A Guide to Carrier Oil Substitutions

One of the questions I am asked the most is along the lines of “I don’t have ingredient X, can I use ingredient Y or Z instead, or just leave it out?”. Sometimes the answer is a quick yes, and sometimes it’s a complicated no. So, I put together this guide to help you understand the different roles different carrier oils play in different recipes. That way you can start to understand how things work and make easy and successful substitutions! In this entry I’ll be talking about carrier oils—the basic building blocks of most body recipes. I’ll write about essential oils, extracts, and other ingredients in the future.

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What are carrier oils?

The term “carrier oil” encompasses hundreds of different oils and butters. In the most basic sense, the word “carrier” serves to distinguish oils that are not “essential” oils. Common carrier oils include olive oil, coconut oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, grapeseed oil, canola oil, sweet almond oil, walnut oil, and more. The oils in this category vary wildly in terms of texture, colour, thickness, nutritional composition, and scent, but generally they are our base oils/butters.

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Shea butter, up close and personal.

So… what are the variables?

Carrier oils serve a variety of purposes. Here’s a quick list that I’ll elaborate on further down:

  1. Bulking/Diluting
  2. Consistency
  3. Speed of absorption
  4. Texture & melting point
  5. Special features & benefits

Bulking/Diluting—The most basic, obvious thing carriers oils to is basically make up the majority of many products (along with water in some recipes). They are basically the flour or butter in a cookie recipe. So, when it comes to the “can I just leave it out?” question, the answer is pretty much always no. You must replace eliminated carrier oils with something similar, or you will very drastically alter the final product (image cookies made without flour). It will either be too hard, too soft, the essential oils won’t be diluted enough and will be irritating, or, or, or… the list is pretty much infinite. Don’t leave out ingredients that compose the majority of a recipe, and if you do, understand the final product will likely be nothing like what you thought you’d get.

Consistency—The most important purpose after being the base of every recipe is consistency. The consistency of an individual carrier oil is based on its consistency at room temperature. Is it a) liquid, b) soft, or c) brittle? Each one will contribute differently to a final product (think oil vs. butter when baking). One of the most common substitutions people inquire about is using shea butter instead of cocoa butter. This, however, is never really a good idea. This is because shea butter is soft and sticky at room temperature, whereas cocoa butter is smooth and brittle, like a bar of dark chocolate. Shea butter will not provide the same smooth, thick/hard final product as cocoa butter will.

Cocoa butter on the left, shea butter on the right. You can see the cocoa butter is a solid mass, whereas the shea butter is soft and fluffy looking.
Cocoa butter on the left, shea butter on the right. You can see the cocoa butter is a solid mass, whereas the shea butter is soft and fluffy looking.
Sticky shea butter.
Sticky shea butter.

So, when you’re trading ingredients, your first consideration should be if the replacement ingredient is the same consistency as the original at room temperature. Really, after this, it’s all gravy. Your final product will likely not be exactly the same, but it should be just fine.

Liquid Oils Soft Oils Brittle Oils
Olive oil Coconut oil Cocoa butter
Canola oil Shea butter Kokum butter
Grapeseed oil Cupuacu butter  Illipe butter
Safflower oil Mango butter
Argan oil Babassu oil

 

Speed of absorption—The most important job carrier oils do is generally moisturizing and softening the skin. Carrier oils are loaded with great fats that make your skin happy. However, there’s a big difference between oils in how quickly they absorb into the skin. Some sink in quickly, some slowly, and some very, very slowly. Some are “drying” oils, some leave your skin feeling extra soft, and some will mean you won’t be able to touch paper for 20 minutes. Depending on what you’re making, you’ll want a different oil. If you want a lotion that you can use on a day-to-day basis without it interfering with things, you’ll want an oil that absorbs quickly. If you’re making a lip gloss, you’ll want one that absorbs slowly so it will sit on your lips and look shiny. If you’re making a facial serum and you have oily skin, you’d probably look at using a drying oil instead of a heavy, slow to absorb oil.

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So, when swapping out oils in a recipe where absorbency is important, ensure the replacement oil is pretty similar to the original in terms of absorption speed. Here’s a quick chart (it is not comprehensive by any means!) of oil absorbency speeds. If you’re looking for more information, check out New Directions Aromatics—they detail the absorbency of each carrier oil on its product page.

