How and Why to Emulsify Essential Oils for Safety

Have you ever heard of emulsifying essential oils?

If you've been using essential oils for awhile, you know that there is just a lot to learn, and an essential oil emulsifier is one thing that you should know for many essential oil usages.

essential oil from a dropper with text overlay

So what is an essential oil emulsifier and why do you need to know?

The concept is important both for the performance of your essential oils recipes, but also for essential oils safety, so today I am going to share with you how to emulsify essential oils and why you need to know about this.

It's easy to just get caught up in what brand carries the best essential oils, what kind of diffuser to buy, and then scour the internet or essential oils books to find all kinds of recipes for DIY recipes for essential oils like DIY Body Scrub, DIY Antibacterial Oil Blend, DIY Hair Spray, Homemade Essential Oil Breathing Blend, and more.

However, essential oils are powerful substances and we need to treat them with respect.

One of the safety tips that many don't know about is that essential oils should be emulsified if they are going to be used in a water-based product.

What is an Emulsifier?

An emulsifier is something that mixes two oil and water-based components together.

Oil and water do not mix.

When you have a salad dressing made of oil and a water-based product (like apple cider vinegar, for example), the two components will stay separated and so you must stir then together prior to using the dressing, or else you will have a bunch of oil on your salad instead of the whole dressing.  Blech.

If you use a salad dressing that doesn't have an emulsifier in it, you have to shake or stir it before using it, or you end up with all of the oil and none (or very little) of the water-based portion.

After shaking or stirring a mixture of an oil and water-based blend, a dispersion of the oil droplets in the water is formed. However, when the shaking or stirring is done, the two phases start to separate.

Here is where an emulsifier comes in. When you add an emulsifier to the system, the droplets of oil remain dispersed in the water base, and the result is a stable emulsion.

No more shaking or stirring necessary.

Well, the same concept applies to essential oils.

Essential oils and water do not mix.

So if you are using essential oil in a water-based product, you will not end up with a well-blended mixture.  Instead, you end up with the essential oil floating around in the water base.

The Science Behind an Emulsion

An emulsifier consists of a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (water-hating /oil-loving) tail.

The hydrophilic head has an electric charge that will dissolve in water but not oil, whereas the hydrophobic end has a long carbon tail that dissolves in oil but not in water.

When you add essential oils to the emulsifier, the emulsifier's hydrophilic head moves towards the water-based portion of the blend and the hydrophilic tail moves towards the oil-based portion.

The emulsifier positions itself between the oil and the water and by reducing the surface tension, stabilizes the emulsion.

Portrait of a drop of essential oil from an amber bottle in a green blurred background

Why You Need to Emulsify Essential Oils

When I started using essential oils, like many people, I used them in more of a willy nilly fashion.  I would use them neat (undiluted) on my body, took them internally without much caution (I even used them to try to lose weight), and used them a lot.

Gradually my thinking about essential oils has changed.  While these substances are capable of doing so much good, they can also do harm.

I've heard multiple horror stories about health issues arising from improper use of essential oils. And beyond what I have personal experience with, there are dangers like:

Sensitization

I'll be sharing more later about this, but if you use essential oils without diluting them, you are more likely to end up sensitized to them.

Essential oils are powerful and applying them directly to your skin just isn't smart.

Skin Burns

If you don't blend your oils well, you can actually literally burn your skin since some oils are very caustic. (I've had this happen to me, actually.  Ouch!

Inaccurate Dispensing

If you don't emulsify the oils, you will end up using a bunch of the essential oils sometimes and possibly none at another time, so you likely won't get the results you want.

Irritation

I've used essential oils products that weren't emulsified and later ended up burning my eyes since the concentrated oil inadvertently ended up on my hands, which later touched my face, etc.

Mucosal Damage

Essential oils can damage your delicate mucosal tissue if not blended accurately.

What Kind of Essential Oil Emulsifier Should You Use?

There are many emulsifiers on the market for many purposes, like cleaning up toxic spills or ones that are used in other commercial products, but since we are talking about essential oils here (and since I want to eliminate toxins as much as possible), I'm only recommending non toxic emulsifiers.

Here are some ideas of non-toxic emulsifiers to consider using as your emulsifier, depending on what you are making.

I should point out that the following are suggestions based on how aromatherapy has been done for years, but there is new information coming as to which of these are truly acceptable emulsifiers.  When I get that information I will be sure to update this post.  For now, the information that I have is that castile and alcohol are better options than the others on this list.

Polysorbate 20 is considered to be a good emulsifier for water based products that will be applied to the skin.

