We love essential oils because incorporating them into our lives can help us achieve a better degree of clean living. Diluting essential oils in appropriate levels for applications is one of the basic standards of safe use, especially when applying directly to the body. See our free essential oil Dilution Chart to help you figure out safe percentages for various types of use.
Sometimes this is very easy to achieve. But there are inevitably going to be occasions when we need to combine essential oils with substances that may not really “jive” well with their chemistry in pursuit of this standard.
In other words, the essential oil may not adequately mix into these substances without separation. This in and of itself causes an issue since one of the most important things about essential oil safety that we need to pay attention whenever we might be putting ourselves into contact with neat essential oil. Ultimately, an essential oil’s capability to mix into another substance or liquid boils down to solubility – both of the essential oil and whatever you are wanting to mix it into.
Are y’all ready to go back to school? 🙂
You may have heard before that “like dissolves like” when it comes to chemistry. This is true. And it applies to essential oil recipes as well! But what substances actually serve to dilute or dissolve essential oils has been greatly misrepresented throughout aromatherapy’s history.
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Making Sure You Dilute Essential Oils
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant-based volatile organic compounds that pack a super punch of therapeutic benefits. To put this into perspective, it takes roughly three pounds of lavender flowers to distill down to an itty-bitty 15ml bottle of essential oil. It’s hard to conceptualize because one lavender flower is so light (feels like air), imagine three pounds!
This being said, essential oils need to be used wisely. While there is a time and a place for neat application, the smart way to apply oils topically is to first dilute them. Carrier oils are non-volatile oils and are not irritants, and essential oils can be blended into them first before applying on the skin.
Popular carrier oils include: coconut, olive, sweet almond, jojoba, avocado, apricot, and sunflower. Most carrier oils have benefits of their own that can be explored to create even more beneficial blends.
Topical application can be direct in a small area such as for scar healing or broader such as for a massage oil. The important variables here are the dilution rates you choose:
- 0.5% Dilution – Strong oils, applying on children, and oils that you are testing for sensitization. The heavy dilution allows for greater distribution throughout the application and less per dose. Ideal for irritating oils, children, and those who are highly sensitive. Ex: cinnamon, eucalyptus, peppermint.
- 1% Dilution – Even adults who tolerate oils well will still find some oils too strong for normal applications. A 1% dilution rate protects your skin while still enjoying the benefit of the more powerful essential oils or use on sensitive areas of the skin. Ideal for facial applications, and treatment of delicate skin. Ex: tea tree for acne, frankincense in a facial toner, etc.
- 2-3% Dilution – This is the most common dilution range, suitable for massage oils, healing treatments, lotions and creams, and cosmetic applications. It is enough to gain significant benefits of the essential oil without risking sensitization. Unless the oil is particularly potent or you have sensitive skin, this is likely to be the dilution you’ll use. Ideal for most applications – lotions, creams, salves, balms. Ex: geranium, helichrysum, chamomile.
- 5%+ Dilution – Higher concentrations should be used with care. Or, extremely safe oils can be used in small amounts on tiny areas of the skin – for example, as a strong acne treatment. Know your oil’s safety profile and choose high concentrations with caution. Ideal for specific situations based on either extreme safety and high potency in a targeted area OR further dilution beyond the initial formula. Ex: lavender, sweet orange, tea tree.
Using these conversions:
- 1% dilution: 6 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (1% of 600 drops is 6)
- 2% dilution: 12 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (2% of 600 drops is 12)
- 3% dilution: 18 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (3% of 600 drops is 18)
If working with tablespoons are more comfortable for you, 1 oz. = 2 tablespoons. So, there are 300 drops of EO in a tablespoon.
- 1% dilution: 3 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (1% of 300 drops is 3)
- 2% dilution: 6 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (2% of 300 drops is 6)
- 3% dilution: 9 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (3% of 300 drops is 9)
If working with grams, 1 drop of essential oil = 0.02 to 0.03 grams approximately (depending on your dropper), which converts to 20-30 milligrams or 20000 micrograms (µg).
So 30 mg is about 1 drop.
Solutions and Emulsions With Essential Oils
Carrier oils work nicely to reduce (or dilute) the concentration of essential oils because their overall chemical qualities match that of essential oils. Both are lipid-loving substances. Remember that like dissolves like? So, we are able to use carrier oil to sufficiently dilute our essential oils. You can read more about how to go about doing that here.
Real life isn’t always simple, however, so sometimes we need a base beyond just a carrier oil. That’s where solutions and emulsions come into play – they are a step up into complexity.
Sometimes we need our essential oils to mix into substances that they are not normally miscible in – meaning they don’t fully dissolve or mix into each other. When this is the case, we have two potential options. 1. We can reach for a substance that will help dissolve the essential oil into the uncooperating substance, thus creating a solution. 2. We can utilize something with that will force the essential oil to combine with something it normally wouldn’t, creating an emulsion.
You get a solution when one substance (referred to as a solute) is dissolved into another substance (known as the solvent).(1)
Substances that can be used to dissolve essential oils include 190 proof alcohol, perfumer’s alcohol, and 91% isopropyl alcohol. When the essential oil is first added to one of these substances, it can later gently be added to an aqueous substance like water, witch hazel, or hydrosol. Likewise, the you can add an aqueous substance directly to your solubilized mixture.
