At best, they are considered to be the sidekicks that help our super heroes to get to the right places.
But is that all they are, a transport medium to carry the good stuff deep into the dermal layers?
Actually, no! The equation of essential and carrier oils is less like that of Batman and Robin and more like an Avengers movie in which each super hero brings his own unique abilities to the mix and adds to the overall strength of the group.
In other words, picking the first carrier oil that you can get your hands on is not the right way to go about the blending business.
Needless to say, going with the vegetable oil you have in your kitchen will also not work. And, never ever opt for mineral oil, read baby oil.
Now, most people are confounded by the sheer number of options available when buying carrier oils.
Unless you know how to pick those that will get the intended job done, chances are that you will get the wrong oil. If that happens, at best, your blend won’t work as well as it should. But at worst, you may end up with exactly the opposite effect of what you were aiming for.
So, today we are going to take a break from our essential oils and talk about the unsung heroes of the blending world – The Carrier Oils!
I am Olivia, the self-designated helper of Mother Nature, and you are reading the “Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best carrier Oils for Your Essential Oil Blends”.
As always, we will start with the basics and here is the first question that comes to mind when you start talking about carrier oils.
If essential oils are so good and safe, why the need for carrier oils?
Yes, they are shockingly good and effective and all that goodness and efficacy can be pegged down to the concentrated mix of phytochemicals in these aromatic extracts.
Think of it this way, a drop of peppermint essential oil has the potency of about 30 cups of peppermint tea. It takes hundreds of pounds of botanical raw material to extract just one pound of an essential oil.
I believe that explains the strength of these oils and just like guzzling down 30 cups of peppermint tea will leave you feeling sick, a drop of peppermint oil or any other essential oil will cause adverse effects if used without proper dilution.
Also, these oils are highly volatile, which means that if you were to apply them neat (we will discount the side effects of doing that for now), the drops will evaporate before they make a splash. This means that essential oils cannot be used in their pure, undiluted form.
And after that revelation, you don’t have a choice but to give the humble carrier oils, a standing ovation! Ladies and gentlemen, these fixed oils make it possible for us to harness the benefits of essential oils to the maximum.
Simply put, you cannot and should not use essential oils without carrier oils, unless you are looking for trouble. That said, let’s not forget that these fixed oils have their own unique benefits.
In fact, they can be segregated on the basis of the therapeutic value they offer, which brings me to my next question…
Are there really different types of carrier oils?
Well, you are right! It can be hard to tell the difference if you rely on your nose and your eyes. I mean, they come in different shades of brown, pale yellow or green and look almost the same.
The aroma is pretty nondescript; well they all smell oily but aside from that there is only the remotest scent of the nut or the plant they are derived from.
So, how do you tell these oils apart?
Simple, it’s all about the contents of these oils, because that’s what makes a difference to their therapeutic value.
Typically, plant oils are a mixture of fatty acids, waxes, phospholipids, sterols, phenolic compounds and squalene. All of these compounds impact skin physiology, including barrier function, antioxidant response, inflammation and cellular proliferation.
Carrier oils primarily vary in terms of their fatty acid profile, which means that you cannot gauge how an oil will work unless you know a bit about these compounds. So, here is a quick introduction.
If you have looked up healthy eating, you may have already encountered the debate on good fats and bad fats. But that’s not where we are headed; this is different.
I am going to start by telling you that your skin needs fats, both saturated (usually deemed bad) and unsaturated (generally considered good). Since I refuse to launch into organic chemistry 101, I will keep this simple.
Saturated fatty acids:
These have only single bonded carbon atoms, without any gaps in the chain of hydrogen molecules. So, they are more stable and don’t oxidize as quickly as unsaturated fatty acids. These are usually solid at room temperature think butter, coconut oil and plant butters like cocoa and kokum butter.
In skin care products, you will see these listed in the ingredients list as stearic, lauric, palmitic and myristic acid. Each of these compounds offers unique therapeutic benefits. I’ll talk about this a bit later.
Unsaturated fatty acids:
They have one or more double bonded pairs of carbon atoms, which leaves a gap in the hydrogen chain. This makes them less stable and more prone to oxidation than saturated fats. These are liquid at room temperature, think all the plant oils. Based on the number of bonds, you end up with two types of unsaturated fatty acids:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids have just one of these double bonded carbon pairs.
- Polyunsaturated have two or more double bonded carbon pairs.
Plant oils and butters have a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids along with the other compounds listed above.
Oils have a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, which keeps them in a liquid state at room temperature. In contrast, butters contain a higher proportion of saturated fats, which gives them their solid state.
The famed omegas
At this point, I need to introduce the Omegas, which are all unsaturated fatty acids. You may have read about Omega 3, when looking up information on fish oils and flaxseed oil. The Omega family also has other members.
- Omega 3 (polyunsaturated): Alpha linolenic, cis linolenic, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Omega 5 (polyunsaturated): Punicic acid
- Omega 6 (polyunsaturated): Linoleic, gamma linolenic, arachidonic
- Omega 7 (both mono and polyunsaturated): Palmitoleic, vaccenic
- Omega 9 (monounsaturated): Oleic, eliadic, erucic, ricinoleic
- Omega 12 (monounsaturated): Petroselenic
The suffix “essential” is often used with fatty acids, but in reality, only 2 of them are essential, meaning your body cannot make them. Hence, they have to be supplied from the outside.
The 2 essential fatty acids (EFA) are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which is from the Omega 3 family and linoleic acid, which is from the Omega 6 family.
As long as these 2 are made available, your body can synthesize the other fatty acids in their respective groups from these two. EFAs play a vital role in the formation and health of cellular membranes.
I bet you are wondering if only 2 of these are essential then why bother with the other Omegas? Well, all of that synthesis happens in the liver, which means that your skin needs a combination of all types of fatty acids and not just the essential ones.
Moreover, these Omegas contribute in varying ways to the viscosity, permeability and other characteristics of plant oils. For instance:
- Oils rich in Omega 3 fatty acids or alpha-linolenic acid and others have greater antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The highest proportion of Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in chia seed and flax seed oils.
- Oils rich in Omega 6 fatty acids or linoleic acid and gamma linoleic acid are light but help in preserving the integrity of the dermal barrier. Their low viscosity makes them ideal for oily and acne prone skin and summer weather. Oils that are rich sources of Omega 6 fatty acids include nigella, pumpkin seed, safflower, raspberry seed, passiflora seeds, walnut, soybean, hempseed, sunflower, grape seed, watermelon seed and evening primrose.
- Oils rich in Omega 9 fatty acids or oleic acid are thicker and have greater emollient and occlusive properties, means they are great for winter weather. Also, they offer better permeability, which makes them well suited for blends in which the bioactives need to get past the superficial dermal layers. Oils that contain high amounts of Omega 9 fatty acids include those extracted from almonds, neem, moringa, olive, hazelnut, macadamia, apricot kernel, meadowfoam seeds, tamanu and avocado.
- Oils rich in Omega 5 fatty acids or punicic acid have killer anti-inflammatory properties and a light texture, which makes them suitable for oily and aging skin and for daytime use. Pomegranate seed oil is the only source of this fatty acid.
- Oils rich in Omega 7 fatty acids or palmitoleic acid have superlative anti-inflammatory and healing properties. These oils are extremely effective against both age and sun related skin damage. Oils that contain a significant amount of Omega 7 fatty acids include sea buckthorn, peach pits and macadamia nut oils.
- Oils rich in Omega 12 fatty acids or petroselinic acid also offer anti-inflammatory and anti-aging benefits. Coriander seed, carrot seed, caraway seed and parsley seed oils are among the very few that contain this rare fatty acid.
Some carrier oils that have a near perfect balance of two types of Omega fatty acids. These include:
- Argan oil: Omega 6 and 9
- Camelina oil: Omega 3, 6 and 9
- Sea buckthorn oil: Omega 3, 6 and 7
- Rice bran oil: Omega 6 and 9
- Sesame oil: Omega 6 and 9
- Tamanu oil: Omega 6 and 9
- Cranberry seeds oils: Omega 3, 6 and 9
- Brazil nut: Omega 9 and 3
- Rosehip seed: Omega 3 and 6
- Shea butter: Omega 9 and saturated fats
Then, there are other oils that have unique lipid profiles, which offer extraordinary benefits. Here are a few of them:
- Castor oil is the only source of ricinolenic acid, which an Omega 6 fatty acid. This lipid is a cleansing agent, a natural dispersant and a potent astringent. So, it works well in bath and oil cleansing blends. Moreover, it is also a natural humectant.