There are other commercial emulsifiers that could also be acceptable alternatives. Their toxicity varies so that is up to you to decide.

How to Emulsify Essential Oils

  1. Add the emulsifier to the essential oils before adding them to the other water-based ingredients.
  2. Shake or stir the combination.
  3. Technically you should wait several hours to see if there is any separation. If there isn't, then you can add the emulsification to the water-based ingredients.
  4. Typically a ratio of 1:1 is appropriate for emulsification of essential oils, however some oils will need more of an emulsifier and others will need less.

When Do You Need an Essential Oil Emulsifier?

Typically you would use an essential oil emulsifier when making an aromatherapy spray, but there are other applications when you would also need an emulsifier, such as for a lotion, cream, or some other water-based products such as house cleaners, or this DIY Hair Growth Blend (the water-based method), or this DIY Hair Spray or Homemade Body Spray.

You Do NOT Need an Essential Oil Emulsifier When......

  • Blending an essential oil with a carrier oil
  • Combining an essential oil with a non-water based lotion (exception noted above)
  • Blending an essential oil with any other fat, as in when making this Homemade Body Cream

Conclusion

When dealing with essential oils, you are working with powerful products so safety is important.

Essential Oil Emulsification is a must for making DIY Essential Oil products without endangering your health, or the health of others.

If you're wondering what essential oils I use for my family, read my series on the best essential oils, or you can skip to the end where I announced my choice.  There are a lot of comments but they are full of good information as well.

Want to Learn More About Making Your Own (Safe) Skincare?

Lots of places out there don't teach proper emulsification. If you'd like to make safe skincare, you might want to consider this course from the very popular Herbal Academy of New England. It's reasonable and their material is well done.

Have you ever used an Emulsifier with Essential Oils?

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201 Comments

  1. Do you know if soap nuts can be used as an essential oil emulsifier? I am in India & am trying to create some water based sprays to help a dog with demodex mange.

  2. Hi,
    I am trying to make my own natural dog spray and want to mix water with essential oils.
    I read on your article that you do not need an emulsifier when blending an essential oil with a carrier oil. Does that mean if I add lavender eo per say, to jojoba oil then add to water it will not need an emulsifier?
    Sorry if thats a dumb question hehe.

    If i do need an emulsifier even then, do you have any suggestions on what to use?

    1. Hi there. Not dumb at all. Your oil will mix with the jojoba without an emulsifier, but the jojoba blend will not mix with water if you need it to. Do you need that to happen?

      This is not really addressing your question, but it might be helpful to you and others in another situation:

      The emulsifier needs to be mixed with your essential oils BEFORE you add them to your water based spray or product,
      And they need to be well blended. Mix the emulsifier with the essential oils first, then let them sit for a few hours to ideally 24 hours to see if any separation occurs. This is crucial. If no separation occurs, then you should be able to add this blend to your water base.
      Typically you use emulsifiers in the ratio of one part emulsifier to one part essential oils. Some essential oils may not need as much emulsifier, while others will need more or less.

      You can try adding the emulsifier to the essential oils and check every few minutes to hours to see if they stay combined. If not, you might want to keep adding emulsifier.
      However, again, you might need to check this for 24 hours even. It can be complicated so seeing what has worked for others first can help.
      If they won’t stay blended at al, then it’s possible that that particular emulsifier and oil aren’t compatible. So again, doing research first is helpful.

      1. Yes I would want the carrier oil (with essential oils) to emulsify with the water. I’ve read in some forums that aloe Vera gel, or fractionated coconut oil can work as an emulsifier but that didn’t work for me

  3. Is there a safe emulsifier for drinking water with essential oils like lemon? I intended to use food grade glycerin in drinking water. I had been mixing spearmint essential oil with glycerin and no water for use as a moisturizing aid for dry mouth caused by my medication. Putting a drop or two under my tongue works great but now I have read a lot about it causing headaches and GI issues if ingested long term and also about glycerin creating a film over the teeth that allows tooth decay. My dentist prescribes a special toothpaste containing a larger amount of fluoride than other toothpastes because tooth decay is often a result of dry mouth. He did not object to my using glycerin with spearmint essential oil overnight but I won't do that anymore because if I spit it out it doesn't work very well. I had been using it 2-3 times a night and spreading those two drops around my mouth each time without spitting any out. I'm sure I was making the toothpaste less effective. Coincidently the medicine that makes my mouth so dry is for gut issues so I could have been working against the medicine by using so much glycerine.
    So I'm hoping there's something else safe to ingest. I wanted to share this whole story as a caution to others who may have the same not so bright idea as I had.

