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.

Amber bottle about to release a drop of essential oil with a lime green blurred background

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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195 Comments

  1. Hi! I am trying to make a water soluble essential oil solution for my water-based air purifier. Please confirm if I got the ratios complete.

    1 emulsifier : 1 EO : 5 water

    Would you suggest any other ingredient to make my "water-based oil"? I plan on using liquid castile soap as emulsifier.

      1. Oh just from one of your comments here haha.

        "... I’m actually reading now that it could be 5 and that you need to experiment to see how many and which type keeps the oils in solution. So it’s not as easy answer :)."

        1. Gotcha - I forgot about that. This is hard and from what I have read you need to experiment as different emulsifiers etc work differently. Recommending a formulation is way beyond what my knowledge base. Sorry about that!

          1. Haha no worries. I've also been in contact with my Organic Chemistry professor but he has yet to give me a ratio.

            Thank you so much!

            1. Hi again - I just found a great course that recently started and added the information to my post. I hope to have another one soon, but thought you would be interested in it! Did you hear anything back yet?

  2. Great very informative! I like the way you describe it.
    I am trying to make body oil. I mix glycerin and essential oil but the oil floats on top, they don't mix no matter what I do. Is there anything that I need to add.
    I only want to add natural products and I cannot use alcohol.
    Thank you very much.

      1. Thanks for the reply.
        Glycerin stays down and essential oil floats on top.
        I have just used glycerin and essential oil.
        I have stir them,shake the bottles but they don't mix. I dont know how to make it them.

        1. Sounds like you should try an emulsifier. Have you tried polysorbate 80? I don't love it for safety reasons but might help - there's a link in the post. There are some other possibilities like the other ones in the post. It's not an easy topic.

      1. I was wondering if it would help diffuse the EO's better, more evenly as the water level gets lower. It seems if the EO is distributed throughout the water, you'd have a more consistent aroma throughout.

        1. Hi there. I just heard back from the owner of a solid EO company about this--they said that adding things like that to a diffuser will likely gunk it up and that you really want just the pure EOs in the air for breathings, etc. Hope that helps! I think you will get a good aroma due to the action of the diffuser.

            1. You are so welcome! I will be writing more about oils soon--stay tuned. You might wish to subscribe to updates.

  3. In "How to Emulsify Oils," #4, it states to use a ratio of 1:1. Does that mean to use 1 part essential oil to 1 part emulsifier? If not, what are you referring the ratio of 1:1 to? Thanks for your time!

  4. Hello thanks for the helpful article! I had a few questions... I see you say to mix oil & emulsifier 1:1. That led me to wonder what the ratio of oil/emulsifier to water is? I see in your reply to another post you said 1-3 drops of emulsifyer for each drop of water. That seems like a very substantial amount of emulsifier is needed for the blend. 3 equal amounts of each or possibly more emulsifier than oil/water? If you could help clarify it would be awesome! Thanks

      1. Hey thanks for the reply... it was this response to Kelcey’s comment on June 2nd that confused me...

        “Hi there. It will depend but generally you would use 1 drop emulsifier for every 1-3 drops of water“

        1. Sure! That means 1 drop emulsifier for every 1-3 drops of water. In your previous comment you said that it was 3 drops emulsifier. I'm actually reading now that it could be 5 and that you need to experiment to see how many and which type keeps the oils in solution. So it's not as easy answer :).

  5. Hi, I just read your post on emulsifying essential oils before adding to water. This is something I have been wondering about especially when it comes to making natural room sprays or kitchen spray and wipes. Often recipes say to add a few drops of say lavender oil to water and spray onto the surface of your bench. But how would you mix it up or stop it separating? As you know oil and water don't mix. Would you just shake it up? Or can you recommend a natural emulsifier that I could use?
    Thanks.

    1. Typically when thinking about a room spray shaking is good enough but you could use an emulsifier if you like. You aren't spraying it on the body so it's not as crucial. Thanks for reading!

    1. Hi there. It will depend but generally you would use 1 drop emulsifier for every 1-3 drops of water.

  6. Do i need acholol to emulisfy essential oils when im adding them to vinagear and water? Thankyou... Im am trying to make room sprays sanitation sprays amd cleaning sprays and sometimes i use vinagear.. Thanks

    1. Hi there! Good question. Yes, and no. If you want a perfectly blended final product, then yes. However since you aren't spraying on skin that's not the same as the concerns one would have for safety.

  7. Hello,
    Thanks for the post about blending. I am new in the aromatherapy field.
    I want to dilute a spikenard essential oil to olive oil but the two does not dilute at all. In fact the olive oil remains flowing above the nard oil.
    Is it normal? What kind of emulsifier could I use? Would heating the dilution help?
    Hope you can help me.

        1. Sorry for the delay in responding. That seems very odd to me b/c I would think any pure essential oil should dilute into a carrier oil. Just b/c a company doesn't disclose something doesn't mean it's not there. I would contact the company and ask why their oil isn't diluting properly in the carrier oil. Please do let me know what they say.