- Jojoba oil, which is actually a plant wax, is the only source of eicosenic acid. This oil has one of the highest quantities of Omega 9 fatty acids with small amounts of saturated fats. In terms of chemical composition, it is the closest to sebum.
- Camelina oil and meadowfoam seeds oils are the two other sources of eicosenic acid, which is a non-comedogenic lipid that also boast of superlative skin penetrative abilities.
- Borage, sea buckthorn, black currant seed and evening primrose oils contain significant amounts of gamma linoleic acid. These should not be used in concentrations of more than 10%.
- Coconut oil, palm kernel oil, babassu oil, cocoa butter and kokum butter are the richest sources of saturated fats.
- Most oils contain some amount of vitamin E (tocopherol) but the richest sources of this nutrient among plant oils are those derived from apricot kernels, almonds, argan, avocado, camelina, chia seeds and wheat germ.
- The only three oils that contain vitamin C are rosehip seed, apricot kernel and hempseed. This nutrient plays an important part in clearing the skin of dark spots and hyper pigmentation caused by sun damage.
But, there is more to carrier oils than just fatty acids!
Although fatty acids form the bulk of all plant oils, other bioactive compounds also contribute to their therapeutic properties. These include:
These phytocompounds give carrier oils their antioxidant powers, which help to tackle the effects of oxidative stress and sun damage on the skin.
Phenolic compounds also have astringent properties that help to reduce the pore size and prevent skin sagging. Plus, they also exhibit moderate antimicrobial properties.
Pomegranate seed oil, grape seed oil, calendula oil, argan oil, camellia seed oil, black currant and blue berry seed oils and sea buckthorn oil are rich in phenolic compounds. Hence, they make wonderful additions to anti-aging serums.
This is a natural moisturizer that makes up 12% of the skin’s lipid barrier and sebum. With age, the levels of this lipid go into a free spin, but this can be corrected by using a squalene-rich oil.
About 1-3% squalene is found in most seed oils, but if you really want to tap into the hydrating properties of tis compound, reach for the oils of amaranthus, olive, coconut and argan, which are the richest sources of squalene.
Found in small quantities in certain plant oils, these compounds play a crucial in collagen deposition, cell proliferation and tissue repair. Shea butter, argan oil, evening primrose oil and neem oil are the best sources of triterpenes.
Although there are 200 different types of phytosterols, these compounds are essentially the botanical equivalent of cholesterol, which as you may know contributes greatly to the health of your skin. Used with ceramides, phytosterols can cap the decline of collagen.
Some phytosterols, most notably stigmasterol, also have skin lightening properties. Pus, they offer significant protection from sun damage and oxidative stress because of their ability to support keratinocytes.
Moreover, these compounds are 5 alpha reductase inhibitors, so they can also help to prevent DHT-linked hair loss.
Oils that contain a significant amount of phytosterols include those derived from soy bean, sesame seed, rice bran, safflower, wheat germ, camelina, avocado, coconut, pumpkin seed, walnut and evening primrose.
Yes, these are also fatty acids, but they are combined with phosphoric acid and glycerol. What makes these compounds unique is that they have a head that is hydrophilic and a tail that is hydrophobic.
This simply means that they not only attract water but also hold on to it. So, they are natural humectants that can contribute immensely to dermal hydration.
Phospholipids can be found in carrier oils extracted from soy bean, hazelnut, olive, sunflower seed and mustard seed. These compounds also help to increase the level of ceramides, which makes them useful in hair care.
Those saturated fats: What exactly do they offer?
If you have already used plant butters, I don’t have to tell you that they are richer than plant oils and have superior emollient properties.
