Ultimate Guide to Using Carrier Oils
Carrier Oils are often an underutilized, under appreciated and misunderstood component in herbal medicines and body care preparations. Let’s take a few minutes and go over what carrier oils are, what they aren’t, and what they bring to your medicine making and/or body care products.
What is a Carrier Oil:
Carrier oils are lipids, made from triglycerides. Triglycerides are, in turn, made from three (hence the tri-) fatty acids (e.g. palmitic acid, omega-3s, alpha-linoleic) bonded by a glycerol molecule. Each of the three arms of a triglyceride molecule can consist of any number of fatty acids. Since each fatty acid has unique characteristics like shelf life, viscosity, and melting point, there are a dizzying number of triglyceride combinations of varying character. This is precisely why some oils are solid at room temperature, some absorb readily into skin, some are thin and some are oily.
Most carrier oils used in the herbal world are typically pressed out of the seeds, kernels or nuts of plants (e.g. apricot kernel, argan, jojoba, sweet almond). The best oils are cold pressed or expeller pressed. Generally avoid oils that are extracted using heat or chemical solvents. Raw carrier oils come in a variety of colors and odors, although their odor is generally mild. Carrier oils are often refined to remove color and scent, making them easier to work with in body care products. However, this refining process also removes many of the nutrients found in raw carrier oils.
What are Carrier Oils Used For?
- The simple topical application of oils, in the form of lotions, body oils, creams, infused oils (click on link to read on our infused oil blog), salves, among other preparations, performs several important actions: skin barrier enhancement, expedited wound healing, reduction of inflammation, and reduction of oxidative stress. See this article for a synopsis of these processes.
- Fatty acids are an essential component in skin. In fact, the cell walls in all animals are made of neatly aligned walls of fatty acids. Fatty acids play critical roles, not only in the structure and function of cells and skin, but they play critical roles in cellular metabolism, hormone production and regulation of inflammation, among other processes.
- Oils are also commonly employed as ‘carrier’ for other substances that offer therapeutic potential. Perhaps most commonly, carrier oils offer an excellent way to apply essential oils, which are often too strong to apply to the skin in an undiluted fashion, which would otherwise result in skin irritation. When diluted in a carrier oil, you can control an essential oil’s concentration before applying and allow the essential oils to absorb into the skin in a safer and more consistent manner.
- A final use of carrier oils is as an oil infusion. Oils can have herbs ‘soaked’ in them which, in turn, imparts the beneficial chemistry of herbs into the oils. These infused oils can be used as therapeutic ingredients by themselves, or as excellent ingredients in salves, lotions, balms, bath scrubs and more.
Carrier Oil Profiles:
Apricot Kernel Oil
Apricot Kernel oil is a fairly light oil that is readily absorbed by the skin. It is one of the best all-round oils in skin care applications. It has little to no scent and is only lightly colored. The high oleic acid content of apricot kernel oil helps with the soothing, anti-inflammatory action of the oil. The Linolic acid in apricot kernel oil aids in skin regeneration. It has a slightly higher vitamin E content than most sweet almond oils. This oil is a great choice for mature and sensitive skin types. Consider it as a massage oil or a simple and effective moisturizer. One of our favorite all-round carrier oils, apricot kernel oil is a suitable choice for almost all skin care needs!
Avocado oil is a medium weight oil that penetrates deep into the skin. It has an exceptionally high nutritional content, including vitamins A, B1, B2, D, E and beta carotene. As a result , it is very nourishing for the skin and hair. Its high oleic acid content makes it great for soothing irritated skin (e.g. chapped, sunburned). The ease with which avocado oil is absorbed makes it a great addition to both skin and hair products. However, avocado oil can leave a sticky or waxy feeling when used by itself, so it is commonly blended with other oils.
Castor oil is one of the thickest oils commonly used in skin care products. Because of this trait, it is also one of the best at forming an occlusive (protective) barrier on the skin. It can leave a shiny, greasy coating on the skin so it is particularly suitable for use in lipsticks, lip balms, and deodorants. This oil has been used for millennia to heal cracked cuticles, soften calluses, and treat split ends. In small amounts, it is added to soap formulas to increase lather.
Coconut Oil (Non-Fractionated)
Raw coconut oil has a truly spectacular nutritional profile with a deep and exotic aroma of coconuts. When melted, it is a lightweight oil that is readily absorbed but can leave a slightly oily finish on the skin. It is one of the most nourishing oils for the skin and is almost a must-have in hair care products. Some allergies do exist and the oil can clog pores for some sensitive skinned people. Use sparingly in facial products. Also, keep in mind that the viscosity change with temperature, so plan accordingly.
Fractionated Coconut Oil
Fractionated coconut oil is one of the lightest carrier oils available and is very effective at penetrating the skin. Fractionated coconut oil both seals and moisturizes the skin and is one of the best moisturizing oils available. It is highly stable with a long shelf life and mixes easily with most other natural skin/hair care products. The fractionation process removes all scents from the oil. It makes a great leave-in conditioner. Fractionated coconut oil can clog the pores of some people and should be used sparingly in facial products.
