Carrier Oils: A Comprehensive Guide

Different carrier oils have different properties, and finding the right carrier oil can make all the difference in the efficacy of your aromatherapy practice and skin care regimen. Depending on your goals, carrier oils can even boost the positive benefits of essential oils. There are a lot of options out there, but selecting the right carrier oil doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Learn the pros and cons of some of the most popular carrier oils, and the best way to find the right oil combination for you.

What is a Carrier Oil?

Like essential oils, carrier oils, or base oils,  are derived from plants and used to dilute essential oils so they may be applied safely to the skin for aromatherapy or skin-care treatments. Much more stable than their highly concentrated and often volatile counterparts, carrier oils provide a stable medium to “carry” the compounds of essential oils. They are often unscented or lightly scented, and do not interfere with the therapeutic benefits of essential oils.

Though the high concentration of compounds in essential oils is key to their potency and effectiveness in a wide variety of applications—it’s also the reason that they can irritate the skin if applied directly. Carrier oils mitigate that risk, and often provide their own benefits in addition to whatever essential oil they are carrying. As far as skin care goes, it’s a win-win. Think of carrier oils as the supportive partner behind the scenes. Essential oils may get all the glory, but they couldn’t do their job without a carrier oil to (literally) carry them along. 

How Do I Choose a Carrier Oil?

Just like no two plants are alike, neither are two carrier oils. Each oil has its own scent profile, consistency, and chemical makeup that makes it better or worse, depending on the intended application and the person using it. For example, coconut oil has some antimicrobial properties, and is often recommended for dry and undernourished skin. However, it’s also high on the comedogenic scale, meaning it’s likely to clog pores and not a great option for somebody prone to acne. Likewise, personal preference is also an important factor, and the comedogenic rating will make no difference at all for somebody who hates the smell of coconut (or conversely, loves the smell of coconut!). 

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different oils or oil combinations to figure out what works best. The answer is often different for everybody, but there’s no reason there can’t be fun in the process. Plus, many carrier oils double duty as cooking oils—so the potential risk of not liking a certain carrier oil might just lead to a delicious salad dressing, instead.

With that said, not all oils make good carrier oils. That thing about double duty as cooking oils? Doesn’t apply to vegetable shortening, margarine, or butter—leave these guys in the kitchen. Likewise, if tree nut allergies are a problem, skip sweet almond oil, argan oil, and apricot kernel oil. Finally, if an oil is petroleum-based, like mineral oil or petroleum jelly, you may also want to consider it a no-no. 

How do I Use Carrier Oil?

First and foremost, it’s important to always do a patch test before applying a new carrier oil (or any oil for that matter!). Everybody’s skin chemistry is unique, and it’s important to make sure that the compounds in the oil will not cause skin irritation before applying them to larger areas of the body. To do a patch test, add a small amount of carrier oil to the inside of the wrist or just below the ear. Cover the applied area with a bandaid and check it again in 24 hours. If irritation occurs, rinse it off and do not use it again in the future.

If all is clear with the patch test, then proceed to diluting the essential oil(s)—this is the main function of the carrier oil, after all. Generally speaking, a 2.5% dilution ratio is plenty for adults who are not otherwise sensitive. Never go above a 10% dilution ratio, and if irritation occurs at any point, rinse the solution off and stop application. 

Medical News Today recommends:

For Children
.5% to 1% dilution = 3 to 6 drops essential oil per 6 teaspoons carrier oil.

For Everyday Use
2.5% dilution = 15 drops essential oil per 6 teaspoons carrier oil

For Aromatherapy
3% dilution = 20 drops essential oil per 6 teaspoons carrier oil

For Treating Temporary Health Concerns (such as muscle pain)
5% dilution = 30 drops essential oil per 6 teaspoons carrier oil
10% dilution = 60 drops essential oil per 6 teaspoons carrier oil

Once tested and diluted, feel free to apply the carrier and essential oil solution on the skin or hair, and to treat maladies like bug bites. Keep in mind, do not apply essential oils to sensitive areas like the lips or eyes, the same way as with any other skin cream or lotion.

Finally, keep the solution stored in a dark glass bottle away from the heat and light to prevent premature oxidation.

Popular Carrier Oil Options

When shopping for carrier oils, look for varieties that are 100 percent pure, additive- or preservative-free—the more natural the product is, the more benefits the skin will reap. If it is a cooking oil, look for organic, unrefined, and cold-pressed options. The term cold-pressed refers to the extraction process, which does not use any heat or chemicals to remove the oil compounds. Unrefined also indicated that heat or chemicals have not been used to treat the carrier oil, helping to retain the maximum nutritional and therapeutic benefits of the plant compounds. 

