Essential oils vs carrier oils: What's the difference?

Mar 08, 2024

Essential oils vs carrier oils: What's the difference?
A comprehensive guide to understanding and using essential and carrier oils
If you’ve spent any time browsing the natural skincare space, two terms often surface—'essential oils' and 'carrier oils.' While they may seem similar, they have distinct differences that are essential to understand for their safe and effective use. 
Essential oils, potent and aromatic, are derived from the non-fatty parts of plants, such as bark, roots, leaves, and stems. On the other hand, carrier oils, often unscented or lightly scented, are extracted from the fatty parts of plants like seeds or nuts and are used to dilute essential oils for application on the skin. 
Ahead, unravel the differences between essential oils and carrier oils, their unique benefits, and how to use them correctly. 
Understanding essential oils
Essential oils, often referred to as the "lifeblood" of plants, are highly concentrated plant extracts. They are derived from various parts of plants, including the bark, roots, leaves, and stems. 
The extraction process is a meticulous one, typically involving steam distillation. Boiling water is used to extract the potent oils, transforming them into steam, which is then captured, cooled, and separated. This process ensures the preservation of the therapeutic properties of these oils, making them a potent form of plant-based wellness.
Benefits and uses
The benefits of essential oils are as diverse as the plants they come from. Aromatherapy practitioners love them for their potent scents, which can help to promote well-being, reduce stress, and improve mental clarity. Beyond their aromatic properties, essential oils have the potential to support healthy skin, boost immunity, and balance emotions. For instance, lavender oil is renowned for its calming properties, while tea tree oil is helpful for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Risks and precautions
While essential oils offer numerous benefits, it's important to use them cautiously. Due to their high concentration, they can cause skin irritation if applied directly, which is where the role of carrier oils comes into play. Carrier oils, such as coconut or jojoba oil, dilute essential oils, "carrying" them to your skin safely. Understanding the importance of dilution when using essential oils helps to avoid potential skin reactions. Always perform a patch test before trying a new essential oil, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns.
In essence, understanding essential oils is the first step towards tapping into their potential benefits. With their diverse uses and potent properties, they can be a valuable addition to your wellness routine when used correctly and safely.
Understanding carrier oils
Carrier oils, also known as base oils, are derived from the fatty parts of plants, such as seeds or nuts. Unlike essential oils, they are not volatile and do not evaporate. The extraction process typically involves cold pressing or maceration, which helps retain the oil's beneficial properties. Cold-pressed oils are particularly valued as they preserve the nutritious elements of the plant, offering a higher quality oil.
Benefits and uses
Carrier oils are highly nourishing and often used alone or in combination with essential oils to deliver targeted benefits to the hair or skin. These oils are typically unscented or lightly scented, making them an excellent medium for diluting essential oils without interfering with their therapeutic properties. You can use them in plenty of DIY-friendly ways, such as facial or hair moisturizers, body and massage oils, or hair masks for repairing dry, brittle ends.
Different types of carrier oils
Carrier oils are plentiful and packed with different properties and benefits. Here are a few examples:
  • Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts and is rich in fatty acids and polyphenols, making it an excellent choice for skin nourishment.
  • Jojoba oil is derived from the seeds of the jojoba plant and closely mimics the skin's natural oil, sebum, making it an excellent moisturizer.
  • Sweet almond oil is made from sweet almond kernels and is lightweight and easily absorbed, making it a popular choice for dry skin.
  • Olive oil is known for its healthy fatty acids and plant sterols and is excellent for cleansing and moisturizing dry skin.
  • Argan oil is rich in vitamins A and E and monounsaturated fatty acids, making it a terrific choice for general skin care.
  • Rosehip oil is high in vitamins A and C and can help fight aging and reverse the effects of sun damage on the skin.
Understanding carrier oils and their unique properties can help you decide which oils to use for your specific skin needs.
Essential oils vs. carrier oils key differences
Aside from their distinct origins and extraction processes, essential oils and carrier oils are also used in different ways, often as a team. While both originate from plants, their uses and benefits are unique.