  8. Hello This Bashy I just happen to find you while exploring Emulsifing mixture I would like to be apart of your blog ...I am faily new to Aromatherapy

  9. Which emulsifier would work best in your hair spray recipe? Also, how about using Optiphen as a preservative so you wouldn't have to keep it in the refrigerator?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi there. I am not an emulsifier or preservative expert and my understanding is that these things get very complicated. Have you used Optiphen? I would want to keep it to a low concentration due to safety concerns.

      1. Thanks for responding about the preservative. Which emulsifier would you recommend for your hair spray recipe? And how much?

        1. Hi there. You don't need one unless you are using the essential oils. And even so, if you don't have the hair on your face it's not an issue. Are you wanting to add the oils?

  10. Just wondering, Tisserant says honey and gelatine are not solubles for oil..... Could you share some more background on why you think they are? Just honestly wondering, not meaning to criticize you.

    1. These were emulsifiers recommended overall when I was doing research for the post. It's a complicated topic and I mentioned in the post that the list was based on how aromatherapy was done over the years. I also highlighted 2 as being better than the others--castile and alcohol and there are a few other products that would be considered to be valid options--some synthetic and some natural. I don't mind you asking at all! Thanks for reading!

      1. Thank you for replying :). I'm studying aromatherapy, almost done, and herbalism and see so many different opinions on this. For now I'll stick to the Tisserand methods, because they feel safe, but I'm still exploring other options as well :). Thank YOU for responding :).

  11. Do you need emulsifier in bath bomb IF carrier oil, eg warm coconut oil, is mixed with essential oils prior to blending into the dry ingredients? ( My child's bath bomb focused birthday party is tomorrow and I don't have time to order much more in order to get here in time for the party)

    1. Hi there. I would need to know the ingredient list. If it's all oil then you do not per the information in the post--thanks for reading!

  12. even with an emulsifier no oral use that u swallow for safety concerns? if answer is no oral so one is left if not a skin problem, intake of vapor thru nostils (aromatherapy)after emulsifying?

    so could aromotherapy such as Myhr (spell?) effectively treat an internal mold/fungus problem both in gut and lungs that is systemic?

    1. Hi there. I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you asking about myrrh treating internal fungus issue just by diffusing it? I can't medically advise--I'm sorry. It sounds like you might have a serious condition so I would ask a physician for help. I have never thought that essential oil usage is sufficient to clean up mold in any environment. If you want to take essential oils orally you should work with a physician or aromatherapist.

  13. Do I need to use an emulsifier in my little aromatherapy dispenser? I use them daily with my oil and distilled water. It always looks like it all evaporates away

    1. Hi there - do you mean a diffuser? If so, you don't need one for that. They are used for topical applications. Good question!

      1. Yes...I did mean a diffuser. Thank you for that answer. It has always been a nagging question for me. Now I know for sure! 🙂

  14. Hi,
    I am planning on making a water based hair growth spray to apply to my scalp using 5 essential oils (peppermint, rosemary, cedarwood, clary sage and lavendar). I am so confused as to what the best emulsifier would be, and in what proportion? Since it's going in my hair i can't use carrier oils. I have read about using bentonite clay/gelatin and other powder based ingredients, but how would this work - would I make it into a paste before adding the oils? Any guidance would be much appreciated

    1. Hello. I haven't studied much about emulsification but the post says that a 1:1 of the EOs to the emulsifier should be good. Hope that helps.

  15. Hi Brie
    Thanks so much for your lead, it is the water % I am looking for, I will play around with 96% mark, much appreciated
    Ken

  16. Hi Brie.
    Thanks so much for lead, it is the water content I am looking for, will play around the 96% mark, much appreciated
    Ken

  17. Hi Adrienne, I wish to make up eucalyptus spray to use in my steam sauna, I have no problem obtaining the oil, intend using polysorbate 20 (tween 20), from what I gather the proportion should 1 : 1 or maybe even 1 :2, O K so far, but to what proportions of water ??
    Best
    Wishes
    Ken

    1. Hi Ken, first decide on your dilution of Essential Oils. Say you want to use 2% essential oils, then for the 1:1 ratio of the emulsifier (it’s really considered a solubilizer) you would use 2% of the Polysorbate 20. The remaining portion of water would then be 96%. I recommend using a Batch Size calculator which you can Google to tell you the specific measurements in grams or ounces. I also believe that ANY water based product should have a preservative unless it is a mixture with half high-proof alcohol/half water.

  18. In the section "How to Emulsify Essential Oils" where you recommend "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 you say 1:1 ratio you you mean by weight or by volume? I am using lecithin as my emulsifier with a mint type of essential oils. I will be adding the emulsion finally go into a 1:1 to 2:1 sugar syrup.

    Thx

    1. Typically that would mean volume since we are talking about dispersion of an oil and surface area is what would matter--not density.