Carrier oils vs. essential oils: What’s the difference?

Carrier oils vs. essential oils:  What’s the difference?

Recently, I (Mandy) spoke with a woman who has a brand of natural personal products who told me that she uses essential oils in all her products.  When I asked her what essential oils she uses, she said confidently, “Rosehip!” I slumped my shoulders and shook my head (ok, not really) but I was definitely disheartened.  Here is a woman who claims to use essential oils in her products who is not using essential oils at all! Rosehip is not an essential oil. It is a carrier oil. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of benefits to rosehip; it’s just not an essential oil.  

If the difference between an essential oil and a carrier oil is confusing to this woman who makes natural products for a living, then it must be that much more confusing to the average person.  Don’t worry, we’re here to boil it down for you.

There are three key differences between an essential oil and a carrier oil:

  1. Essential oils have rapid volatility, meaning they evaporate into the air very quickly.  This is unlike other oils, such as almond oil, coconut oil, olive oil, etc. (which do not retain the natural smell of their original source as strongly) because these oils do not disperse as rapidly.  Think about composting. If you try to compost leftover salad with the salad dressing on it, the oil in the dressing will sit in the compost rather than evaporate (and it will smell rancid, too). That’s because these oils (those you use in salad dressings) are not volatile.  Essential oils will not do that.  
  2. Essential oils are not fatty, but carrier oils are because they are usually derived from the fattier part of the botanical, like the seed, nut, or kernel.  So back to the salad. You know when you refrigerate salad dressing and the oil congeals and creates a layer on top?  That is the fatty part of the oil. This generally doesn’t happen with essential oils. While some essential oils do become thicker when they are cold, this is due to the plant’s waxes, not its fattiness. 
  3. It takes more of a botanical product to make an essential oil than it does to make a carrier oil.  Here are some examples for comparison sake. One full olive tree produces 3-4 liters of olive oil. While this is not very high yield, it is much higher than say, rose essential oil, which requires 2000 rose petals to yield one drop of rose essential oil or orange essential oil which takes about 200 oranges to make one 10ml bottle of orange essential oil! 

And yet, essential oils and carrier oils are complementary to one another, often used in conjunction with one another, especially when applying an essential oil on the skin. Author E. Joy Bowles explains this well in her book, The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils. Essential oils and carrier oils share the same molecular energy known as non-polarity, which means that they combine or mix well with one another, making carrier oils the perfect products to dilute the potency of essential oils.  We will talk more about dilution in the coming weeks, but for now, just know that there are very important differences between essential oils and fatty-based carrier oils, but these differences also make the two types of oils complementary when it comes to dilution for the purpose of application on your skin.

Until next week, keep diffusing dignity!

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