Carrier Oils – Overview and Substitution Guide
What Are Carrier Oils?
We hear the term “carrier oil” a lot, but what exactly is a carrier oil? Carrier oil is a term used to describe a base or vegetable oil that is being used to dilute essential oils and absolutes before they are applied to the skin. They get this name because they essentially ‘carry’ the essential oil. However, this term includes hundreds of different oils (and butters). So in short, you can consider the term “carrier oil” to mean any oil that is not an essential or fragrance oil. Because these oils tend to make up the base of many formulations, they are a lot like the simple stock for a soup. You can add and change as many ingredients as you like to the base, leading to endless possibilities.
From Left to Right: Sesame Oil, Jojoba Oil, Sea Buckthorn Berry Oil, Grapeseed Oil
Making Carrier Oil Substitutions
When working on projects, it is a common occurrence to find a recipe you love, but need to come up with ingredient substitutions for various reasons. Maybe you do not have a certain oil in stock, or perhaps you have a sensitivity or allergy to an oil due to it’s constituents. Maybe you just want to make the recipe your own and have some fun, but don’t want to change the feel and look of the end product. Or, maybe you want to change the color of an oil blend from a dark green to a bright clear golden.
We will cover some basics to finding appropriate ways to find carrier oil substitutions that will not break the recipe you are working from, meaning that the final product should be incredibly similar in most aspects to the original. It should be noted that the following information (and the information on the corresponding PDF guide) are based on the virgin, unrefined versions of any oil(s) mentioned. I will also note that though it may be tempting in some scenarios to simply not replace an eliminated carrier oil, doing so will drastically alter the final product in the majority of cases.
When making substitutions, there are many things to consider. Firstly, you must understand what the carrier oil in question is bringing to the formulation in terms of viscosity, absorption rate, dilution, attributes, odor, color, and cost. Then, you need to narrow down which of those factors you want to maintain, and which you are willing and able to change. In terms of finding substitutions that will maintain the look and feel, as well as the intended use and stability of the final product, there are factors that are higher on the priority list than others. The two main factors that I’ll be focusing on for this blog are the viscosity and absorption rate of the oils. The odor, color, attributes, and cost of the final product are interchangeable variables depending on your specific needs and preferences. Here is a quick guide for using carrier oils.
Viscosity and Melting Point
Viscosity of an individual carrier oil is based on the state the oil maintains at room temperature. If you are trying to recreate a thick crème that calls for cocoa butter, and you substitute shea butter, the resulting product is not going to have the same consistency and texture as the original formula. What about a lotion that was meant for a pump top closure? If you switch out a free flowing oil for a more viscous oil, you may end up with a consistency thicker than ideal for that packaging choice.
- Free Flowing (or mobile) Liquid Oil
- Thin and easy to pour (example: Olive Oil)
- Slightly Viscous Oil
- Thicker than free flowing, but still relatively easy to pour (example: Sesame Seed Oil)
- Viscous Oil
- Thick and less easy to pour (example: Castor Oil)
- Soft Semi-Solid Oil
- Thick, but creamy and not easy to pour (example: Coconut Oil)
- Soft Solid
- Soft solid, cannot be poured (example: Shea Butter)
- Brittle Solid
- Hard or brittle solid, cannot be poured (example: Cocoa Butter)
Top row left to right: Olive Oil, Sesame Oil, Castor Oil Bottom row left to right: Coconut Oil, Shea Butter, Cocoa Butter (all at room temperature)
The melting point refers to semi solid and solid carriers. Some of these carriers melt faster than others. For example, the above shown coconut oil is going to melt much faster then the more solid cocoa butter. The melting point of a carrier, when applicable, should be taken into consideration when making substitutions. You would not want to substitute coconut oil for cocoa butter in a recipe if you are trying to achieve the same look and feel of the original formula. The cocoa butter is going to offer a more heat resistant and thicker result. Whereas the the coconut oil may leave the product susceptible to melting and would lack thickness.
The absorption rate of an oil is based on how quickly the oil soaks into the skin, and the resulting sensory feel, ranging from very slow to very fast. If you are working from an existing formulation, you can bet that whatever oils chosen to make up that formulation were chosen for good reason. You would not want to switch out a slow absorbing oil in a lip gloss with a fast absorbing oil. This would lead to a lip gloss that does not so much gloss, as dry. What about a lotion formulated for daily use? If you switch out a fast absorbing oil with a slower one, a lotion that was meant to dry down (meaning the product doesn’t transfer onto clothing or objects) quickly might now leave the user unable to touch anything for twenty minutes.
