Many people ask about the term “carrier oil” as it is used in aromatherapy. In this post, I’m going to cover what a carrier oil is and why they are used. The term “carrier oil” derives from the action of the oil when mixed with an essential oil to form a dilution.
What Is A Carrier Oil?
A carrier oil is a cold pressed vegetable based oil that is used to “carry” essential oils into your skin and body. Most pure essential oils are too strong to be used undiluted on the skin. They can cause skin sensitization (an allergic reaction) and other skin issues.
The way we can apply essential oils topically to the skin is by diluting them in a carrier oil that is readily absorbed by the skin. In this way, the essential oil also passes into the skin and into the capillaries beneath the skin.
Once the essential oils reach the blood stream through the skin, they are then carried throughout the body and are absorbed by the cells that need them.
How Do We Know Essential Oils Are Absorbed?
In 1940 there was research done on the absorption of essential oils through the skin by a researched named Straehli. The research found that after applying essential oils to the skin the essential oils would appear in the test subjects breath and could be measured after a time.
In other words, the oil was absorbed through the skin, reached the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body, and then some of it was exhaled through the lungs as the blood passed through the lungs.
Now being a respiratory therapist and also a bit of a science geek, my first thought was “how did they know the test subject wasn’t just breathing in the aroma of the essential oil and then exhaling that”? That thought was not addressed in the research, so we’ll never know.
What we do know, however, is that inhalation of the essential oils is an effective way to get the molecules of essential oils into the body as well. Inhalation is the second quickest way to get something into the body behind direct injection.
We also know that a molecule of a substance that is less than 500 Dalton (this is a standard unit of molecular weight) can penetrate the outer layer of our skin. This is why our skin is impervious to water, yet it can absorb some chemicals.
The ability of the skin to repel water is a wonderful adaptation. Just think if your skin absorbed water. You couldn’t go swimming or take a shower because you would just soak up all the water. A very unpleasant thought indeed.
The molecules of the constituents in essential oils are smaller than the 500 Dalton threshold. Therefore, they can easily pass through the skin and be absorbed.
How Are Carrier Oils Extracted?
Carrier oils are extracted from the fruits, seeds, or nuts of various plants. They are extracted by the cold press method because it is believed that the heat needed to extract the oils would destroy some of the more delicate constituents of the oil.
Some Popular Carrier Oils
Sweet Almond oil is probably the most popular carrier oil. Sweet Almond oil has a strong, nutty aroma. It absorbs into the skin well and it is popular due to this, and also because it is relatively inexpensive. It is used in massage as well as bath and skin care products.
Coconut oil is probably the second most used carrier oil. It contains many nutrients that are exceptional for skin and hair.
Coconut oil comes in two types. Unrefined coconut oil is the type of coconut oil you see in the supermarket. It is a solid at 76 degrees or below but melts above that temperature. That makes it great for use on the skin because as soon as it is applied to the skin it liquifies.
The other type of coconut oil we use is fractionated coconut oil. This is a type of coconut oil that has had the lipids removed and so it is a “fraction” of unrefined coconut oil. This is the type most used in massage because it is a liquid at all times.
Other Popular Carrier Oils
Each of the carrier oils has specific properties that are also taken into account when deciding which oil to use. Some are better for certain skin conditions such as acne or eczema. Others are absorbed better and some are non-staining when used for massage.
This list is not by any means all inclusive. It is simply there to give you a better idea of what carrier oils are and what they do as is related to aromatherapy.
If you need carrier oils or for aromatherapy massage, or simply as a better massage oil alternative please visit the carrier oils section of our online store.