In fact, these lipids, with their higher proportion of saturated fatty acids, create a physical barrier on the surface of the skin, which adds to the protective abilities of the stratum corneum.
But, saturated fatty acids offer more than just protection from environmental factors and moisture loss. This is what you can expect from them.
This is one of the few fatty acids that exhibit notable antibacterial and antiviral properties. In fact, lauric acid easily beats benzoyl peroxide when it comes to killing acne causing critters. It is also an effective moisturizer.
Both an emollient and an emulsifier, stearic acid helps in combining oils of varying densities. It also works as an effective lipid barrier that prevents moisture loss from the skin.
A skin softening agent and a soothing moisturizer, palmitic acid is often included in skin cleansers because it helps to gently remove cellular debris and sebum from the surface of the skin.
Apart from being an emulsifier, this fatty acid is also a rich moisturizer that gets easily absorbed into the superficial dermal layers.
This fatty acid also boasts of antimicrobial properties; the only difference is that this compound not only works against bacteria and viruses but also combats fungi. Moreover, it has anti-inflammatory properties and is known to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Getting the most from your carrier oils
Now that you know what these plant oils contain and how these compounds impact their therapeutic value, let’s talk about the compounds you should look for when making blends for specific health and skin conditions.
Dermal dryness and dehydration results from transepidermal water loss, which is caused by compromised barrier function.
So, a blend for dry skin should contain a mixture of both Omega 6 fatty acids that can restore the integrity of the dermal barrier and Omega 3 fatty acids, which offer help against oxidative stress.
You will also need lubrication and emollient properties in your blend. These can be added by using an oil rich in saturated fats or a plant butter. Do not use Omega 9 fatty acids (Oleic acid) on dry skin because this compound is known to disrupt the lipid mantle that protects the dermal layers.
To deal with all that excess sebum, the carrier oil will need to have astringent and anti-inflammatory properties along with a light texture.
For this, pick oils that are rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, phenolic compounds and triterpenes, which will add to the antimicrobial properties of the blend.
Skin barrier healing blends:
Nothing works better than a mix of oils rich in phospholipids, squalene and Omega 6 fatty acids to repair a weak lipid barrier.
While the fatty acids from the Omega 6 family and squalene offer protection and rebuild the natural protective layer, phospholipids enhance the proliferation of ceramides and keratinocytes, helping to seal in the moisture.
Wound healing blends:
Omega 9 fatty acids are the most effective in boosting wound healing and closing times.
But, they do tend to disrupt the skin’s water permeability mantle, so it is best to use them in combination with oils rich in lauric acid and polyphenolic compounds, which will bring their anti-inflammatory and barrier restorative benefits to the blend.
Pimple prone skin is found to lack gamma linoleic acid which is from the Omega 6 family. This compound along with linoleic acid not only helps to regulate the production of sebum but also helps to unblock the pores and reduces the number of blackheads.
You may also want to add oils rich in Omega 7 fatty acids for their anti-inflammatory and healing properties as well as oils that contain triterpenes for their ability to repair dermal tissue.
Sun screen or sun damage blends:
A combination of Omega 3, 5 and 7 oils will give you complete protection from photodamage and its detrimental effects on collagen strands.
Adding oils that are rich in phytosterols and phenolic compounds will enhance the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of the blend.
Of all the fatty acids, the lipids in the Omega 6 family offer the most significant anti-inflammatory benefits.
Since inflammation often results from environmental and oxidative stress, it would also help to include oils rich in squalene and phospholipids to the mix as these help to seal the lipid barrier.
When mixing a pain blend, the most important thing is to get the active compounds deep into the dermal layers and this can be achieved by using oils rich in Omega 9 fatty acids.
Repeated use of Omega 9-rich oils can damage the skin’s barrier and increase the risk of irritation and sensitivity. So, you may also want to add oils rich in Omega 6 and phospholipids to the blend.
For oral health, you need an oil that contains a wholesome amount of both caprylic and lauric acid, which narrows your choice down to just one oil- coconut.
Circulation boosting blends:
The bioactive compounds that act as blood thinning and anti-inflammatory agents have to make it past the first few dermal layers and that calls for help from Omega 9 fatty acids.