- Very Slow
- These oils tend to feel heavy on the skin and leave a thick and oily, but moisturizing barrier that gets absorbed over time. (example: Castor Oil)
- These oils tend to leave skin with a slight oily residue, but absorb over time. (example: Olive Oil)
- These oils leave a silky feeling on the skin, but are not completely residue free. They absorb at an average speed between slow and fast. (example: Hemp Seed Oil)
- These light oils are quickly absorbed by the skin while leaving a smooth, silky finish. Skin is left feeling moisturized, but not greasy. (example: Evening Primrose Oil)
- Very Fast
- These super light oils are considered ‘drying’ because they are so quickly absorbed by the skin and do not leave a greasy residue. (example: Rosehip Seed Oil)
(Please note this is not considering levels that the CIR refer to).
Many essential oils and absolutes need to be ‘diluted’ before they can be applied to the skin. This amount varies depending not only on the usage rate of the chosen carrier oil(s), but also the usage rate of the desired essential oil, fragrance oil, or absolute. This can get very in depth, but for the sake of this blog I just want to stress the importance of not altering the percentage of oil(s) you are substituting. Meaning that once you have found a suitable substitution oil, you use it at the same percentage value as in the original formula. If a formula lists a carrier oil at 20%, and you have decided to use a comparable substitute, ensure you are maintaining the original 20%. You can use multiple compatible oils to make up that 20%, but the total percentage of carrier oil used should be equal to that of the original formula.
Attributes, Color, Odor, and Cost
As mentioned before, these variables can be interchangeable depending on your personal needs and preferences. These variables are, however, very important to keep in mind when searching for substitutions. Let’s say you have narrowed down your list of possible substitutions based on matching viscosity and absorption rate, and you are left with five options. You can use these remaining factors to help narrow down the options and find the most suitable and ideal oil for your project.
The attributes of the oil are incredibly important. Though it may not have an effect on the final product’s viscosity, absorption rate, and overall stability, it certainly is important to keep in mind what the performance of the end product is meant to be. This could range anywhere from the oils oxidative stability and rancidity resistance to its content of fatty acids and vitamins. What is the final product meant to do, and what characteristics must be maintained after substitution?
Some of the time, the odor of carrier oils will not have a large effect on the final product. Not only are many of them very mild in the aroma department, but once properly incorporated with all the other ingredients and likely essential or fragrance oils, they don’t often make a big difference in the smell of the final product. So when should you consider odor as a variable in deciding what oil is best?
If your product is unscented or lightly scented, then you might want to ensure that you are not adding or substituting any pungent oils such as Neem or Broccoli Seed Oil into the formula. Moreover, if the original formula has an intentional aroma (without the use of additional EOs) such as a coconut fragrance from coconut oil, or a cocoa fragrance from cocoa butter, then you may have other considerations to make if trying to substitute those carriers.
Similar to odor, the color of many carrier oils is fairly neutral. This means that you probably won’t run into an issue where one drastically alters the color of your finished product, especially in emulsion. However, there are oils such as Grapeseed, Avocado, and Sea Buckthorn Berry that can be very vibrant, and can drastically effect the color of a product (especially oil blends) with even the slightest amount. So if you have a beautiful, clear golden oil blend, and you substitute an existing carrier oil with something like grapeseed oil, your product may quickly go from clear and golden to cloudy and green.
Make sure that you keep the overall cost of your product in mind when considering substitutions. Ingredients are commodities, and their prices can fluctuate depending on several factors from simple supply and demand to natural disasters, local harvesting, and not to mention quality and sustainability (if you are interested in learning about ingredient quality or sustainability, you can read more about it here). You might find an oil that checks all the boxes, only to find the oil is triple the cost of the one in the original formula. Since carrier oils are often in formulas at much higher percentages then essential oils (not to say that EO’s cannot effect the price of a product at low percentages, because they can, and they do – Jasmine anyone?), it can lead to major changes in the cost of the final product.
To wrap things up, it is perfectly common to find yourself in a situation where a substitution is preferred, or even necessary in a formula. When this happens, it is important to find appropriate substitutions that will not break the formula you are working from. The most important boxes to check are that of the oils viscosity and absorption rate. These two factors affect the new products overall look and feel when compared to the original. Once you have compiled a list that meet the viscosity and absorption criteria, you can narrow down your options by considers things like the attributes, odor, color, and cost of the carrier in comparison to the original formula.
Do you have a carrier you need a substitution for? Check out our Carrier Oils Chart for great information on color, odor, viscosity, absorption rate, attributes, and of course, substitution options! You can also check out our new and improved scenting guide for essential oils here.
Do you have a favorite carrier oil? Mine is cold-pressed, unrefined plum oil because it has a deliciously unique aroma while offering supreme hydration.