Carrier Oils 101

You hear the term “carrier oil” frequently in DIY Beauty and when using essential oils, but what are they? Why would we use them? How can we use them most effectively?

Carrier oils are named “carrier” because of their ability to “carry” essential oils and other active ingredients onto the skin. Compared to essential oils, which have smaller and very volatile molecules (i.e. will evaporate quickly), carrier oils have larger molecules that are non-volatile. As a result, in addition to diluting essential oils so that they’re safe (check out our guide to essential oils for more on that), carrier oils also prevent the diluted essential oils from evaporating quickly.  

What exactly is a carrier oil? Really, any oil will serve as a carrier oil, but just like in your diet, good quality and nutrient dense oils will go a lot further if you’re looking for any skin benefits. Most often, they’re from the fatty parts of plants and particularly derived from their seeds, kernels or nuts. They’re typically extracted by either cold pressing, or using solvents, heat and/or steam. Note, the method of extraction is worth consideration since some forms damage the potential beneficial profile of the oil; cold pressing is the preferred method to keep the oil intact. Once extracted, many oils are further refined to remove the unwanted particles (i.e. mold and/or components that limit the smoke point, shelf life or the smell of the oil) to give you the lovely oils that you find on the shelf (refining is especially important for oils used for wounds).

Carrier oils are made up different fatty acids and usually also contain trace vitamins, minerals, and different phytonutrients. The fatty acids that make up carrier oils include omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (e.g. linoleic acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)), omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (typically in the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form which is found in many vegetable and nut oils), monounsaturated fats (e.g. oleic acid) and saturated fats (e.g. lauric acid, rich in coconut oil). Depending on the chemical compositions of the oils, they all have their own unique color, viscosity, shelf life, smell and therapeutic property. For example, many carrier oils contain specific compounds with antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-itch properties. The unique properties of the different oils are a good idea to consider when choosing which one is right for your skin type or condition. Obviously, if you have a nut allergy, probably avoid nut based oils.

Two fatty acids that seem to play a really large role in determining how the carrier oil will be for your skin are linoleic and oleic acids.

Oleic acid creates a richer and heavier consistency in the oil and does a good job sealing in moisture. Oils rich in this fatty acid are absorbed well by the skin and have anti-inflammatory and skin softening properties. These oils are well suited for people with dry skin and also have longer shelf lives (cooking oils are often enriched with oleic acid to extend the shelf life). Note, high-oleic oils may not be suitable for people with acne or very sensitive skin conditions like rosacea. High-oleic oils include olive oil (55-85%), avocado oil (75%), neem oil (54%), almond oil (68%) and argan oil (42.8%).

Linoleic acid creates a lighter and thinner consistency, nourishing and protecting without being too heavy. Oils rich in this fatty acid can restore skin barrier function, reduce scaling on skin, and are better suited to acne-prone skin types (demonstrated to commonly have low levels of linoleic and high levels of oleic in their sebum). Since linoleic rich oils are lighter in consistency, they’re my preferred carrier oils for daytime facial application especially (e.g. day serum). Note, be sure to keep these oils in the fridge or in a cool dark place to prevent them from going rancid (if it smells off compared to when you first opened the oil, stop using it). Linoleic rich oils include safflower (74%), evening primrose (73%), grape seed oil (70%), sunflower (66%), hemp (60%), apricot kernel (50%) and sesame oil (50%). Final note, these oils range from relatively moisturizing (e.g. sesame) to a bit more on the astringent side (e.g. grape seed) which can be slightly drying for certain skin types.

While other fatty acids and different nutrients also definitely play a role in the characteristics of the oil, linoleic and oleic acids are especially important components to become familiar with when choosing your carrier oil. Every skin type is different so what your skin may prefer with respect to linoleic and oleic acid may be very different. Some skin types do best with high oleic, some with high linoleic and some with a good combination of the two. Here’s what I love about DIY Beauty, with a little experimentation, you can find the ingredients that work best for you and really start to customize your products to your own skin type.