Essential oils have potent individual scents and benefits depending on their plant of origin, and so are sought out for aromatherapy to promote well-being, reduce stress, and improve mental clarity. Beyond their aromatic properties, essential oils are thought to support healthy skin, boost immunity, and balance emotions.
Carrier oils are usually unscented or lightly scented and are coveted for their nourishing properties. Use them to dilute essential oils for safe application and to deliver targeted benefits to hair and skin.
How to mix essential oils and carrier oils
Essential oils most often can’t be directly applied to your skin or hair since they are so potent. You might end up with an itchy, tingly, painful rash or burn, which is definitely not in line with a self-care vibe. But carrier oils are your skin and hair’s BFFs and will soothe and protect from damage.
Carrier oils help to dilute essential oils, "carrying" them to your skin safely. In terms of how much essential oil vs carrier oil you should use, a standard guideline is a 2% dilution, which equates to approximately 12 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil.
A step-by-step guide to mixing essential oils and carrier oils
  1. Choose your essential oil and carrier oil based on your specific needs.
  2. Measure out the appropriate amount of carrier oil, such as 1 ounce.
  3. Add the desired number of drops of essential oil, such as 12 drops.
  4. Mix the oils thoroughly and store in a glass jar (ideally tinted to protect from the light)
Safety tips
Always perform a patch test before trying a new essential oil, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns. Remember, essential oils are potent, and less is often more. 
Always store your oils out of reach of children and pets, and avoid contact with your eyes and mucous membranes. Some essential oils might be unsafe for pregnancy and breastfeeding (including cinnamon, anise, basil, cassia, and more), so ask your doctor about any you’re thinking of using if this applies to you or anyone in your home.
Can you use essential oils without a carrier oil?
Essential oils are potent plant extracts, and while they offer multiple benefits, they can also pose risks if misused. Applying essential oils directly to the skin without a carrier oil can lead to skin irritation, sensitization, and even allergic reactions. Their high concentration of active compounds, which makes them so powerfully beneficial, can also make them risky to use if you’re not careful. It's like enjoying the sun—a little can be restorative, but too much without protection can lead to a burn.
But not all essential oils need a carrier oil BFF all the time. A carrier oil is typically necessary whenever you plan to apply essential oils topically. Think soothing a pesky pimple or addressing scalp health—you’ll want to protect delicate tissues from irritation. Carrier oils allow you to safely enjoy the benefits of essential oils by diluting them and reducing risks.
How to choose the right carrier oil for your essential oil
Choosing the right carrier oil for your essential oil can feel more stressful than trying to snag your favorite leggings in a Lululemon ‘we made too much’ sale—there’s too much choice. But you can simplify your pairing by considering your skin type, the desired benefit, and the scent of the carrier oil.
 For instance, if you have dry skin or hair, you might opt for a more nourishing carrier oil like avocado or sweet almond oil. If you're looking to support skin and hair health, jojoba oil, which closely mimics the skin's natural sebum, could be a great choice.
Top pairings
Pairing essential oils with carrier oils can be an art, but here are a few popular combinations to get you started:
  • Lavender essential oil and jojoba oil are a perfect pairing for promoting relaxation and supporting healthy skin and hair.
  • Peppermint essential oil and coconut oil is a cooling and invigorating blend, perfect for a refreshing scalp massage.
  • Tea tree essential oil and grapeseed oil are ideal for oily skin and scalp types, and this combination can help balance oil production and fight blemishes and oily roots.
  • Rosemary essential oil and olive oil are an excellent duo for a stimulating scalp massage to promote healthy hair growth.
Whichever you choose, the benefits of essential oils won’t be worth it without safe use, and carrier oils play a necessary role in that—so, experiment, enjoy, but always prioritize safety.
Try your own DIY combos
Experimenting with different oils and finding the combinations that work best for your unique needs is what makes natural DIYing so much fun. Just stay safe using the guidelines above, and remember, essential oils are potent, and less is often more. Try combos like lavender essential oil paired with jojoba oil for relaxation and shiny locks or tea tree essential oil with grapeseed oil for balancing oil production—the possibilities are endless.