Fast to Absorb Average to Absorb Slow to Absorb
Safflower Jojoba Avocado
Camellia Seed Kuikuinut Castor
Hazelnut Argan Flax seed
Grapeseed Sweet Almond Evening Primrose
Rosehip (also drying) Olive Oat
Apricot kernel Coconut oil Macadamia nut
Canola Sunflower

 

Texture & melting point—These two things are pretty closely tied, so I’m grouping them together. Melting point is really only important with oils that are solid at room temperature, as liquid oils generally tend to stay that way when they’re out and about, as their tipping point into the solid realm is generally far below temperatures you’d want to apply body butter in (olive oil solidifies around 1°C).

One substitution I am asked about a lot is swapping coconut oil for shea butter, and vice versa. The reason this may not work is a difference in both texture and melting point. In terms of texture, coconut oil is smooth and oily; shea butter is thick, tacky, and sticky. Coconut oil melts at 24°C, shea butter at 38°C (interestingly enough, cocoa butter melts at 34°C, even though it is much harder at room temperature). Considering body temperature is 37°C, this means that coconut oil will liquefy the instant it touches the skin (or on a warm day), while shea butter takes some encouragement. So, in something like lip balm, coconut oil will provide a better glide as it will melt as soon as it touches your lips, while a shea butter lip balm will likely skid across the lips for the first few seconds (assuming it isn’t 35°+ outside).

Shea butter on the left, coconut oil on the right. They've been sitting on my arm for about a minute—notice how the coconut oil is melting quite quickly, and the shea butter is just sitting there? That's because coconut oil has a lower melting point.
Shea butter on the left, coconut oil on the right. They’ve been sitting on my arm for about a minute—notice how the coconut oil is melting quite quickly, and the shea butter is just sitting there? That’s because coconut oil has a lower melting point.

So, when making substitutions in a recipe where the melting point and texture are important, be sure to pay attention to the melting points and textures of your ingredients.

Special Features—You don’t have to spend long reading descriptions, benefit lists, and reviews in the New Directions Aromatics carrier oils section to decide that you need every single one of them, stat, and then they will solve all your problems and you will look like a Victoria’s Secret model for all time with no other effort.

There are carrier oils that are said to help with pretty much every ailment: acne, psoriasis, warts, dry skin, oily skin, sore muscles, soft tissue injuries, sprains, sunburns, eczema, burns, cuts, sprains, rosacea… and the list goes on. In addition to the benefits of an oil, sometimes a recipe will call for an oil because of its individual scent, the three most obvious ones being cocoa butter (smells like chocolate), virgin coconut oil (smells like coconuts), and beeswax (smells like honey).

When a recipe calls for an oil and makes a big deal out of its special features or scent, that generally means swapping it for something else is a no-go. The only example I can think of is that you can use andiroba oil instead of emu oil for a plant-based substitute, though they are still definitely not the same thing.

These three carrier oils/butters are all very different, especially in the scent category!
These three carrier oils/butters are all very different, especially in the scent category!

Hope that helps! If you have anything to add (I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…) or have any questions about something I forgot to cover, feel free to comment below!

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Wondering where I get my ingredients? I get almost everything from New Directions Aromatics (Canada, USA, Aus, & UK) and Saffire Blue!

70 Responses to A Guide to Carrier Oil Substitutions

  1. Tasha says:

    What a great post for someone who is just learning these things. Thank you for posting and I can’t wait to see the other ones you mentioned.

  2. Rachel Broadbent says:

    This is a really useful post! I look forward to the post about essential oils!

  3. Maureen says:

    This wonderful Guide is just Best thing you can do for anybody who’s learning about Essential Oils and trying to live a natural life.

    Thank you so much, I am keeping all this information in a notebook and in Evernote ( Online)

    I can’t wait for your future post Lessions.

