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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
- castile soap
- aloe vera gel
- gelatin Since you are likely going to be using the emulsified product on your skin, I highly recommend a high quality grass-fed gelatin like this one or this one
- collagen hydrolysate
- diatomaceous earth *link)
- alcohol (like vodka) (Vodka doesn't appear to work very well, but has been said to be a good emulsifier of essential oils. Higher proof alcohol works much better.)
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
- Add the emulsifier to the essential oils before adding them to the other water-based ingredients.
- Shake or stir the combination.
- 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.
- 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
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?