However, because circulatory problems also lead to swelling, inflammation and sores, it would help to add Omega 6-rich oils to the blend as well.
Once again, the bioactive ingredients stand a better chance of making it to the blood stream if they have the support of Omega 9 fatty acids.
However, since such formulations are typically applied on thin skin, don’t forget to include Omega 6 fatty acids in the mixture to prevent irritation.
That said, if your fertility issues or menstruation problems are linked to estrogen deficiency, you should definitely include oils rich in phytosterols in the blend.
Although your essential oils will without a doubt offer substantial fire power to thwart microbial attacks, you can get more from your blend if you also tap into the germ fighting properties of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
Look for oils that are rich in polyphenols and triterpenes, which will bring their own healing and anti-inflammatory benefits to the mixture.
Age ravaged skin needs all the antioxidant and healing benefits that it can get. So, use a blend that contains Omega-6 rich fatty acids that will repair the skin barrier. Mix in oils rich in Omega 3, 5 and 12, which will offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
You will need phospholipids as well because these positively impact the levels of ceramides. If you are past menopause, it would also help to include oils that contain substantial amounts of phytosterols. These can attenuate the detrimental effects of the loss of estrogen on the skin tone and texture.
Vaginal or intimate blends and suppositories:
Oils and plant butters rich in lauric and caprylic acid are the best for use in and around the pubic area.
Hair care blends:
If you have a problem with hair growth, combine oils rich in Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, particularly arachidonic acid (Aa) with those that contain phospholipids.
Aa-rich oils help in the proliferation of factors that lead to hair growth, while oils rich in phospholipids help to rebuild the ceramide matrix that protects the hair shaft from loss of moisture.
For hair loss, you can once again rely on the benefits of arachinoid acid (Omega 6). But it would also help to include oils rich in phytosterols that can inhibit the activity of 5 alpha reductase.
Skin brightening blends:
You can enhance the skin brightening properties of EOs, by blending them with oils rich in Omega 3 fatty acids that offer protection from sun damage.
Also include Omega 6 and Omega 12 rich oils in the blend to curb the inflammatory reaction of the skin and for protection against the oxidants released due to sun exposure. Adding an oil rich in phytosterols, like stigmasterol, will get you enhanced brightening effect.
Nothing fights off free radicals like Omega 3 fatty acids, phospholipids and tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are forms of vitamin E.
Atopic dermatitis and other issues with skin sensitivity are usually attributed to a compromised skin barrier.
Omega 6 fatty acids are incredibly effective when it comes to restoring the skin’s acid mantle. Mix oils that contain high quantities of linoleic and gamma linoleic acid, the latter helps to relieve itching, redness and inflammation.
If you are making a skin serum, permeability will be one of the main consideration when picking a plant oil. Go for a mixture of oils rich in Omega 9 and Omega 5 fatty acids.
Include a fixed oil rich in phytosterols, which will increase the ability of the blend to penetrate deeper into the dermal layers.
After applying the serum, use a moisturizer that is rich in Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids and phospholipids. These compounds will undo the disruptive effects of Omega 9 on the skin’s protective barrier.
Furthermore, they will fight off oxidative stress and the inflammation that lead to skin ageing.
And, that’s what your favorite carrier oils can do for you!
This is by no means an elaborate list. But, it will give you a gist of what to expect from some of the most popular fixed oils.
- Olive: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, wound healing, moderate anti-ageing.
- Sunflower seed: Skin barrier repair and anti-inflammatory.
- Grape seed: Antibacterial, wound healing, antioxidant, anti-ageing.
- Coconut oil: Skin barrier repair, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, anti-ageing and antioxidant but comedogenic.
- Camellia: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing.
- Safflower: Anti-inflammatory and moderate antioxidant.
- Argan: Barrier repair, anti-ageing, wound healing and anti-inflammatory.
- Soybean: Anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
- Sesame: Skin brightening, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-ageing.
- Avocado: Anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory, occlusive and antioxidant.
- Borage: Anti-acne and barrier repair.
- Jojoba: Barrier repair, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing and wound healing.