    • Marie says:

      Thanks for reading, Maureen! I am currently working on a list of “beginner” type lessons—if you have any ideas, feel free to pass them on :)

  4. Nicole says:

    Loved the article… thanks for doing such a great job explaining things that could be confusing to a beginner like me… in your list of oil I notice you did not mention Neem oil…. do you have info on it… what it is used for or how to use it or its properties, and uses

    thank you

    • Marie says:

      Thanks for reading, Nicole! I’ve never worked with Neem oil, but from what I know of it, it would be in the “special” category. It is a popular ingredient in bug repellents, and from what I understand, it smells absolutely awful (which is what makes the bugs stay away). It is very viscous and does not absorb into the skin readily. I would not use neem oil in anything that wasn’t to repel insects, basically (or designed to take advantage of any of neem oil’s other benefits—it is said to be good for problematic skin conditions as well). It would not be a good substitution oil.

  5. Christina says:

    Excellent!!! You did an awesome job describing the features of them and actually pointed out a really good fact about how one can’t really exchange shea butter for cocoa butter (something I’m guilty of lol). Now I realize I will probably have to alter the amounts of my other ingredients when I make this swap in certain recipes – like my stretch mark salve. Your blog is GREAT!!

    • Marie says:

      Thanks for reading, Christina! I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, I’m so glad you’re finding it useful :) It’s easy to forget how much chemistry is involved in all these DIY projects, and while I’m hardly keen to get out my periodic table again (ugh lol), remembering a few basic principles can really help.

  6. Jane says:

    One book I refer to when thinking of substituting an oil is Delores Boone’s “Handcrafted Soap”. It has really good charts listing oil properties etc.
    Cheers.

    • Marie says:

      Fantastic, thanks Jane! I tend to get the majority of my information from the internet, and it’s good to be reminded that there are great resources at your local library as well :)

  7. Ann says:

    Hi!

    I am wondering where I can find more information about absorption. You made a really good point when you mentioned that oils “feel” different on the skin, and that for things like body lotions that you will use daily, you would want something that absorbs quickly.

    What oils absorb quickly?

    Which oils are “dry” oils, and do most dry oils moisturize well?

    Thanks!

    • Marie says:

      Ann! I’ve just gone in and added a table and some more information about oils that absorb at different speeds, and how to learn more :) The only drying oil I know about is rosehip—it is a perfectly fine moisturizer, it is just called “drying” because it absorbs so quickly. I believe it is also slightly astringent.

  8. Allison Green says:

    Thank you. This is very helpful!

  9. mksd says:

    I love your post, thank you very much. It was very helpful for beginners, like me…

  10. Jo Mitchell says:

    What a great post , I love your style , you make everything so easy to understand. Eagerly awaiting the next instalment .

  11. Anne says:

    I did not notice coconut oil in your table…where does it fit in?

    • Marie says:

      Hi, Anne! Coconut oil is soft at room temperature, absorbs on the quicker side of average, and melts at 24° (which is pretty low for oils that are solid at room temperature as it means it’s only barely solid at 21°).

  12. Carol says:

    I use coconut oil in the toothpaste I make, but it is always liquid in the summer. What is a good alternative?
    Also, what are your thoughts on glycerin in the toothpaste mix?

    • Marie says:

      Hmmm… you could try thickening the coconut oil with a bit of beeswax, since you’re probably using the coconut oil for all its fantastic anti this & that benefits ;)

      I have no problems with glycerin in toothpaste—it’s a humectant, and it tastes sweet, which is always a bonus for anything that goes into your mouth :)

  13. Kathy S says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful blog & explanation of the differences between the carrier oils. Invaluable knowledge ~ thank you for sharing.

  14. Lauren says:

    I want to make your lemongrass & seaweed shampoo bar and was wondering what I could replace the lard with. I don’t see it listed here. What could I use instead?

  15. sung says:

    Thanks so much! I just made lotion and think it’s a little thick. Really informative and well organized post. Bookmarked for my next batch!

  16. Stephanie says:

    Hello Marie! I’ve really been enjoying educating myself on oils and soaps on your blog, thanks for providing so much helpful and easy to understand information! I have psoriasis and haven’t been able to find anything that really helps(and that doesn’t kill my immune system). So I am on a quest to find something natural to moisturize and heal my skin with the goal being to at least make it feel better if not actually heal it. Do you have any suggestions on a soap or lotion(or both) that I could make that would help? Currently I’m just using coconut oil with some essential oils(tea tree, lavender) and it helps a little but it’s also super greasy feeling. Any insight would be much appreciated by my itchy skin! :)

  17. Norma says:

    Thank you so much for this! So informative and easy to read and understand. The charts are extremely helpful!