    1. Hi there!
      I personally disagree with the glycerin tooth issue - it doesn't make sense since glycerin is water soluble. Are you saying the glycerin does that to the GI tract?
      What are your gut issues? I wonder if there's another option.

      1. Adrienne
        I have IBS.
        When I researched glycerin there were cautions about gut issues, tooth decay and others in this article:
        https://wellnesse.com/blogs/health/avoid-glycerin-in-toothpaste
        I don’t want to add to issues I already have.
        Glycerin contains no sugar so I don’t know how it would cause tooth decay. The article in the above URL seems to use glycerin and glycerol interchangeably but they are not the same but glycerin is made from glycerol. I'm wondering if the article is reliable or just trying to sell a particular brand of toothpaste that contains no glycerin.
        Glycerin emulsified the doTERRA Spearment EO nicely and I intended to use it in drinking water with different EOs also. However I am looking for another option.

        1. Hi again - I know you submitted almost the same comment but there are some other bits on info in here so I'll address that as well.

          1) about IBS, feel free to reach out - there are things I was just looking at that can be good supports.

          2) What other option are you wanting? For toothpaste? Sorry I didn't know what you meant.

      2. I'm hoping there is another option. I have IBS and don't want to add to that issue or the issue of tooth decay I am trying to avoid.
        When I mixed glycerin with doTERRA Spearmint EO it emulsified with the oil nicely.
        Here is the article that contains the cautions about glycerin causing gut issues and tooth decay as well as other issues:
        https://wellnesse.com/blogs/health/avoid-glycerin-in-toothpaste#:~:text=Because%20glycerin%20leaves%20behind%20a,and%20other%20oral%20health%20issues.
        The article uses the words glycerin and glycerol interchangeably and they are not the same although glycerin is made from glycerol. Also Glycerin contains no sugar or carbohydrates so I don't know how it causes tooth decay. So I'm not really sure whether the source is actually reliable or just trying to sell a particular brand of toothpaste.

        1. Hi there.

          What are you using it for? That is something important to know.

          Either way, this topic is VERY interesting to me. I did a bit of research and am not clear on the difference b/t the 2 and also some sources are saying that glycerin is a sugar alcohol, but don't they all have "ol" at the end of them??
          As for the tooth decay issue, I know about that cleaim. That was popularized by a natural dentist years ago and stuck. But it's water soluble and not sticky like he says so I think it's inaccurate information.

          Maybe I should write about this! In fact, I think I will - thanks for asking this!

          As for the gut issues, it apparently can upset some people - so can sugar alcohols and many other things. Depends on what your body does with it, and how much you eat.

  4. Hi, I’m trying to make a non toxic household cleaner in a 1 litre spray bottle. Standard mix of 25% vinegar, 75% water and 8 drops of essential oils to lessen the vinegar smell. I think I need to add an emulsifier to get the EO to incorporate better. What emulsifier should I use and how much? TIA

    1. Hi
      Thank you for the writings.
      I want to make a microencapsulated aroma/fragrance paste (mother aroma paste), which later will be mixed (likely to be 20% / 30%) with screen print ready pigment paste and print on fabrics (cotton / synthetic).
      Any suggestions how should I make mother aroma paste. Thank you.

      1. You are so welcome! I do not know--sorry that is nothing that I have experience with. Wish you the best in your work.

  5. Hi I am interested in making a bath oil blend for my kids bath. They all have eczema and sensitive skin so bubble bath isn’t really an option. I bought one recently and it turned white in the water rather than sitting on top. So you know how is this achieved?? I would love to make my own blend so it’s more affordable and I know what’s in it.
    I once ran myself a lovely bath when not feeling well and put olbas oil in which floated on the surface of the water. I ended up with a burning sensation on my skin for hours after and it certainly wasn’t the desired effect so I don’t want to jump in and make their skin worse!! Thanks I’m advance ?

    1. I’m looking for an ingestible and safe emulsifier I can use to mix essential oils with water.

      I’ll use this with Spearmint as a substitute for over the counter sprays and drops like Biotene that don’t work very well for me. As I said, the glycerin/spearmint EO worked wonderfully.

      I only mentioned toothpaste because all the info I found about adverse effects of glycerin were focused on its use in toothpaste. I already have a wonderful toothpaste from doTERRA so I don’t want to make that.

      I also would like to combine a drop or two of essential oils in a glass of water so the oils disperse evenly throughout the water Without an emulsifier the oils return to the surface so I have to stir before each sip.

