The Difference Between Carrier Oils and Essential Oils

Oil globules

Carrier oils… essential oils…

Both are called oils, both play important roles in aromatherapy and both offer therapeutic benefits. A few of them even look the same.

But they aren’t the same. In fact, there’re more differences between them than similarities.

Here’s how the two oils of aromtherapy are different.

#1: Carrier oils are extracted from the seeds, nuts or kernels of plants, essential oils are usually from other plant parts 

Carrier oils are obtained from the “fatty” parts of plants such as the seeds, nuts or kernels.

Essential oils are extracted from the aromatic parts of plants, which tend to be the flowers, leaves, stems or bark of plants.

Of course, there’re a few exceptions (there always are!). A small number of essential oils are extracted from plant seeds. Examples include carrot seed, nutmeg and fennel.

#2: Carrier oils contain nutrients, essential oils don’t

There’s a common myth that essential oils are a rich source of nutrients such as proteins, enzymes and vitamins. They aren’t.

Essential oils have many therapeutic benefits, but they’re not “nutritious”. They don’t contain proteins, enzymes or vitamins.

Why is that so?

Let’s start with proteins and enzymes. Protein and enzyme molecules are too heavy to be extracted by steam distillation (which is how most essential oils are extracted). The heat from the distillation process also breaks down proteins and enzymes.

For vitamins, some vitamin molecules are also too heavy to be steam-distilled. For those that are light enough, they can theoretically be found in essential oils. But if so, the amounts present are so tiny that the vitamins don’t even show up in the chemical analysis profiles of essential oils.

Carrier oils, on the other hand, have such nutrients in abundance (if properly extracted, i.e. cold-pressed).

#3: Carrier oils contain fatty acids, essential oils dont

Carrier oils contain fatty acids. So as I’d mentioned in an earlier post (see here), carrier oils can leave an oil stain on paper or cloth.

Essential oils, despite the word “oil”, don’t contain fatty acids and will usually not leave stains on paper or cloth. (Note: More viscous, darker-colored essential oils might because of their color.)

#4: Carrier oils play nice with plastic, essential oils eat plastic

Carrier oils are usually sold in plastic bottles, and this is all right if you’re not planning to keep the oils for too long. Essential oils sold by reputable vendors, however, will never be packaged in plastic containers. The vendors will use glass or metal instead.

This is because essential oils dissolve plastic. So not only will the plastic containers be ruined, what’s worse is that the essential oils will also be contaminated.

#5: Carrier oils don’t evaporate easily, essential oils do

Carrier oils are what we call fixed oils. They don’t really evaporate at room temperature.

Essential oils are volatile oils. They evaporate (diffuse) at room temperature. This is one reason why you should quickly cap a bottle of essential oil after use. If you leave it open to the air for too long, you may return to see less oil left.

#6: Carrier oils have a slight nutty scent or none at all, essential oils have strong scents

As carrier oils are extracted from the “fatty” parts of plants, they don’t have much of a smell or at most, they have a slight nutty smell. If your bottle of carrier oil has a very strong (and rather unpleasant) smell, it probably means the oil has turned bad (see #7 below).

Comparatively, essential oils are volatile oils obtained from the aromatic parts of plants. So it should not surprise you that essential oils have much stronger, and usually much more pleasant, scents than carrier oils.

#7: Carrier oils can turn rancid, essential oils dont

Carrier oils turn rancid over time. And you can easily tell that they’ve turned bad from the smell.

Essential oils don’t turn rancid. But they do oxidize over time.

For some essential oils, oxidation just means that the oils gradually lose their therapeutic value and become less effective. For other essential oils, however, oxidation can turn them more toxic.

So both carrier oils and essential oils should be properly stored and used within their shelf lives.

#8: Carrier oils can be applied topically in larger amounts than essential oils

Carrier oils are safe to use in much larger amounts than essential oils. This is why, of course, carrier oils are used to dilute essential oils.

The dilution rate guideline cited in reputable books and websites is generally 2% for adults. This means that the essential oil should comprise no more than 2% of the carrier oil volume used.

Note: The suggested dilution rate will be lower for children and certain essential oils.

Second note: The suggested rate also assumes you’re diluting a single essential oil in a carrier oil. If you blend two or more essential oils together in a carrier oil, the safe dilution rate may be lower than 2%, depending on whether the oils have similar chemical components.

Shall we chat?  How many of these differences did you already know? Are there others that you know of that are not listed here?  


3 thoughts on “The Difference Between Carrier Oils and Essential Oils”

  1. Just like I have a variety of essential oils I also have a variety of carrier oils. My favourite is coconut oil, and I have a couple different types of those. I also have avocado oil, hemp seed oil, almond oil, macadamia nut oil, and a few others. Depending on what I’m making I find the carrier oil makes a big difference. I love cinnamon essential oil but that definitely needs to be diluted. Thanks for all the great info, i didn;t know essential oils don’t contain nutrients.

    • Nice! You have a lot more carrier oils than me! I haven’t tried the thicker oils such as coconut oil and avocado oil yet myself, as I live in a fairly humid country. Do they absorb quickly for you? I quite like fractionated coconut oil though.

  2. Hi
    I do not know the difference between carrier oils and essential oils so i am glad i have come across your post.
    Now i can understand why my oils have lost there colour and smell i must have carrier oils this is really good to know.
    I didn’t know that essential oils do not contain nutrients that really surprises me.
    This post has given me lots of info that helps me for when i buy more oils:)

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