small amount of water content and when water is mixed with oil, it can become rancid more quickly or produce mold. Cut up and place the dried plant material into the top portion of your double boiler. Pour in the carrier oil, making sure that all of the plant material is covered. Add water to the bottom of the double boiler and bring to a simmer for 2-4 hours, or longer, stirring every now and then and checking in to make sure the oil isn’t getting too hot and burning. Keeping your infusion between 120 - 140 degrees fahrenheit is ideal. Allow the oil to cool, strain into a glass container using cheese cloth or other fine mesh, and don’t forget to label it!
Click here for our guide on making resin and gum infused oils after finishing this article.
Proper Storage Techniques
The shelf life of carrier oils depends on the composition of the oil and can range anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. To prolong the quality and composition of the oil, store it in an airtight container, preferably glass, in a cool dark place. To minimize the amount of sun exposure the oil receives, which will also help prolong shelf life, use amber colored glass. You can also store the oils in the refrigerator to extend it’s life . You will know that an oil has gone rancid when the smell appears to be “off”, it will smell like something sour or metal.
Common Carrier Oils
Olive oil is probably the most common carrier oil used since it’s easy to find and readily available in most grocery stores. It’s highly moisturizing and very gentle and nourishing on the skin without leaving a lot of greasy residue behind. It’s believed to have a cleansing and softening effect on the skin while helping with wrinkles and reducing the signs of aging. .
Olive oil has high levels of Vitamin E, an antioxidant which can help protect the skin from the harsh outside world (think wind and intense sun rays) and helps fight inflammation and acne . It’s also commonly used as a hair moisturizer and is believed to help with dandruff .
Jojoba oil might be one of the most popular oils for skin health due to its wide range of benefits. Not only is it rich in health-boosting antioxidants and Vitamins A, E, and D, but it's waxy texture has similar properties to sebum, the oily substance produced by your body’s skin glands that helps coat, moisturize, and protect your skin .
Because it can mimic your own body’s oil, jojoba is able to penetrate deeply, reaching below the top layer of your skin for maximum nourishment . This also means that when used as a carrier oil, it will help carry the plant medicine to exactly where you want it to go.
It’s also naturally antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory, making it great for reducing acne and skin irritations like eczema and psoriasis, as well as cold sores and dandruff . It also works well as a carrier oil with aromatic plant medicine, since it doesn’t have a strong scent of its own. This multi-use oil is a great one to have on-hand.
Coconut oil is easy to find in most grocery stores, but it can be a little tricky to work with as a carrier oil, since it changes consistency at different temperatures. Coconut oil melts at about 78° F, so it’s generally solid at room temperature and liquid at anything higher than that . This can complicate a recipe if you’re using coconut oil in a salve or as a carrier oil that you want to remain liquid or solid.
It’s common to see both refined and virgin coconut oil for sale; refined has a milder scent and flavor but lower nutrients, while unrefined is minimally processed with a strong coconut scent and flavor. Both can be used as a carrier oil, the type you choose depends on what’s more important to you and your recipe - health benefits or aromatics.
If you want it to always remain a liquid, you can also use fractionated coconut oil. The process of fractionating makes the fatty acid chains separate out and it will always be a liquid consistency - nothing is added to the oil to make it this way.
Coconut oil is a great moisturizer and has many potential skin benefits, since it contains lauric acid, which is believed to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties . However, it’s generally recommended to use coconut oil on your skin but not your face, since those with oily skin tend to find it too heavy, aggravating acne instead of reducing it . Everybody is different, so ultimately you’ll have to experiment and see if this oil would work for your skin type.
This oil is most commonly used for it’s skin and hair benefits. It’s moisturizing properties are great for sensitive, dry and inflamed skin and it is commonly used to help maintain skin tightness and skin elasticity . It is believed to help reduce oily skin and wrinkles and is gentle enough to be used on sensitive skin. It can also help with acne due to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. It’s also commonly used for damaged or thinning hair, split ends, dry scalp, and dandruff .
This oil has a lot of the same advantages as sweet almond oil, so it’s a great substitute for those who have a nut allergy. Apricot kernel oil’s many beneficial properties include anti-Inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiseptic, antioxidant, and anti-aging.
Similar to jojoba oil, it closely resembles the natural sebum produced in human skin, and therefore is very effective as a carrier oil. It is high in Vitamins A and E, which can help protect skin against sun damage and can repair scarred and blemished skin .
Argan oil also has high levels of skin protecting and repairing Vitamin E. It also has essential fatty acids that are known to hydrate and soothe dry skin as well as balance the hormones in the skin. It’s helpful for dry skin conditions that cause itchiness and inflammation. It has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiseptic, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and antiseptic properties and is commonly used to combat acne .
In a world filled with overly processed skin products, it can be empowering to learn about the many natural and healthy resources that exist, sometimes already present in your kitchen cabinet! Carrier oils are a great way to topically apply the medicine of aromatic plants and many of them have their own therapeutic qualities to add to your healing or beautification intentions. There’s so many oils to choose from that it can get quite overwhelming, so we hope this guide has helped you gain a better understanding on the many carrier oil options and their benefits.
Article written by Melissa Szaro
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© 2021 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.