Carrier Oils for CBD: How to Choose the Best One

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If you’ve ever used a CBD oil, you’ve gotten more from the product than just cannabidiol (CBD). For multiple reasons, manufacturers include a carrier oil, too.

As its name suggests, a carrier oil delivers (or carries) the contents of the active compound. In this case, it's CBD. In the realm of beauty products, carrier oils dilute essential oils because the essential oil may be too strong on its own. (For example, a lavender reaction from lavender oil can cause the skin to itch, burn, or break out in blisters.)

Carrier oils are important to CBD because they help dissolve the cannabinoid’s molecules so they can be absorbed by the body. Many carrier oils are similar, but they may have differences that could be important to you for various reasons. For example, most of them are nut-based or plant-based, and you could be allergic to them. Oils that are taken orally may not taste good to you. Reading the label is a smart move—as long as you know what you're looking for.

This article explains the purpose of carrier oils and the possible side effects. It also describes the six carrier oils you're likely to see in stores and online, including their advantages and drawbacks.

Marketing Outpaces Science

CBD is an abbreviation for cannabidiol. It’s one of 100-plus chemicals in the cannabis plant that may have health benefits. It's widely assumed that CBD oil can relieve arthritis pain, chronic pain, and chronic nerve pain as well as reduce inflammation, ease anxiety, and improve sleep. Researchers are actively studying other uses for CBD oil, particularly in terms of slowing cancer cell growth.

CBD oil
Sally Anscombe / Photodisc / Getty Images

Purpose of CBD Carrier Oils

CBD products use different carrier oils, sometimes alone and sometimes in combinations. They serve several important functions:

Better Absorption

One key reason for using a carrier oil is that it improves bioavailability, which means it helps your body absorb CBD oil. CBD is fat-soluble, which means that it dissolves in oil rather than water. Fat-soluble substances are better absorbed when digested along with fat, even in small amounts.

When you digest water-soluble substances, like sugar or many vitamins and minerals, your digestive tract sends them directly into your bloodstream (because blood is a water-based liquid).

Fat-soluble substances can’t be absorbed this way. Instead, your digestive tract sends them into fatty tissues and they’re distributed through your body by the lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. Any excess is stored in your liver and fatty tissues for later use.

All carrier oils are fat-soluble, which means CBD dissolves in it. Then the oil carries the CBD into the proper tissues so they’re more accessible by your body.

Know Your Tinctures

 CBD products have introduced consumers to a new lexicon. For example, concentrated CBD oil usually taken through a dropper is known as a tincture.


 

Easier Dosing

CBD is a potent chemical, which means you don’t need much of it for a medicinal effect. However, this poses a problem when it comes to dosing. To deliver accurate and consistent doses, it’s easier to measure out a dropperful of CBD-infused oil than a tiny amount of crystalline isolate (which is CBD in pure form).

Added Health Benefits

Carrier oils sometimes include health benefits all on their own. For example, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention for its heart-healthy benefits.

If there’s an oil you’d like to get more of in your diet, adding it to your CBD regimen is one way to get it. (This said, it remains debatable whether one or two droppers of carrier oil a day is enough to have any tangible effect on your health. This is another CBD-related topic that falls under the category of "more research is required.")

CBD Products Come From Hemp

CBD products almost always are derived from hemp, which is botanically and legally different from the marijuana plant. By law, CBD products can’t contain more than 0.3% THC (short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the chemical in marijuana that creates a high.

Side Effects and Precautions

Most people don’t have side effects from common carrier oils. Some oils, though, may not be right for people with certain illnesses or who take certain medications. Always check with your healthcare provider before adding anything to your dietary regimen—even a “natural” product like CBD in a carrier oil. Natural doesn’t always mean safe.

If you have tree-nut allergies or other food allergies, be especially diligent about selecting CBD products with carrier oils you know are safe for you. All ingredients should be specified on the label.