Finally, a very important consideration when you’re choosing a carrier oil is its comedogenicity, how likely an ingredient is to clog your pores and cause acne comedones (i.e. zits). Ratings vary from 0-5, 5 being very comedogenic and 0 being non-comedogenic. These ratings are especially important to consider if you have acne to combination skin. Examples of oils with high comedogenic ratings include coconut oil and cocoa butter, best left off the face, and oils with low comedogenic ratings include grape seed oil, shea butter and hemp oil.

Examples of commonly used carrier oils:

Carrier Oil

Fatty Acid Composition

Comedogenic Rating

Description

Sesame Oil

Sesamum indicum

36% oleic acid

41% linoleic acid

8% palmitic acid

5% stearic acid

3

Thicker oil that is deeply moisturizing & has anti-inflammatory qualities for very dry or irritated skin inc. eczema and psoriasis. This oil has a good balance of oleic to linoleic acid, making it suitable for most skin types, although the stearic acid content makes is slightly comedogenic. Note, this oil has a strong sesame smell.

Olive Oil

Olea europaea

75% oleic acid

16% linoleic acid

8% palmitic acid

2

Deeply moisturizing with healing, anti-inflammatory & anti-aging qualities. This oil has a thicker consistency and is best suited to very dry and aging skin types. Note, olive oil is commonly adulterated with other lower quality oils. Be sure to purchase from a reliable manufacturer.

Jojoba

Simmondsia chinensis

77% gadoleic acid

12% erucic acid

9% oleic acid

2

Technically a wax, not a true oil, this carrier oil has very long fatty acid chains and ultimately a  medium consistency. Since the combination of fatty acids in Jojoba are pretty similar to our natural sebum, it’s well absorbable. Slightly anti-fungal and deeply moisturizing. Jojoba also has a very long shelf life and is often added to other oils to prevent early rancidity.

Hemp Seed

Cannabis sativa

60% Linoleic Acid

20% alpha-Linolenic acid

12% oleic acid

6% palmitic acid

0

Rich concentration of ALA omega 3 as well as linoleic acid. This oil has anti inflammatory, anti-aging, & healing effects. Non-greasy, nice for facial oil blends. Great for irritated skin conditions like acne, eczema and cuts.

Coconut Oil

Cocos nucifera

49% lauric acid

16% myristic acid

9.5% palmitic acid

8% decanoic acid

7% caprylic acid

6.5% oleic acid

4

Comprised of mostly saturated fats, particularly lauric acid. This oil is more like a butter, although will melt just above room temperature. While this oil is a favorite of many beauty bloggers, it’s highly comedogenic and best left off the face.

Avocado Oil

Persea anerucano

65% oleic acid

15% linoleic acid

14% palmitoleic acid

3

Thick, nourishing and slightly anti-inflammatory.. Ideal for mature and very dry skin. Slow absorbing time, makes for good aromatherapy massage oils and night serum. Can be blended with a lighter oil for a thinner consistency.

Argan

Argania spinosa

43% oleic acid

37% linoleic acid

12% palmitic acid

0

Rich in antioxidants, healing, anti-microbial, anti-aging, and softening. Argan is a lovely addition to recipes for all skin types. This oil has a nice balance between oleic and linoleic acid.

Grape Seed

Vitus vinifera

70% linoleic acid

15% oleic acid

1

Light oil with satin like, non-greasy finish. Grape seed oil is rich in antioxidants, slightly anti-fungal and slightly astringent. Best suited for acne-prone to combination skin types. Dryer skin types may find this oil slightly drying. My prefered oil for day-time facial serums.

Apricot Kernal

Prusus armeniaca

70% oleic acid

23% linoleic acid

4% palmitic acid

2

Medium consistency oil with anti-aging, anti-inflammatory & moisturizing qualities. This oil is great for soothing sensitive and irritated skin conditions.

Sweet Almond

Prusus amygdalus var. Dulcis

62% oleic acid

29% linoleic acid

9% palmitic acid

2

Medium consistency oil with anti-inflammatory, anti-aging and moisturizing effects. Sweet almond oil is great for aging, sensitive, dry and irritated skin types.


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Plant’s Power, biochemical carrier oil compositions

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Verma S et al. (2014) Oleic acid vesicles: a new approach for topical delivery of antifungal agent. Artif Cells Nanomed Biotechnol. 42(2):95-101.