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 formulations. That way you can start to understand how things work and make easy and successful substitutions! In this entry I’ll be talking about plant-derived carrier oils and butters—the basic building blocks of many skincare formulations.
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.
So… what are the variables?
Carrier oils serve a variety of purposes. Here’s a quick list that I’ll elaborate on further down:
- Speed of absorption
- Texture & melting point
- Special features & benefits
The most basic, obvious thing carriers oils do is basically make up the majority of many products (along with water in some formulations). They are a lot like 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 (imagine 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 formulation, and if you do, understand the final product will likely be nothing like what you thought you’d get.
The most important purpose after being the base of every formulation 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 rarely 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.
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||Cupuaçu butter||Illipe butter|
|Sunflower Oil||Murumuru butter||Tucuma 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 not at all greasy. Some are so heavy and slow-absorbing you won’t be able to touch paper for 20 minutes without leaving greasy fingerprints everywhere. 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 a lightweight 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.
So, when swapping out oils in a formulation 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 the Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia; each carrier oil and butter profile includes a description of the absorbency speed.
|Fast to Absorb / Lightweight||Average to Absorb / Medium weight||Slow to Absorb / Heavy weight|
|Grapeseed||Sweet Almond||Evening Primrose|
|Apricot kernel||Coconut||Shea butter|
|Canola||Sunflower||Black currant seed|
|Macadamia nut||Cocoa butter|
And remember—trust yourself! Does it feel heavy or slow absorbing to you? Does it feel light/fast absorbing? Somewhere in the middle? That’s really all that matters. What does it feel like to you and do you want that feeling in your end product?
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 (75°F), shea butter at 38°C (100°F) (interestingly enough, cocoa butter melts at 34°C [93°F], even though it is much harder at room temperature). Considering body temperature is 37°C (98°F), 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°C/94°F+ outside).
So, when making substitutions in a formula where the melting point and texture are important, be sure to pay attention to the melting points and textures of your ingredients.
You don’t have to spend long reading descriptions, benefit lists, and reviews of various carrier oils to decide that you need every single one of them, stat!
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. Promises of miracles can generally be disregarded, but some oils are genuinely better for skin that is mature, acne-prone, oily, dry, or sensitive.
In addition to the benefits of an oil, sometimes a formula will call for an oil because of its individual scent, the three most obvious ones being cocoa butter (smells like chocolate), coconut oil (smells like coconuts), and beeswax (smells like honey).
When a formula 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.
If you’re making a wash-off product like a cleansing oil or a bath oil, it should be using predominantly pretty inexpensive oils; this is because all that oil is really doing is being an oil in the most basic sense (generic lipids!), and then getting thrown away down the drain. I really wouldn’t recommend using your expensive oils in place of cheap oils here. You can, for sure, but the notion of pouring $15 of argan oil down the drain when $0.50 of sunflower oil or fractionated coconut oil would do the same job makes me very sad. I recommend saving your expensive carrier oils for leave-on applications, and typically for your face; your feet don’t need a beautiful sea buckthorn serum!
Want to see how cocoa butter, shea butter, and coconut oil are different from one another?
So, you want to make a substitution…
Here’s how to walk yourself through that.
- Are your ingredients the same state at room temperature? They should be. Liquid & liquid, soft & soft, etc.
- If they’re the same state, what’s the absorption speed like? If the original formula calls for a fast absorbing oil (like grapeseed) and you use a heavy one (like avocado) instead, be prepared for a final product with a different absorption speed.
- Does your formula contain at least 10% wax or is it an emulsion? If not, you should pay attention to the melting points of the ingredients. In lip balm you can use coconut oil (soft, 24°C melting point) instead of shea butter (soft, 37°C melting point), but that won’t fly in something like a wax-free body butter where we’re counting on the higher melting point of shea butter to keep the final product solid.
- Does the formula call for a specific carrier oil because of its special properties? If so, I’d stick with what the formula calls for, especially if that carrier oil makes up 50%+ of the formula. If you don’t have it, just make something else… you basically would be anyways if you swapped out the star ingredient of a formula for something different.
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!