top of page

A Guide to Specialty Carrier Oils for Skincare

Carrier oils have many properties benefiting the skin: from skin-glow enhancing properties to prolonging the shelf-life of products, they are must-have multifunctional ingredients in cosmetic formulations. But not all carrier oils are created equal – so what are actually the best options out there?

Specialty Carrier Oils in Skincare Products
Photo by: Kelly Sikkema

Carrier Oils vs. Essential Oils

First off, if we're going to talk about carrier oils, we have to talk about essential oils too. What are they and how are carrier oils different from essential oils?

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are extremely potent and concentrated oils that are too strong to be applied on the skin directly. Extracted through a distillation process, they are filled with biologically active compounds from their source plants and have many health benefits. When used in cosmetics or in aromatherapy, essential oils need to be combined to carrier oils. If not, severe reactions can occur such as skin irritation or blisters.

What are Carrier Oils?

Carrier oils – also called vegetable oils - are oils extracted from vegetables, kernels, seeds or nuts.

Since they are filled with nutrients and vitamins derived from their source plants, carrier oils are genuine natural and active ingredients that can target specific skin conditions. In cosmetics, carrier oils are used to dilute essential oils, which cannot be used alone due to their extra strong properties. Carrier oils also allow for a better penetration of nutrients and vitamins into the skin, since they remain fixed on the skin and do not evaporate quickly, contrary to essential oils. Finally, carrier oils generally have more neutral or no scent compared to essential oils.

What are Specialty Carrier Oils?

Specialty carrier oils differ from regular oils - also called commodity oils - in that they have a higher content of bioactive compounds such as antioxidants and fatty acids (Hernandez, 2015:68). These bioactive compounds confer specialty oils super properties that make them true multifunctional ingredients beneficial for hair and skin. Due to their health-boosting powers, specialty oils can be used in pharmaceuticals and natural cosmetics.

These super-oils can be obtained from various sources such as berry plants, cereals, tree nuts, but also marine animals (Ibid). Contrary to commodity oils, they are extracted using refining processes that allow for the preservation of bioactive compounds, like cold-pressing or supercritical CO2 extraction methods, which both happen at low temperatures.

Carrier oils are multifunctional ingredients used in skincare
Photo by: Hanna Postova

Ideal Multifunctional Ingredients for Cosmetics

Specialty carrier oils have become star ingredients in natural cosmetics formulations. With consumers demanding natural products made of fewer ingredients but still with many functionalities, resorting to specialty oils is becoming common practice amongst cosmetic manufacturers.

Many plants, seeds and berries are naturally loaded with powerful biological active compounds that are great for the skin, such as fatty acids. Extracting the oil from these plants is a way to capture their great properties and including specialty oils in cosmetic formulations allow the end products to be natural, minimalistic, while no compromise is being made on efficacy.

As there are many types of specialty carrier oils out there, picking the one best suited to your skin and formulation needs can be a hassle. Therefore, we bring you an overview of several specialty carrier oils and the features you should pay attention to, namely their chemical composition. Whether it is the essential fatty acids or tocopherols and polyphenols contents, specialty carriers oil won’t be a mystery to you anymore.

Avocados are a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids
Photo by: Abigail Lynn

Unsaturated Fatty Acids

The most popular unsaturated fatty acids are essential fatty acids, namely the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid, and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid. Since they are not naturally produced by the body, essential fatty acids are crucial for a healthy and good-looking skin, and consumers know it. Research has evidenced that deficiencies in essential fatty acids have negative health consequences and often lead to dry and inflamed skin prone to blackheads and whiteheads.

If you are looking for specialty oils with a high concentration of linoleic acid (C 18:2), grapeseed oil, calendula oil and kahai oil are the indisputable winners with a concentration generally ranging way above 50%. Also worth considering, the amaranth oil has a linoleic acid concentration of nearly 50%, and both the coffee oil and rosehip oil have some revolving around 45%.

When it comes to alpha linolenic acid (C18:3), chia seed oil and rosehip oil possess the highest concentrations. Other specialty oils do contain some alpha linolenic acids, but in smaller amounts.

Saturated Fatty Acids

Naturally produced by the body, saturated fatty acids are effective occlusive agents important for the skin. Since their levels are higher in young skin compared to elder skin, using skincare containing saturated fatty acids could make up for this deficiency and help combat skin ageing. Stearic and Palmitic acids are essential ingredients to include in moisturising and rejuvenating skincare products.

Not all specialty oils have a high concentration of palmitic acid (C 16:0). It is generally present in sea buckthorn oil (24-42%), coffee oil (34,2%), acai berry oil (22%) and amaranth oil (17,85%). The palmitic acid concentration levels of argan oil (9-15%) and soybean oil (7-12%) are worth noting too.

Stearic acid (C 18:0) is less naturally present in specialty oils than palmitic acid. Sea buckthorn oil is definitely a saturated fatty acid champion with a stearic acid concentration rate usually ranging from 24 to 42%. Coffee oil (7,3%), acai berry oil (2-10%) and argan oil (4-7%) are the next bests sources for stearic acid.


Tocopherols (Vitamin E)

Part of the family of antioxidants, tocopherols are a type of vitamin E known for their skin benefits, which among others include UV, pollution protection and hydration. Tocopherols are useful beyond their skin benefits: as antioxidants, they are great for naturally preserving cosmetic formulations. In particular, gamma tocopherol is recognised as a component effectively protecting oil cosmetic formulations.

Specialty oils with high levels of tocopherols are therefore a good ingredient to include in skincare formulations so as to extend the shelf life of the products. Tocopherols-filled specialty oils include rosehip oil (1124.7mg/kg), coffee oil (1057mg/kg), pomegranate oil (905.5mg/kg) and sunflower oil (680mg/kg).


Polyphenols are active ingredients with anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-DNA damaging activities (Nichols & Katiyar, 2009). Research has also highlighted their photoprotective effects, and polyphenols contribute to fighting the spread of free radicals, which are responsible for premature skin ageing. Because of their activity, polyphenols are precious ingredients particularly abundant in coffee oil (8565 mg/kg), substantially higher than other carrier oils.

Depending on what properties you want your skincare product to have, different specialty carrier oils could be the answer to a natural and multifunctional cosmetic formulation. One thing is certain, specialty carrier oils will continue to amaze us and are well on their way to become the new favorites of beauty addicts.

Interested in Recycled Coffee Oil? Click here.


Curious about coffee oil? Learn how caffeine can boost the skin’s natural hydration here.


bottom of page