Essential or aromatic oils and carrier or base oils are two very different types of oil. For one, essential oils are typically fragrant and suitable for external use only, whereas carrier oils are odorless or lightly odoriferous, and usually also edible, being suitable for both topical and internal use. But not all essential oils are 100% inedible and not all carrier oils are 100% safe for consumption. Find out what is the difference between essential and carrier oils with this list of surprising facts.
Carrier oils are made from plants and even animals
Carrier oils can be sourced from plants as well as land and marine animals. Olive, sunflower, avocado, canola, grape seed, walnut, peanut, pecan, hazelnut, macadamia, apricot, sweet almond, coconut, sesame oil and cocoa butter are all carrier oils made from plants. Emu oil, fish oil and other marine oils are carrier oils made from animal fat. Emu oil is made from the fat tissue of emu birds. Fish oil is made from the liver or other fat tissue of various kinds of fish, including cod, herring, mackerel, salmon, tuna, anchovies and halibut. Krill oil is extracted from small crustaceans known as krill. Shark liver oil is made from shark liver.
Essential oils are made from plants only
Versus carrier oils which are made from plants and animals, essential oils are extracted from plants only. Almost any plant species or plant part that is also a source of fragrance can be a source of essential oil. Sage, rosemary and patchouli, but also eucalyptus, cinnamon and cedar, lemon and bergamot orange, frankincense and myrrh are all sourced from plants, whether fragrant flower, fruits, fruit peels or leaves, or aromatic resins, bark, roots or seeds.
Carrier oils are all edible
Carrier oils are extracted fat which makes them edible. That is, you can eat a carrier oil and not experience side effects or toxicity, so long as the intake is limited to what is considered a normal food amount for the oil. Depending on fatty acids composition and the nutrition they provide, but also their price, some can be eaten as food oils, while others are best taken as dietary supplements only. For example, you can eat olive oil fresh on bread or fry potatoes in sunflower oil or bake sweets with canola oil. Coconut oil and cocoa butter can be eaten, used for raw sweets and raw vegan sweets, but also for hair and skin care. But rose hip and evening primrose oil are either taken as a dietary supplement or used for hair and skin care. See benefits of rosehip oil.
Essential oils are all inedible
Not only are they toxic if ingested, but they can also be fatal after a certain amount. But why are essential oils toxic? Versus carrier oils which are extracted fat, which is edible, essential oils are extracted fragrance, that is, volatile and aromatic organic compounds. These compounds are not just a source of perfume, but also possess antimicrobial, irritant and repellent properties which make them toxic to insects and other pests and, in higher concentrations, to humans and animals. For example, most essential oils are relatively effective green pesticides. Of course, toxicity is relative to the oil purity and chemical composition, some essential oils being more toxic while others safer to use. In any case, essential oils are not edible so don’t eat them.
Not all carrier oils are 100% safe to eat
While they’re fat and you can definitely eat fat, not all carrier oils are 100% safe to eat. For example, sesame seed oil is an allergen and can cause side effects such as allergic reactions with contact dermatitis or anaphylactic shock. Nut oils such as walnut, hazelnut, peanut or macadamia can also cause allergic reactions. Palm oil is high in saturated fat, notably palmitic acid, and excess consumption can lead to high LDL and total cholesterol levels and associated cardiovascular disease over time. Similarly, coconut oil is 82% saturated fat, mostly lauric acid, but also myristic, palmitic and caprylic acid, and can increase risks of cardiovascular disease if intakes of the oil are excessive.
Borage oil naturally contains an alkaloid called amabiline which is extremely toxic for the liver; other side effects include increased risks of bleeding and developmental abnormalities of babies in the womb. This oil is mostly used as a supplement for treating or managing various conditions, and not eaten as a food oil. But whatever the use, look for certifications on the label that attest to the removal of the toxic alkaloid compounds. Jojoba oil cannot be digested, although it’s technically edible, which is why it’s used for cosmetic and other non-food purposes.
Not all essential oils are 100% inedible
It’s true that you shouldn’t eat essential oils as they are for topical use only and some are downright toxic even in the slightest amounts. Ingestion of even small amounts can lead to liver toxicity and even prove fatal. Even so, essential oil are not quite 100% inedible. Essential oils made from edible culinary herbs are often used as food additives to impart flavor to various food products. For example, caraway seed oil is used to flavor food, liqueurs, digestifs and even some medicines. Lemon and orange essential oils are sometimes used to up the flavor intensity of baked goods, teas or other beverages like lemonade. However, the amounts used are negligible, something along the lines of a drop for a big tray of something sweet.
But even though not all essential oils are 100% inedible, it’s best to avoid using them in food. If you’d like a stronger lemon flavor in your lemon pie or lemon pound cake, add lemon juice, lemon rind or food-grade lemon extract. For cinnamon flavor, use cinnamon stick or ground cinnamon, not cinnamon essential oil. For peppermint, use peppermint leaves or food-grade peppermint extract, not peppermint essential oil. For a delicate rose flavor to your lemonade, cold tea or water, use edible rose water, not rose essential oil. Using the raw material from which the essential oils are sourced ensures you get the flavor you’re looking for as well as the flavor intensity, whilst keeping your food safe to eat. Remember: just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s edible or safe to eat.