- Pomegranate: Anti-ageing and anti-oxidant, possibly effective against skin cancer.
- Rosehip seed: Skin brightening, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing and moderate barrier repair.
- Macadamia: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing.
The shelf life of carrier oils
Oils that contain more than 50% polyunsaturated fats have the shortest shelf life, rarely exceeding 6-8 months. once the bottle/packaging container is opened.
In fact, in their pure form, both Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids will degrade within 8-12 hours.
But most carrier oils naturally contain vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant that protects these unstable fatty acids.
The instability of oils rich in unsaturated fats has led to a debate about their benefits in skin care. Current medical literature unanimously supports the use of these oils but there is one voice of dissent.
So, if you have read that PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) lead to skin ageing, know this that the argument is based solely on the instability of these lipids.
However, this can easily be corrected by adding vitamin E and rosemary essential oil to the blend. Both of these are potent antioxidants. Another way is to mix PUFA oils with plant butters or coconut oil or with wheat germ oil, which has the highest amount of vitamin E among all plant oils.
Oils that have a higher proportion of monounsaturated and saturated fats are more stable and will typically last for 1-2 years. Refrigerating plant oils is another easy and effective way to extend their shelf life by 6-12 months.
- Oils with the shortest shelf life: Aloe vera, blackberry seed, black currant seed, black cumin (nigella sativa), borage, evening primrose, flaxseed, rosehip seed. These oils spoil after 6 months but refrigerating them before and after blending will get you about 8-9 months from them.
- Oils with the longest shelf life: Argan – 2 plus years, castor – 5 years, coconut – 3 to 4 years, jojoba – 5 years, meadowfoam – 5 years.
Buying the best carrier oils
Now that you know all about the therapeutic benefits of different fatty acids as well as the other components of plant oils, you may still not get the desired results and therapeutic value, if you don’t make informed purchases.
The extraction process and what the oils are put through after that makes a big difference to just how good they are you. So, when you are buying carrier oils for your blends, this is what you need to look for if you want the best.
1. Cold pressed:
This is the extraction process that yields oils in their most natural state. In fact, you can think of it as a mechanized version of the old world extraction process.
Because the botanical material is never heated beyond 120 degrees F in cold pressing, you get the maximum nutrient value. These oils are usually termed as cold pressed and/or raw.
Expeller pressed oils are comparatively cheaper because the yield is higher since the raw materials are heated to 200 degrees F. But the application of heat means that many nutrients are lost and healing phenolic compounds and sterols often get degraded.
Of all plant oils, solvent extracted are the cheapest, and since you get what you pay for, they also offer the least therapeutic value.
2. Extra Virgin:
This term is not used in reference to all oils, but when the label does read extra virgin, it means that you are getting the yield of the first extraction process.
Subsequent extractions lead to weaker oils, which don’t have the nutrient power of extra virgin oils. The phenolic compounds and triterpenes often get lost as the botanical material is put through subsequent extraction cycles.
Refining is all about making the oil look and smell good. So, everything from bleaching and anti-caking agents to freezing and deodorization processes are used to refine oils. It goes without saying that all therapeutic value is lost from these oils.
Another tip to remember is to buy carrier oils in small quantities. Typically, 50-100 ml will last you for 3-4 months, depending on usage.
If you have bought more than that, don’t forget to decant in a smaller bottle, wrap the bottle with tin foil and refrigerate. This will minimize exposure to air, sunlight and moisture.
That’s all for today folks…..
Now that you know all about carrier oils and how they work to heal your skin and transport bioactives from essential oils into the dermal layers, there is no need to blindly follow random advice.
In fact, you can whip up a mixture that is tailored to work on the health or skin problems that you are dealing with. Just remember to use your eyes and your nose on the oils as you get closer to their expiration date.
If they smell off or look hazy, it is time to toss them out. Of course by tossing, I don’t mean literally feeding them to your garbage can. The good thing about plant oils is that their fatty acid content is almost completely saponifiable.
So, you can use them to make soap and if you have a creative streak, you can also use them for making candles. But, I will leave that for another time. For now, here is wishing you all many, many happy blending days!