  18. Salome says:

    Wow! you made clear almost everything! thanks for that.. just one question D: .. when makin body butter, do you think i coul substitute shea butter with coconut oil? please answer and thanks :D

    • Marie says:

      Thanks, Salome! As I explain in the article, shea butter and coconut oil aren’t generally a good swap as they have drastically different melting points and textures. That said, they are both in the soft category, so you can try it, but the texture, scent (if using raw versions), and melting point of the final product will be quite different, especially if that ingredient makes up a large part of the recipe.

  19. Alexa says:

    I love your blog! I’ve recently started making soap and selling it on Etsy, which is really fun. Is your soap available for sale? Your posts are beautifully photographed and inspiring, so thank you! I was just wondering what size soap mold you use? I’m using a hinged wooden loaf mold that makes 12 1″ thick bars that are 3.5″wide x 2″ high. However, I like how your bars are more vertical than horizontal and would love to know what size mold you use. Thanks in advance and keep doing what you’re doing!

    • Marie says:

      Hi Alexa! Thanks for reading :D I don’t end up selling anything I make. I’ve got a lot of reasons, but they generally boil down to my being far too busy making soap & writing about it to sell it as well :P (Plus a more than full time job, social life, etc.).

      The inner measurements of my mold are 15″ long, 3.5″ across, and 3.5″ deep. I have a series of dividers that support the lid; they are 2.75″ high, giving the mold an effective depth of 2.75″ (the lid is 0.75″ thick). Each inch of the mold holds 100g/oils of soap; so the entire mold holds a 1500g of oils batch of soap. It’s also exactly as long as sheets of parchment are long, meaning it’s super easy to line as well. Basically, it’s the perfect size!

      And, I think you’ll find if you rotate your soaps 90° they’ll be pretty close to the shape & size of mine (just 1/4″ wider—1.75×3.5″ instead of 2×3.5″) :P

  20. Grace says:

    I must say you have an amazing site! I have learned so much! I have tried many of your recipes and they all come out fantastic.Thank you!

  21. ErinElizabeth says:

    THANK YOU!

    This is exactly the information I needed right now. To busy to poke around your site today but you’re bookmarked and I’ll definitely be back.

  22. susan says:

    thank you so much!
    i have recently given up mass produced lotions and creams and now make my own body butter. this is so helpful for me. thanks so much!

  23. Ayse Mero says:

    Hi! LOVE your post. I was wondering if you could leave out cocoa butter out when making lip balm, and just use olive oil, coconut oil, cocoa powder, and honey. Thanks!
    P.s. Can you leave out beeswax?

    • Marie says:

      Hi Ayse! As to your question… please don’t do that if you want to make lip balm :) You will end up with a liquid (coconut oil melts at 24°C and when combined with another liquid oil the final product is liquid unless your house is about 5°C), with gritty bits of cocoa powder sunk to the bottom, and a blob of honey floating on top (honey is water soluble and will not easily emulsify with oils, especially without a thickened to stabilize the emulsion). You need the beeswax especially to thicken it up and give you something solid, and the cocoa butter helps thicken it and gives a lovely texture and fragrance. Additionally, the beeswax helps the layer of butters and oils adhere to your lips so they stick around and moisturize them :)

  24. Claire says:

    Love it! It’s so nice to have such helpful info in one spot. Thanks!

  25. Megan says:

    Hi Marie,
    I absolutely detest coconut and everything related to it. However, it is so prevalent in most recipes. Obviously shea butter is not a good sub. I was thinking babassu oil?
    How about mango butter? Can I use that instead of coconut oil?
    Thanks for your help :)

    • Marie says:

      Hi Megan! I’m so sorry to hear you detest coconut :( If you just hate it (and aren’t allergic to it) I’d still use it in soaps, as it is so good at creating really lovely lather, and isn’t at all noticeable in a final bar. For non-soap applications, babassu is the best substitute I’ve ever worked with. It has a similar texture and melting point, though it’s not so similar in the price department, unfortunately. Mango butter is closer to shea butter in that it’s quite thick and has a higher melting point, so I’d save that for other projects :) Thanks for reading!

