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In my last post, I briefly touched on why dilution is necessary when using essential oils topically (find my beginner’s guide here). Proper dilution is your first step in protecting your skin from having a reaction. So in this post, I want to take a minute to unpack and talk about what you can and cannot use to dilute essential oils.
First, a quick aromatherapy vocabulary lesson on the differences between diluting, dispersing, emulsifying, and solubilizing. So, often these terms are used interchangeably even though, in reality, they mean very different things. I was also guilty of using them this way at one point. Diluting means to reduce the strength or concentration of. You might also hear “like dilutes like.” This is what we’re doing when we mix essential oil with a fatty carrier oil. We’re reducing the concentration of the essential oil that’s being placed on our skin. Dispersing means to scatter or send off in various directions. If you’ve ever tried to shake a mixture of essential oils and water, this is what you’re doing. Temporarily scattering the oil in the water. Just remember, it will always separate again. Emulsifying means to form an emulsion. An emulsion is a suspension of tiny droplets of one liquid in a second liquid. This is usually done mechanically with an additional chemical substance (an emulsifier) to force two liquids together that ordinarily wouldn’t mix. Lotion is an oil and water emulsion. Solubilizing essentially means dissolving. We’ll see this later on when we mix essential oils with ethanol (Everclear).
After reviewing popular recipes I made a list of the most common things I saw being used to dilute essential oils. In order to dilute essential oils you need a substance that will marry with the essential oil permanently. If the essential oil separates from whatever other substance you’re using, then it cannot be properly diluted. To make this a little more fun, I took the 11 substances on my list and took photos of what they look like mixed with essential oil so you can see what I’m talking about!
Let me introduce the star of today’s post! In order for the oil to show up in photos, I needed one that had a dark color. Most essential oils are clear or lightly pigmented but there are a few that have deeper hues. Today I’m using one of my favorite Plant Therapy synergies- Self Esteem. This beautiful oil is a blend of spruce, ho wood, frankincense carteri, and blue tansy essential oils. The blue tansy in this blend gives it a deep bluish-purple color and was perfect for my photos.
Each bottle was filled with about halfway and then given 5 drops of essential oil. They were shaken vigorously, and then given 15 minutes to settle. The picture of the label on every bottle is taken before any essential oil drops were added.
Let’s start with an easy one! Fractionated coconut oil is a fatty vegetable oil that has had the long-chain fatty acids removed, which allows it to stay liquid. FCO is a popular carrier oil because it is inexpensive and has a shelf life of 2-3 years. Obviously, since this is a type of oil, it has the same density and as the essential oil and the drops mix in immediately and will stay diluted. This would be true of any fatty carrier oil such as olive, sunflower, grapeseed, jojoba, almond, and many others. Each carrier oil has it’s own therapeutic properties, so you can really make the most of any diluted blend by pairing it with a carrier oil that has similar properties to achieve the desired affect.
We’re going to use the above photo as our bar by which we measure. Properly diluted essential oils will resemble the photo on the right. Let’s move on to water. Now, if you remember your grade school science, then you’ll know that oil and water do not mix. Water is more dense than oil and they repel each other. This is true of anything that is more dense than oil. It doesn’t matter how much or how hard you stir or shake, they will separate every single time. This is why you can’t drop oil into a glass of water and drink it or drop oil straight into your bath. You are effectively putting neat (undiluted) essential oil in/on your body and that can do very serious damage. In the photo below, you can clearly see the oil sitting on top.
Next up is distilled white vinegar. This is most often used in surface cleaner recipes. Now, if you’re mixing essential oils with vinegar strictly for cleaning purposes, this could be okay. Proper solubilizing is preferred, but as long as you’re not using this on your skin you’re not in any danger. Wear gloves while using just to be safe.
Another liquid I see so often being used is witch hazel. Witch hazel is 14% alcohol and home essential oil users often assume this is enough to solubilize oils in body sprays. Unfortunately, as you can see from our photo, it’s not. Alcohol can solubilize oils, but it needs to be much higher than the 14% in witch hazel. In the witch hazel here, the oil is still sitting on top, but pooled in the middle instead of along the sides (hence the awkward angle photo).
This bottle contains 80 proof or 40% alcohol vodka. Even at 40% alcohol, the vodka isn’t enough to solubilize the essential oil drops, and they still float on top. The alcohol content could still be useful for cleaning and killing germs, so a surface cleaner or linen spray to kill odors would be fine, but use caution and wear gloves! The key takeaway is that this still isn’t appropriate for use on skin.
So how much alcohol is enough? Everclear (95% alcohol/190 proof) is ideal! Grain alcohol that is 95%-100% ethanol will properly dissolve essential oils, and in the right ratios will also act as a preservative. 75.5%/151 proof alcohol may work, but the higher the ethanol content, the better. Robert Tisserand elaborates a little better than I can on using grain alcohol in your blending here.
Now I’d like to touch on a couple that aren’t actually liquid. The next few photos all revolve around using essential oils in the bath. First, baking soda. In the center photo, it seems as though the baking soda and essential oil drops have mixed but as soon as I add hot water they separate. The same happens when you mix with Epsom salts (or oatmeal, or milk powder- they won’t mix with any dry goods in the bath). That’s not to say that you can’t use these things in your bath, just that you’ll need something that marries oil and water in addition.
Full fat milk will also not emulsify oils. Don’t try this at home.
So what should you use in the bath instead? Something you probably already keep in your shower- soap! Soaps and detergents are attracted to both water and oil because one end of their molecule is hydrophilic (water-loving) and the other end is hydrophobic (water-repelling, which allows it to stick to oil), and this allows the two to marry into one another. Perfect for a bath! Any sort of unscented liquid soap is great, I often use body wash but shampoo or castile soap would work just as well. 5 drops per 1 tablespoon of soap is a good starting point, from there you can add your salts or baking soda to your bath water.
An important rule to remember is that when you’re blending, you should always mix your essential oils in your dilutant first before adding anything that oils wouldn’t ordinarily mix with. The order in which you mix things is very important, otherwise the oils might separate out even if you’ve used a dilutant.
Just for fun, I also decided to include honey. I’ve noticed a popular MLM (multi-level marketing or direct sales) concoction is to mix honey, hot water, and essential oils as a sort of “tea.” Don’t do this. I also discussed in my last post why ingestion is not for the home user. No shocker here, honey does not dilute essential oils. This one took a tad longer to separate because of the thickness of the honey, but ultimately it still separates.
One product I was not able to get my hands on for this little experiment was aloe vera. Fresh aloe vera is water based and therefore will not mix with essential oils. If you want to use aloe vera, you would need to also use an emulsifier, or buy a pre-made aloe vera jelly that has emulsifiers and preferably a preservative (to prevent mold growth). I love this ready-to-use jelly from Plant Therapy! I keep it in the fridge for the perfect after sun care. I also use it on cooking burns, and bug bites. It is a staple in my stash of carriers!
That brings us to our final recap! The liquids you can safely use to properly dilute essential oils for use on your skin are: carrier oils, everclear (or other high proof grain alcohol), and soaps. In addition, you could also use any sort of pre-made lotion or balm because these often already contain emulsifiers (and preservatives, no icky growing things!) in their ingredient list. If none of these diluting agents are right for the product you’re making you can also use something called polysorbate 20. Polysorbate 20 is specifically made to emulsify oils into water based products and is really easy to use. Soap supply companies are a great place to find this.
I hope this post has been educational. If you learned something new or you know someone who could benefit from this information then please share! Responsible essential oil usage starts with us. By practicing safe usage we protect our bodies and respect what the Earth has given us to use. Safe usage is sustainable usage. As always, if you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments!