What Is a Carrier Oil? Here’s What To Know Before Applying Essential Oils to Your Skin

Photo: Getty Images/Sorrasak Jar Tinyo
Essential oils can be aromatherapeutic (consider how peppermint can elevate a typical massage to an experience that's "ahhh" worthy) and can also be useful in skin-care applications (acne treatments sometimes contain tea tree oil, for example). But on their own, the botanical extracts are potent, and they can be irritating if applied directly to skin in their pure form. That's where carrier oils come in.

"Carrier oils are basically vegetable oils cold-pressed or expeller-pressed from nuts and seeds or, in some cases—like olive oil and sea buckthorn—they're pressed from the whole fruit," says Amy Galper, the founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy and author of the upcoming Ultimate Guide to Aromatherapy. "The extracts contain the fatty, or oil, components from the plant material, and they're rich in essential fatty acids, trace vitamins, and other skin-healing components."

Experts In This Article

The reason carrier oils are important in aromatherapy and when creating skin care is because they provide a buffer between the skin. Many essential oils can cause an unwanted and uncomfortable reaction on the skin, says dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. "A carrier oil can be used to create a physical separation so that the essential oil has less direct contact with the keratinocytes, or skin cells, creating less of an adverse reaction," she says. But, she adds, if you ever experience any redness, scaliness, discomfort or rashes when using any type of oil, be sure to consult a medical professional before proceeding more use.

"A carrier oil can be used to create a physical separation so that the essential oil has less direct contact with the keratinocytes, or skin cells, creating less of an adverse reaction." —dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD

One other word of caution: Galper says a few essential oils should never, ever be applied without a carrier oil chaperone. These include cinnamon leaf or bark, thyme, oregano, lemongrass, thuja, peppermint, bay rum tree, wormwood, pennyroyal, and mugwort.

With that in mind, here are some popular carrier oils that will help you avoid any dermatological mishaps. No matter which carrier you choose, it will be able to blend well your choice of essential oils. "That's why they are the best way to carry the powerful and potent therapeutic molecules of essential oils into the body," says Galper.

10 carrier oils to that'll make topical treatments as smooth (and irritation-free) as possible

1. Coconut oil

Coconut oil has a wellness reputation for being able to do it all, but that's not to say you can use it for everything (it fails as a personal lubricant, for example). It does, however, make an excellent  carrier oil.

Shop Now: Nutiva Organic Steam Refined Coconut Oil, $7

2. Olive oil

Hyper-moisturizing olive oil is a skin-care fave for many, but if your skin skews acne-prone, you might want to skip, as it can have pore-clogging tendencies.

Shop Now: Extra Virgin Organic Olive Oil, $13 

3. Almond oil

Almond oil can be effective for taming unwanted frizz, but the oil's applications extends beyond hair. It also works as a carrier oil, in case you need another reason to stock up.

Shop Now: Sweet Almond Oil for Hair and Skin, $12

4. Argan oil

Argan oil is derived from the kernels of fruit that grow on argan trees, which are native to Morocco, and it’s a must-have for any skin-care woe. Consider this anti-inflammatory option as a go-to carrier oil, especially if you’re using it on your face.

Shop Now: Pure Organic Moroccan Argan Oil for Skin, Nails, and Hair, $15 

5. Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil tends to be a favorite for sensual massages, which makes it a great companion if you’re kneading a soothing essential oil into someone’s skin.

Shop Now: Jojoba Oil USDA Cetified Organic Cold Pressed Unrefined, $10

6. Rosehip Oil

Despite its botanical name, Rosehip oil isn't made from the bloom itself. Rather, when the petals drop off and the seed of a rose blossom is left, it's pressed and turned into this vitamin A-rich carrier oil. Give it a gloss over if you're looking to try something a little different.

Shop Now: Rosehip Seed Oil by Leven Rose, $14

7. Avocado oil

If you already love putting avocado on basically everything, why not try it on your skin, too? Mix all those skin-rejuvenating fatty acids with your favorite essential oils, and get ready to see a serious glow.

Shop Now: Majestic Pure Avocado Oil for Hair and Skin, $15

8. Grapeseed oil

Grapeseed oil is packed with antioxidants, making it a great base for a restorative, essential oil-infused face mask. Give this a pump with lavender, sandalwood, or frankincense the next time you're looking to feel rejuvenated.

Shop Now: Majestic Pure Grapeseed Oil, $15

9. Apricot kernel oil

Apricot oil is a lesser-known moisturizing mixture that's adept for smoothing over fine lines.

Shop Now: NOW Solutions Apricot Kernel Oil, $8

10. Sunflower seed oil

Sunflower seed oil is another floral blend that's just as healthy for your hair as it is for your skin. Use it with your essential oil pick, and get ready to soak in all the benefits, like ample amounts of vitamin E.

Shop Now: 100% Pure Sunflower Seed Oil, $10

How to correctly use a carrier oil

So, once you have your carrier oil on hand, how do you correctly use it with essential oils? Best practice is to dilute the essential oil in the carrier oil, says Galper. The potency you want depends on the use, but if you're creating a body oil, she says the essential oils should be 5 percent of the total blend. (That's about two ounces of carrier oil to .1 ounce of your essential oil or essential-oil blend.)

That math should give you some idea of how potent the essential oils are; they pack a lot of power into one little bottle. Remember, if you want to mitigate the risk of skin aggravation, always make a carrier oil part of your essential-oil-infused skin-care routine. Have fun mixing and matching, and eventually you'll find the right carrier oil for you and your skin. And if you experience any kind of irritation, stop use immediately and see a doctor if it persists.

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