Grape seed oil is a light, ‘dry’ oil that rapidly absorbs into the skin. It is exceptionally high in antioxidants and omega-6 fatty acids making it effective against eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis. Because of the high absorbance rate and dry feel, it is great for skin types that don’t absorb oils well or are often left feeling greasy. Grape seed oil is effective at healing stretch marks. Be aware of the short shelf life when making body products with it!
Neem oil is a thick oil that slowly absorbs into the skin. It can actually turn solid when cold, but a hot water bath can return it to its liquid state. Neem oil also has a dark brown or green color and a relatively pungent and earthy odor. It is typically diluted for use in body care products. Traditionally, neem oil is used in dental applications because of its antibacterial qualities and soothing
Olive oil is a medium weight oil with an average absorbance rate. It can leave a slightly oily sheen on the skin when applied topically, but is rich in nutrients and stable. It has a pleasant aroma and a light green tint. Because of its widespread tolerance and stable nature, it is one of the most universally used carrier oils in skin care products.
Sesame oil is a medium weight oil that quickly absorbs into the skin, but can leave a slight oily feeling. Sesame Carrier Oil is rich in vitamins E and B, and in minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. It is an excellent emollient, and if used in dilution with other carrier oils, is a popular massage and aromatherapy carrier oil. It does have a relatively strong scent that should be considered when making products with it.
Sweet Almond Oil
Sweet Almond Oil is a light to medium weight oil with medium skin penetration speed. It has excellent emollient properties and is known for its ability to soften and re-condition the skin. It is rich in proteins, linoleic acid and vitamin D, and is considered extremely nourishing - particularly when used regularly. It can be expected to sooth dry skin and irritated areas. When used in soaps, it saponifies easily to a mild soap with good lather. It has no taste, and so is great for use in lip products. With its high nutrient and oleic acid content, it is a great all-round oil that helps sooth distressed skin.
Premium Carrier Oil Profiles:
Argan oil is exquisitely rich in nutrients, essential fatty acids, tocopherols (potent antioxidants), squalene, saponins, and vitamin E; all of which make argan oil one of the best all-round high-end oils for skin care. It is a medium weight oil with a medium absorbance rate that can leave a slightly oily feeling. It has very high oleic acid so it is great at regenerating and soothing inflamed skin. It is particularly useful for healing sun-damaged skin. There is some evidence that acne prone skin might be aggravated by argan oil. It is reported to contain saponins, which helps to soften the skin and restore the skin’s water lipid layer, thereby minimizing wrinkles.
Borage seed oil is a medium to heavy weight oil with yellow to green color and a distinctive musky odor. It contains one of the highest known concentrations of Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential omega-6 fatty acid. GLA has very strong anti-inflammatory properties which make it remarkably effective against irritated skin (e.g. acne, eczema, psoriasis). It is most commonly used alongside other carrier oils and should be considered in any skin care product that needs anti-inflammatory characteristics.
Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil is a medium weight, yellowish oils that absorbs well but can leave a slightly oily feel to the skin. It is one of the very best oils for acne prone skin. Evening primrose has one of the highest linoleic/oleic acid ratios which make it particularly suitable for people with acne prone skin. It closely resembles your skin’s natural oil (sebum), and so it helps ‘wash out’ old oil from skin pores. This is particularly important for acne-prone skin where overproduction of sebum commonly clogs pores. This powerful oil should be considered by anyone with acne prone skin. It is commonly used in conjunction with other high-linoleic oils.
Jojoba oil is a medium-thick oil yet is very readily absorbed by the skin. Although some people may experience clogged pores with its use, Jojoba is amazingly rich in nutrients and excellent for most people’s skin. It is an excellent moisturizer and has great ability to soften skin. Because of the high content of Erucic acid in jojoba oil, it often has a ‘grippy’ texture that reduces slide or glide of a lotion product. As such, it is rarely used in massage products. Jojoba is great for the hair and scalp because it penetrates hair follicles and helps loosen existing oils. Jojoba oil is often added to other oils to help increase the shelf life.
Rose Hip Seed Oil
Rose hip seed oil is a premium oil that is medium in weight and extremely high in essential fatty acids and antioxidants. For these reasons, it is particularly suitable for use on mature, sun-damaged or weathered skin. It is known as a ‘dry oil’ in that is does not leave behind an oily feeling once absorbed. This oil is commonly used in dilutions but can be applied straight (undiluted) to the skin. However, one should note that the reddish hue of the oil can slightly tint skin color. Rose hip seed oil is a powerfully regenerative yet gentle oil and would be a great addition to almost any high-end skin care product.
Users can expect a shelf life of 1 to 2 years with proper storage conditions (cool, out of direct sunlight).
All carrier oils are for external use only.