Soapmaking lives in a space between science and art. Some aspects rely on chemistry and math, others on touch and intuition. When science and art get mixed up, it’s possible to apply mathematical standards to intuitive problems, or the other way around, and the discussions that follow can miss the point.
It can be hard, for instance, to find agreement on the differences between essential and fragrance oils. The same difficulty can be true for essentials and absolutes. To add to the confusion, even if there was agreement on differences, there’s disagreement over what – and how much – those differences mean.
What’s Behind the Name?
We all seem to agree, though, on essential and carrier oils. In fact, it’s their fundamental differences, and our knowledge of them, that make essential and carrier oils such a good combination for aromatherapy and massage.
Function is what’s given carrier oils their name. Extracted most often by cold pressing, carrier oils are used to dilute the intensity of essential oils and to help “carry” them, or spread them, over and into the skin.
Also Known As
Even if you’re not familiar with aromatherapy, you’ll still know what carrier oils are. You’ll just know them by another name, something as simple as vegetable oils, or if you’re in the organic soap business, as “fixed” or “base” oils. This carrier / fixed / base category includes olive, safflower, and sunflower oils, as well as more exotic oils preferred in aromatherapy – almond, grapeseed, sesame, borage seed, meadowfoam, sea buckthorn berry, and fractionated coconut.
Extracted from the fatty portion of a plant — usually the seed, nut, or kernel — carrier oils are “fixed” (or inert) because they’re not subject to easy evaporation like “volatile” essential oils. They are, however, subject to going rancid, which essential oils aren’t. Also, for the most part, carrier oils have minimal fragrance, whereas essential oils are used specifically for how they smell. The ways in which carrier and essential oils differ turn out to be the very things that make them perfect and complementary as a foundation for aromatherapy.