  26. Divya says:

    Love this! I’m just beginning to decide to make homemade products like lotions. I was wondering should I put more shea or coconut oil for my lotion? This article helped me – more shea, because it’s almost 30 degrees right now and the coconut oil is liquid! With more shea, the lotion will be solid w/out me having to use the fridge.

    Please PLEASE make another informative article on essential oils, extracts, and all. I would be so appreciative. I’m only a teen, by the way! Sick of the chemicals all around me and wanna go natural. Thanks, you have made a huge contribution in my decision!!

    If you have a lotion recipe or deodorant one especially, please post it! Thanks!

    • Marie says:

      Thanks, Divya! You can also try thickening up your lotions by using a smidgen more emulsifying wax (7% instead of 5% makes a surprisingly large difference), or adding a gram or two of beeswax, which is a very powerful thickener :)

      I do have an article on essential oils! Two, in fact—here and here :) You should also just peruse my “The Basics” section, there’s lots of good articles in there on things like solubility and stuff not to buy that you might find useful!

      For other things, use the search bar, or the menu at the top, or the list of all my categories on the right side of the page under my Instagram photos. There’s well over 550 recipes up here, with at least 3 deodorant recipes and 17 lotion recipes.

  27. Lillian Green says:

    Can I substitute walnut oil for almond oil when making a mosquito repellent with cloves and alcohol ?
    Thank you.

  28. Brittney says:

    I love this!! I read through the comments and read about someone who doesn’t like the coconut oil– but my skin actually can’t handle it. I have incredibly sensitive skin- I actually stopped using shampoo and conditioner and found out that it was the reason my acne was so bad. But the coconut oil makes me break out like CRAZY! For soap/shampoo bar making, can I substitute with shea butter since it seems to be non comodegenic? Or do you have any suggestions? I appreciate it!!!

    • Marie says:

      Hi Brittney! Coconut oil is a tricky one to replace in soaps since it contributes wonderful, beautiful, fluffy lather. From what I’ve read, babassu oil would be the best substitute :)

  29. KD says:

    Marie, You just saved my life! I am highly allergic to tree nuts and have been asking about substituting coconut oil and not a one person gave me a good answer….your break down of liquid, soft, and brittle oils was PERFECT! I thank you and I will read the rest of your blog. I had an unfortunate experience with almond oil……within two minutes of touching my daughter’s hair I had to be rushed to the hospital after two shots of my epi-pen. Thank you.

    • Marie says:

      Hi KD! You might be the first person who has said I’ve saved their life and actually meant it ;) I’m so glad to be of help—thanks for reading!

  30. nonette says:

    Hi marie, I love your blog… this is helpful in students of pharmacy. could i substitute coconut oil with shea butter in making body cream… thank you

    • Marie says:

      Hi Nonette! Coconut oil and shea butter are really very different, as I discuss in this entry. If you are making an emulsified cream with emulsifying wax you can probably get away with the substitution, but the final product will not perform the same way.

  31. Marizon Luna says:

    OH Great! Thank you for sharing. It is very useful information for one who is just starting to make her own DIY recipes.

  32. Reya says:

    Hi there! First off, LOVE this article. What a great idea and so very helpful! So I have a question for you that you may not be able to answer, but I’ll try anyways! I’m making my first DIY lip balm. Most trxipies use beeswax or a vegan version of wax. I’m hoping not to use wax. I have cocoa butter (which actually is soft and creamy in a tub) coconut oil, vitamin e oil, honey, and essential oils. I’m hoping to have a balm with a nice consistency utilizing the items I have. In your opinion, would you say that the times stated will allow a consistency that most store bought balms would have? Thanks for reading and I look forward to your response!

    • Marie says:

      Hi Reya! In my experience you are really going to want some wax in your lip balm—waxes are what give the balm staying power in such a “high traffic” area as the lips. I’ve tried developing wax-less lip butter recipes and they have always been a disappointment. No matter how thick or creamy they are in the tub, they melt into an oil quickly on the skin, and vanish from the lips in moments without contributing any meaningful moisture. The ingredients you mention in particular are some of my favourites for body butters—because they melt into thin liquids and absorb quickly. Sadly, that makes them quite poor stand-alone lip balm ingredients.

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