      I’m working through the gut issues now successfully using the Low FODMAP Diet and have discontinued using the medicine the GI doctor prescribed. However I’ve learned that the prescription from my weight loss doctor that curbs my appetite continues to cause my dry mouth. I’ll be taking that for several more months so I really need a safe and ingestible emulsifier.

      Sorry about the rambling.

      1. No worries about rambling ever! Sorry for the delay - we have a LOT going on here. Tell me what you need mainly - something to make your mouth not dry? Is there a reason you need essential oils in yur water for this?

        Thanks!

  6. Hi there! Thanks for your post on emulsifiers for EO's. It's a good point and I haven't seen it before. So I just wanted to be clear: I am making a lotion -- which of course is an emulsion being held together by an EMULSIFIER (I am using emulsifying wax). The lotion is almost ready... I now need to add in my preservative (Leucidal liquid SF) and essential oils. What I'd like to know is: do I now need to choose a second emulsifier (from your list (say honey) and add the drops of EO to this honey, wait a while and then whisk it into the lotion? ....Or having used an emulsifier in the lotion itself, perhaps I don't need a second one..? (I also have Aloe vera in the lotion (which turns up on your list of emulsifiers for EO's). Another separate point: the practical aspect of adding the EO's to the honey and waiting an hour, would mean that a lot of the EO's might just evaporate...?! I am guessing ... so how does one do this practically? It is a minute quantity so putting it in a jar and closing it to prevent evaporation would pose problems during transferring to the lotion, as most of it would just be lost sticking to the jar. Pl do enlighten me! Thanks :))

    1. Hi there. So sorry for the late reply. I am not an expert but I don't think you need another emulsifier. I could be wrong but that seems to be fine to me. Hope it works well!

  7. I add EO drops to the epsom salt before pouring the salt into the bath water. Do I need an emulsifier? 4-8 drops usually half lavender and half orange or frankincense.

    1. Some say that epsom salt is an emulsifier but technically it isn't. I would use something like a fat / oil instead, but it will be kind of greasy. You could do a lotion but that isn't optimal. If you need more info, let me know. Sounds like a great blog post topic!

    2. Yes! As Adrienne said, epsom salt is not technically an emulsifier. When I make my bath salts, I always add in 1tbsp jojoba oil (or another oil that is good for the skin like vitamin E or olive oil) per every 4 oz of bath salt. Hope this helps! 🙂

  8. Hi,

    we are going to make a calming mist/spray with essential oils and water. We are after a natural and vegan emulsifier option and don't know where to start. Any ideas?

    Thanks Guys

  9. I WANT AN POWDER EMULSIFIER TO DISSOLVE 6 ESSENTIAL OILS TOGETHER IN WATER TO MAKE FLOOR CLEANER PLS HELP

    1. Plz use only one flavour for floor cleaner... Try to formulate as many individual fragrance as u want to have... Dont mix fragrance... Mix fragrance with alfox 200 in 1:1 ratio and then add to water... Thats all. But the final product will be little milky.

  10. Hi, I am looking to create my own rodent repellent spray. It needs to be okay for spraying onto floors, walls, possibly other surfaces that people may spray it on like fabric (drapes, furniture, etc). It will not be applied to the skin. I plan on going using mentha pipiretta as I have heard this is the strongest version but need an emulsifier that does not come from animals. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi there. If it's not going on skin then technically you don't have to use an emulsifier. I'm not a complete expert on these things. Have you found any options yet?

    2. Plz use only one flavour for floor cleaner... Try to formulate as many individual fragrance as u want to have... Dont mix fragrance... Mix fragrance with alfox 200 in 1:1 ratio and then add to water... Thats all. But the final product will be little milky.

  11. Hi. Would you recommend using an emulsifier when blending essential oils with a carrier oil such as jojoba oil and aloe vera gel? If so, which would be more suitable, polysorbate 20 or 80? Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Hi there. You don't need emulsifiers with carrier oils. For aloe vera (if it's pure) you will likely need one. Sorry I don't know which is best.

  12. What would you recommend for emulsifying essential oil in water for an application like poo-pourri or room spray? It's not going on skin so I'm not very concerned about toxicity, tho I try to avoid toxins as a general practice. No sense in aggravating chemical sensitivities if I don't have to. (I don't even keep bleach in the house.)

    1. Many say you don't need one in this application since you aren't spraying on skin. The atomizing effect of the spraying is enough--similar to diffusing essential oils using a water diffuser.