If looking for a carrier oil to use on the face, a lighter weight consistency is usually better, since it will absorb faster into the skin. Thicker oils are ideal for the body and extremely dry or irritated skin. If acne or breakout is a concern, choose an oil that is a 1 or 2 on the comedogenic scale, with 0 being the least likely to clog pores and 5 being the most likely to clog pores.

Apricot Kernel Oil

Consistency: Light to Medium
Aroma: Slightly sweet and nutty
Comedogenic Score: 2
Benefits: This edible oil is available in both culinary and cosmetic forms. Made from apricot seeds, known as kernels, it is considered an emollient high in fatty acids and vitamin E. Use it in massage oils, bath oils, and hair care, or to help calm and soften very dry skin.

Argan Oil

Consistency: Light, smooth
Aroma: Nutty
Comedogenic Score: 0
Benefits: Made from the kernels found inside the fruit of argan trees, which are native to Morocco, this edible oil is both good for the gut and the skin. It is full of monounsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin A—otherwise known as nature’s retinol. Use it to treat dry skin and hair, wrinkles, and skin inflammation.

Avocado Oil

Consistency: Heavy
Aroma: Nutty
Comedogenic Score: 3
Benefits: Derived from the avocado fruit, this edible oil is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid thought to help dry damaged skin. It also contains vitamins A, D, and E, and is good for treating dry skin and using in body creams. 

Black Seed Oil

Consistency: Medium
Aroma: Mild earthy aroma with a little spice
Comedogenic Score: 2
Benefits: Also known as black cumin seed oil and derived from the Nigella sativa plant, this carrier oil is commonly used in folk medicine to treat conditions like eczema, acne, and psoriasis. It is rich in unsaturated and saturated fatty acids, and demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Use for facial care, massage oils, and general skin care.

Coconut Oil

Consistency: Heavy, solid at room temperature
Aroma: Coconut
Comedogenic Score: 4
Benefits: This edible oil is high in polyphenols that nourish the skin, and fatty acids, particularly lauric acid which has known antimicrobial properties. It’s often used on the body and hair and is great for particularly dry skin or for use in massage oils.

Grapeseed Oil

Consistency: Light
Aroma: Neutral
Comedogenic Score: 1
Benefits: A byproduct of the winemaking process, this oil is derived from grape seed and is full of vitamin E and linoleic acid. Its lightweight consistency and lack of odor make it a great all-purpose oil. Use it for the face, body, or as a massage oil.

Jojoba Oil

Consistency: Medium
Aroma: Light and nutty
Comedogenic Score: 2
Benefits: Technically a wax, this carrier oil is derived from the seeds of the jojoba plant. It absorbs easily into the skin, and is thought to closely mimic sebum, the oil naturally produced by the skin. Studies have shown that it may help with mild treatment of acne. Use it for the hair, massage oils, facial moisturizers, and bath oils.

Olive Oil

Consistency: Heavy
Aroma: Strong
Comedogenic Score: 2
Benefits: Edible and easy to find, olive oil is rich in fatty acids like oleic acid, and plant sterols which are good for cleansing and moisturizing the skin. Opt for extra virgin oil and use in massage oils, facial cleansers, hair care, and handmade soaps where the strong scent is not a concern.

Rosehip Oil

Consistency: Light, dry
Aroma: Nutty and earthy
Comedogenic Score: 1
Benefits: Pressed from the seeds of Rosa rubiginosa bush or the Rosa moschata bush, which are left behind when their flowers die and drop their petals, this carrier oil is high in vitamins A and C, which both help reverse the effects of the sun on the skin. It is also high in essential fatty acids, including the antioxidative and anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid. Use it to treat dry skin, in massage oils, and moisturizers.

Sunflower Oil

Consistency: Light
Aroma: Neutral
Comedogenic Score: 0-2
Benefits: Another edible option, this lightweight oil is extracted from sunflower seeds and boasts a very mild scent. It acts as a barrier against toxins and germs that might cause infection on irritated skin, and will help moisturize the skin. Use for massage oils, general skin care, and facial moisturizers. 

Sweet Almond Oil

Consistency: Medium
Aroma: Strong and nutty
Comedogenic Score: 2
Benefits: This popular oil is edible, absorbs easily, and is rich in vitamin E and oleic acid. It is considered an all-purpose oil, good for massage oils, bath oils, and soaps, although the strong scent might not make it the preferred option for aromatherapy uses.

Carrier Oils For All!

As with essential oils, what you choose to be your new favorite carrier oil will depend on how you use it, your particular skin chemistry, and what your preferences are. This guide is a great place to start, but don’t be afraid to do more of your own research and try different oils until you find what works for you. Likewise, there is no reason not to mix and match oils, or use different oils for different occasions! Every oil has its own pros and cons, but that doesn’t mean exploring your options can’t be fun, rewarding, and ultimately therapeutic. 

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