The essential oil, being dissolved into a substance that cooperates nicely with these other mentioned substances, is able to be safely incorporated (or really, diluted) into something it typically would not work well with. In other words, add your essential oils to the alcohol first, and then to your other ingredients.
An emulsion occurs when one liquid is dispersed through another it is typically not miscible in.(2)
Where essential oils are concerned, an emulsion occurs through the use of something called a surfactant or another substance with surfactant properties – such as liquid soap. Surfactants work by reducing the surface tension of the substance it is to be dissolved into, allowing for a substance (in this case essential oils) to be distributed throughout another liquid, such as water. (3) One important thing to remember is that you need to add your essential oil to your surfactant first and make sure it is sufficiently mixed with it before attempting to add it to the other liquid.
So, for example, if you are wanting to safely mix essential oil into your bathwater, your best bet is to add the essential oil to some liquid soap (good options for this are unscented bubble bath or liquid castile soap), mix it in that thoroughly, and then add that mixture to your bathwater, creating an emulsion.
Want to make a quick pillow or air spray?
Diluting essential oils by first solubilizing them is the way to go. Add your essential oil to some 190 proof alcohol and then gently add your water to it. The solution you create from the high-proof alcohol and essential oil is able to then be diluted into the water (using at least a 1:4 ratio of alcohol to water should ensure some preservation and a longer shelf life as well!). More practical tips at the bottom of the article.
Prepared Bases for Essential Oil DIYs
A third option to mix your essential oils into would be prepared cosmetic bases. All of these options may not be completely natural, but there are many supply companies that carry pre-made lotions, creams, and even sometimes gels that are intended for you to add your own fragrance product to (and we of course suggest using essential oils instead of synthetic fragrance!).
These products are created with the additional fragrance load in mind, so they contain enough surfactant to handle you adding essential oils to them. These can be especially helpful as they will detail for you exactly how much extra essential oil can be added to the product, the method to add that essential oil, and their shelf life will be much longer than what can typically be made in the home.
Another product that could be used to hold essential oil for topical applications is thickened aloe gel. These gels differ slightly from pure aloe gel in that they have a thickener like carbomer or xanthan gum added to them which offers some stability in being able to bind up the essential oil when mixed well enough.
Substances that DON’T Mix With Essential Oils
The above mentioned options are solid choices to reach for when solubilizing or diluting essential oils or otherwise create some cooperation between them and liquids they won’t normally mix in. But there are a lot of substances thought to work with essential oils like this that really do not.
Many substances promoted in aromatherapy traditions or in online DIY recipes don’t actually blend with essential oils the way people think they do, and this could potentially leave you at risk for skin irritation or sensitization.
When I first started learning about essential oils some of the information out there was misleading or incorrect. When you learn the chemical properties you learn a lot of what is out there doesn’t actually work. Here’s a list of substances that cannot properly dilute, or be used to disperse your essential oils completely:
- distilled water
- deionized water
- witch hazel
- sea or table salt
- Epsom salts
- magnesium oil
- baking soda
- aloe vera juice
- pure aloe gel
In a nutshell, the chemical properties of these substances don’t match up with that of essential oils, so without incorporating a surfactant, like discussed above, diluting essential oils into these things will not be effective.
A quick note on honey: while it is not recommended to use honey when diluting essential oils into water, it does contain enough binding properties to mix essential oils into for quick internal dosing should it be necessary. Same with vodka, glycerin, milk and aloe vera juice.
Here’s a brief list of products often made in the home done just a little bit better using the principles for diluting essential oils mentioned above. For DIY products containing aqueous ingredients, such as water and witch hazel, be sure to make small batches to use up within a week since home DIY products have short shelf lives!
- 6 drops essential oil for skin*
- 1 ½ teaspoons 190 proof alcohol
- Witch hazel
- Add 6 drops of your favorite essential oil for supporting a healthy complexion to 1 ½ teaspoons of 190 proof alcohol.
- Stir and gently add this mixture to a 1oz bottle, slowly filling the bottle the rest of the way with witch hazel.
Sensitive skin – geranium, helichrysum, rose, lavender
Acne prone – tea tree, lavender, orange, rosemary
General healthy complexion – lavender, frankincense
- 10-20 drops essential oils*
- Liquid castile soap
- Add 10-20 drops of your favorite, relaxing essential oils into a shot glass.
- Fill the rest of the glass with liquid castile soap to dilute essential oils properly.
- Stir until the soap takes on a smooth, milky appearance (this let’s you know the essential oils have been adequately mixed in).
- Add the shot to your running bathwater which will help blend it throughout your tub.
- If you add more water later, swish it around to incorporate it into the water.
- Add favorite antimicrobial essential oil* to liquid castile soap in an 8 oz spray bottle.
- Mix thoroughly.
- Fill the rest of the way with distilled water.
- 48 drops essential oils
- 4 oz. aloe gel
- Add a total of 48 drops of your favorite combination of cooling, anti-inflammatory and analgesic essential oils to 4oz of thickened aloe gel.
- Mix well until the aloe gel becomes milky in appearance.
- Be sure to store this in the refrigerator as a chilled gel helps bring even more relief to skin suffering too much sun exposure!
- 60 drops total essential oils*
- 190 proof alcohol
- distilled water
- 2 oz. spray bottle
- Add 60 drops of your preferred relaxing and sedative essential oils to 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of 190 proof alcohol.
- Stir and add to a 2oz spray bottle.
- Fill the rest with distilled water.