drop of a carrier oil being applied on the skin

How Essential Oils Work When Applied On Skin

Essential oils can be very beneficial and supportive when applied on the skin. However, before I explain how they work topically, the most important thing to remember is that essential oils should always be applied together with a carrier oil. A carrier oil can be any nonvolatile oil such as jojoba oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, or olive oil to name a few.

Essential oils are highly concentrated substances and can easily irritate the skin if applied directly. Note: there are a few essential oils that can be applied directly on skin, with caution, and in low quantities, for a short period of time. But for the purpose of what we are trying to discuss here, always use essential oils together with carrier oils on your skin.  



Every single cell in your body has an outer layer called a cell membrane which is made up of two layers of fat. Your outer skin layer is made up of a gazillion (well not exactly, but you get the idea - a lot!) of these cell membranes and therefore is attracted to fat (lipophilic) and repels water (hydrophobic). Think about it when you take a shower. Imagine if your skin liked water and it absorbed all the water from the shower. You’d expand like a balloon! It’s a good thing your skin is not attracted to water.

Essential oils are also made up of volatile lipids (fats) and are lipophilic, meaning they are attracted to other lipids, ie. fats. This means that essential oils are attracted to your skin.



The first interaction the essential oil has is with the outer layer of skin called the stratum corneum (part of the epidermis). This layer is the first barrier to entry into the body and therefore is very protective of what it lets pass to the next layer, the dermis. 

Most carrier oils do not make it past this first layer because their chemical components (the molecular composition of the oil) are too large and can’t penetrate past the outer barrier. So this means that the carrier oil will have a chemical action on the cells in the stratum corneum and, often, will help provide moisture, healing or protection from outside elements. 

Essential oils, on the other hand, are made up of much smaller molecules and can more easily penetrate past the stratum corneum, into the dermis and eventually circulate within the bloodstream. 

However, not all essential oils are made alike. Some essential oils (such as citrus oils or pine oils) are comprised of a lot of monoterpenes, which are very small molecules. Because they are so small, only a small amount will penetrate the skin, while many of the molecules will evaporate into the air when applied on skin. This is the aroma you experience.  

Then there are other essential oils (like sandalwood and patchouli) that are made of sesquiterpenols, which are heavier, bigger molecules. These essential oils don’t penetrate into the deeper skin layers as quickly, staying on the outer skin layer longer. As they slowly penetrate the skin, certain chemical components of these “heavier” essential oils will have a chemical action on the outer skin layer and offer skin-healing benefits. 



There are components of the essential oil that enter the bloodstream, not the entire essential oil itself. This was demonstrated in a 1992 study analyzing the skin absorption of lavender oil within a massage oil. The lavender oil, carried in peanut oil, was massaged over the stomach area for 10 minutes. Scientists found trace amounts of two lavender chemical components, linalool and linalyl acetate in the blood after 20 minutes. After 90 minutes most of the lavender oil had been eliminated from the blood. Both components provided calming and relaxing properties.

Essential oils, like most foreign substances (including medicine) that enter the body, are not meant to stay in the body. It is the liver’s job to detoxify and rid the body of these materials by way of excretion and sweat. But along the way, while the essential oil components are circulating in the bloodstream, they do have a chemical action on the body. The essential oil constituents interact with the cells as they make their way through the various bodily systems. Depending on the substance, and how much is in the system, the process can take a few minutes, to hours or even days. 

This is why you are told to take your medication every X number of hours. It takes the body that long to remove the drug from your bloodstream. It’s the same for essential oils. They need to be applied, with a carrier oil, several times a day in order to see any benefit.



Yes, in fact, there are a number of essential oils, due to their chemical composition, that have shown to have some skin healing properties. 

These essential oils include:

  • Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana)

  • German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

  • Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

  • Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)

  • Geranium (Pelargonium x asperum)

  • Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum)

  • Jasmine absolute (Jasminum grandiflorum)

  • Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

  • Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)

  • Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara)

  • Opoponax (Commiphora guidotti)

  • Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini var. motia)

  • Patchouli (Pogostemom cablin)

  • Rose absolute (Rosa x damascena)

  • Sandalwood (Santalum album)

  • Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides)

  • Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuina)


Combining skin healing essential oils with skin-friendly carrier oils is the optimal combination for topical applications. Used daily, a small essential dosage of 1-2% (5-12 drops) in a 1oz bottle is a safe and effective amount.

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