For topical preparations, know that some carrier oils or other added ingredients may cause an itchy, red rash called allergic contact dermatitis. Others may cause a skin reaction after sun exposure. Be sure you’re familiar with the potential side effects of whatever products you’re using. And play it safe by testing a miniscule amount of topical oil on an obscure patch of skin to see if you develop a reaction.

What About Essential Oils?

Carrier oils aren’t the same thing as essential oils used for aromatherapy. Essential oils are highly concentrated, which is why they have a strong fragrance. Many essential oils can cause poisoning when ingested or absorbed through the skin, even in small amounts. This is true even if the oil comes from something that is normally safe to ingest, such as nutmeg.

Essential oils are often used topically (on the skin) after being diluted by a carrier oil. Essential oils themselves, however, should never be used as a carrier oil. Some topical CBD formulations may include essential oils such as lavender or eucalyptus oils because of their purported health benefits.

Before using these products, be sure you’re familiar with the ingredients and that you’re not allergic to any of them. Watch also for side effects, which can occur soon after using them.

Common Carrier Oils

Some CBD oils may contain one or more carrier oils. Some common carrier oils are:

  • Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil
  • Hemp seed oil
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado oil

MCT Oil

MCT oil is the most common carrier oil for CBD products. It can be derived from coconut or palm kernel oil, but coconut is the most common source. On labels, it’s sometimes listed as fractionated coconut oil, which means it contains more liquid than solid compared to normal coconut oil, thanks to fatty acids.

Medium-chain triglycerides are a type of fatty acid that your body can quickly absorb because it doesn’t have to break it down via digestion before sending it off to the lymph system. It also absorbs easily through the skin.

Long-chain triglycerides require more digestion time. Short-chain triglycerides are often consumed by gut bacteria before they’ve had time to be absorbed. So MCTs are the most useful.

Pros:

  • Quick absorption due to molecular structure
  • 90% saturated fat, which also aids absorption
  • Light, thin oil
  • Almost flavorless
  • Doesn’t require chemical processing
  • Less expensive than some carrier oils
  • Slow to break down and go rancid

Cons:

  • Temporary digestive side effects (nausea, gas, diarrhea, vomiting) in some people
  • Possible excessive build-up of ketones in the body (dangerous with poorly controlled diabetes)
  • Not recommended for people with liver disease
  • May interact with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs

Additional Health Claims

Some scientific evidence suggests that MCT oil may:

While promising, much of this research is preliminary. More research is needed before MCT oil can be recommended for these uses.

Scrutinize Coconut Oil Labels

If the label of a CBD product says "coconut oil," it's likely regular coconut oil and not MCT. While perfectly fine as a carrier oil, regular coconut oil may not have all of the same benefits of an MCT.

Hemp Seed Oil

It may come from the same plant, but hemp seed oil (sometimes called hemp oil) and CBD oil aren’t the same thing. CBD comes from the flower while hemp seed oil comes from the seeds. The seeds contain fewer beneficial chemicals (cannabinoids and terpenes) than the flower and in much lower concentrations. However, they do contain some hemp phytochemicals that aren’t present in the flowers.

Using hemp seed oil as a carrier oil for CBD may contribute to what’s called the “entourage effect,” which basically means that combining parts of the plant may make each component more effective than it would be alone.

This quality makes hemp seed oil a popular choice for “full-spectrum” products, which contain all of the component chemicals of the hemp plant rather than just CBD.

Pros:

  • Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower inflammation
  • Ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids
  • High antioxidant levels
  • Good source of fiber
  • Contains magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc
  • Possible entourage effect

Cons:

  • Lower solvency than MCT oil, meaning it can’t hold as much CBD
  • Higher priced than MCT oil
  • Flavor (sometimes described as “sharp” or “herby”) may clash with some palates
  • Side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, throat irritation, slow heart rate, high blood pressure

Buyer Beware

Some companies try to pass off hemp seed oil as CBD oil. Be sure to check the ingredients and amount of CBD a product contains before you buy it. All reputable companies should provide this information on their labels and websites.