Carrier oils have no fragrance
One of the best ways to tell the difference between carrier and essential oils is by smell. Carrier oils have no fragrance, no perfume. Of course, they are not odorless either. Carrier oils extracted through cold-pressing, which is basically crushing seeds or fruit pulp to extract the oils in them, will retain some odor (but definitely not a fragrance). For example, extravirgin olive oil has a surprisingly pleasant and fresh grassy or green smell, faintly pungent even. It’s delightful! Cold-pressed, unrefined sunflower seed oil has a noticeably heavy oily odor and both the smell and taste are reminiscent of sunflower seed kernels. But sunflower oil produced especially for high-heat cooking will have been extracted with solvents, refined, deodorized and bleached so it will lack the particular flavor and odor of cold-pressed sunflower oil. So although a lot of carrier oils are often deodorized and bleached during production, which causes them to lose odor and flavor, know that it’s perfectly normal for them to have a flavor profile and some odor.
Essential oils are fragrant
The best way to tell the difference between essential and carrier oils is based on smell: while carrier oils are odorless or slightly odoriferous, essential oils are downright fragrant! Lemon and orange essential oils have a strong, citrussy perfume to them. Rose essential oil has a concentrated rose fragrance. All essential oils, whether lemon, rose, parsley, bay, basil, geranium, clove, cinnamon, patchouli or bergamot orange are strongly fragrant. And as a result, used in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics and more.
Carrier oils do no evaporate
If you put olive oil on your skin, it stays there for a while. If you massage it, it eventually gets absorbed into the skin. Carrier oils do not evaporate – they get absorbed into the skin. This is because they’re fat and fat doesn’t evaporate.
Essential oils evaporate
Versus carrier oils which are basically fat, essential oils are volatile and aromatic organic compounds. Volatile means they evaporate readily at normal temperatures and pressures, changing from a liquid to a vapor. This is also one of the reasons why essential oils are diluted with fat-based carrier oils for use on skin (the other reason being they’re also irritant in high concentrations).
Carrier oils are non-irritant, non-toxic
You can eat fat safely. You can put fat on your face and skin in general. Fat is moisturizing. Fat is physically part of cell membranes, whether it’s skin, brain or other types of cell membranes. Carrier oils are fat and fat is both edible and safe to eat. This means carrier oils are generally non-irritant and non-toxic.
Essential oils are irritants
Essential oils are made up of aromatic compounds. Aromatic compounds are not just a source of fragrance; they also possess antibacterial, antiviral, irritant, repellent and toxic properties. And because essential oils all concentrate the aromatic compounds in various plants, using them undiluted will have all of these side effects and more. High-purity, undiluted essential oils can cause contact dermatitis upon contact with the skin, redness, itching, blisters, and toxicity if ingested, even in small amounts. What testifies to these effects is the fact itself that essential oils are relatively effective green pesticides.
Carrier oils extraction: cold pressing, solvent extraction
The go-to extraction method for carrier oils is cold pressing. That is, the highest-quality carrier oils for food use and at-home cosmetic use (skin care, hair care) are obtained by grinding or crushing seeds, fruits or fruit pulp to extract the natural oils in them. At most, the oils are filtered to remove impurities. It doesn’t get more natural than this. A second preferred method is solvent extraction which produces carrier oils more suitable for cooking at high heat. This method often include bleaching and deodorizing the oils.
Essential oils extraction: distillation, solvent extraction
The go-to extraction method for essential oils is distillation, such as steam distillation. A second method to extract the aromatic compounds in certain plants is solvent extraction, which is preferred for heat-sensitive aromatic compounds and plants with a lower volatile oil content as well as because it’s cost-effective. Citrus oils such as lemon or orange essential oil are extracted through cold-pressing, considering the peel is the raw material for essential oil production and has a high enough oil content to be suitable for pressing. The choice of extraction method depends on the type of essential oil and raw material.
Carrier oils are made from seeds, fruits, liver, fat tissue
Plant-based carrier oils are usually made either from seeds or fruits of edible plants. For example, olive oil is made from the olive fruit. Sunflower oil is made from sunflower seed kernels. Apricot oil is made from apricot kernels. Emu oil is made from emu fat tissue. Cocoa butter is obtained from cocoa bean seeds. Fish oil is made from fish liver.
Essential oils are made from different plant parts
- Rose oil is made from rose petals. Jasmine and ylang-ylang oils are made from flowers too.
- Rosewood oil is made from the wood of several rosewood species. Sandalwood is also made from wood.
- Allspice oil is made from allspice, which is a fruit.
- Cinnamon oil is made from cinnamon, which is a bark.
- Rosemary oil is made from rosemary leaves. Bay leaf oil, basil, oregano, thyme and peppermint oil are made from leaves too.
- Frankincense and myrrh are made from resin.
- Valerian oil is made from dried valerian root, while ginger oil is made from ginger root.
- Nutmeg oil is made from seeds. Linseed oil is made from flax seeds.
- Citrus oils like lemon, lime or orange are made from peel or rind.
Some plants are sources of more than one oil. For example, bitter oranges:
- Bergamot essential oil is extracted from the rind of a bitter orange hybrid known as the bergamot orange.
- Neroli oil is extracted from bitter orange flowers.
- Petitgrain essential oil is extracted from the leaves and twigs of the bitter orange.
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