Additional Health Claims

Hemp seed has been used medicinally for a wide array of conditions, most of which have not been researched enough to say for sure whether they’re safe and effective. The conditions include:

Olive Oil

Olive oil is probably the carrier oil you're most familiar with. It’s certainly the best researched. It's become one of the most commonly used cooking oils because of its many well-established health benefits:

Pros:

  • High in iron, vitamin K, vitamin E
  • Rich in antioxidants
  • Highly trusted
  • Absorbed by the skin even faster than MCT

Cons:

  • Its long-chain triglycerides are slower to absorb than MCT (but may absorb more efficiently)
  • Lower solvency than MCT, meaning it can’t hold as much CBD
  • Thicker than most other carrier oils, which may be unpleasant
  • Flavor is relatively strong and may be distasteful to some people

Additional Health Claims

Thanks to a significant amount of research, olive oil is known to:

  • Boost immunity
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol
  • Prevent blood platelet clumping, which can cause heart attacks
  • Aid in blood clotting
  • Improve gut-bacteria balance
  • Support proper nerve function
  • Prevent cognitive decline
  • Protect bones from thinning (osteoporosis)

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil has become more popular for a variety of uses, including cooking, as researchers have learned about its health benefits. As a CBD carrier oil, it’s used most often in topical products, but you can also find it in products that are meant to be ingested.

Pros:

  • Quickly and easily absorbed by your skin and digestive tract
  • Nutty flavor may be more pleasant than some alternatives
  • Especially good for topical uses
  • Rich in antioxidants
  • High in vitamins A, B, D, and E

Cons:

  • Much thicker than most carrier oils, which may be unpleasant
  • Significantly more expensive than many carrier oils
  • Higher allergy risk than many carrier oils

Additional Health Claims

Most of the research into avocado oil has been performed on animals, not people. Until researchers take this next step, preliminary evidence suggests that avocado oil may:

  • Lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, which decreases the risk of heart disease
  • Improve glucose tolerance and reduce insulin resistance, providing protection from diabetes
  • Improve metabolic markers

Avocado oil is less likely than many oils to clog your pores, so it’s popular for topical use. Plus, its slow drying time may help it last longer than some topical preparations.

Allergy Warning

Avocado allergies are possible. If you experience itching in your mouth after ingesting avocados or avocado oil, don’t ingest any more before talking with your healthcare provider about it. Some allergies tend to occur together. People with avocado allergies may be especially sensitive to:

  • Bananas
  • Watermelons
  • Cucumbers
  • Kiwis
  • Other fruits and vegetables
  • Latex

If you have an allergic reaction to any of these things, you should be tested for a reaction to the others as well.

Extreme Symptoms Are Possible

Extreme allergy symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis, are uncommon (but possible) with avocados because digestive enzymes tend to break down the allergen before it's absorbed into your body. Get emergency medical attention if you experience these symptoms.

Summary

Carrier oils are important to CBD because they help dissolve the cannabinoid’s molecules so they can be absorbed by the body. Many carrier oils are similar, but they may have differences that could be important to you for various health reasons. One key reason for using a carrier oil is that it improves bioavailability, which means it helps your body absorb CBD oil. Besides, to deliver accurate and consistent doses, it’s easier to measure out a dropperful of CBD-infused oil than a tiny amount of crystalline isolate (which is CBD in pure form). Carrier oils also may have health benefits all on their own. Four common carrier oils are medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, hemp seed oil, olive oil, and avocado oil.

A Word From Verywell

Many people are quick to ask: "Which CBD carrier oil is the best?" Now you know that the answer depends on several factors, including the type and uses of the CBD product, whether you have allergies or certain health conditions, and your personal preferences. So look at it this way: If you try one oil and don't like it, you can always try a different one. Meanwhile, be sure to ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist for advice along the way.

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