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Oily Beauties - Vegetable Oils - Borage, St John's Wort & Avocado

September 2022, posted by Emma

What do aromatherapists, massage therapists and skin care product makers all have in common? Vegetable oil!

Vegetable oils are the most commonly used base for massage. Aromatherapists often formulate oil-based formulations for clients and skin care product producers, particularly those making natural products, heavily rely on oils from a range of plants as core product ingredients.

Sunflower oil has been my main massage base oil since I qualified over two decades ago. I love its smooth texture, nutty aroma, innate ability to blend beautifully with a wide range of essential oils, as well as its habit of leaving my clients’ skin feeling silky and nurtured. Earlier this year, world stocks of sunflower oil were dramatically affected by the conflict in Ukraine. The good news is that our sunflower oil comes from a producer in the South of France, so you can rest assured that our supplies should remain stable.

Terminology confusion

There are many terms associated with vegetable oils: refined, unsaturated and filtered to name a few. Then there are the multiple nutritional benefits gained from consuming vegetable oils. Add that to the fact that these oils are interchangeably referred to as ‘base oils’, because they are the base which essential oils are added to; ‘carrier oils’, because they hold or carry the essential oils and ‘fixed oils’, because unlike essential oils they are not volatile and do not evaporate. Some suppliers even refer to them as simply ‘massage oil’. It can be confusing! However, if you stick to using organic, cold-pressed oils from high quality suppliers such as ourselves you will nurture and moisturise your skin (and your clients’ skin) in the best way possible, regardless of terminology and other factors.

As an aside, ‘cold-pressed’ does not mean that no heat is involved in extracting the oil from its seed or nut - the very act of extraction generates heat. However ‘cold pressed’ does mean that no additional heat is used in the extraction process, resulting in a high quality oil which resembles the oil of the mother plant as closely as possible.

Base choices

It is often said that many massage therapists do not give much consideration to their choice of massage base oil. I feel this is less true of aromatherapists, however many of us still put more thought and consideration into choosing essential oils than we do base oils. This is a shame, because selecting the most appropriate base oil, or combination of oils, can reap great benefits. If we add herbal oils into the mix, the potential benefits increase even more.

At a minimum, vegetable oils moisturise the skin. However they have many more qualities than that. Additionally, there are numerous benefits to taking vegetable oils internally. This article though focuses on their skin supportive qualities. Like essential oils, vegetable oils have individual qualities which can be harnessed for different needs.

We stock a large range of carrier oils. Here, I shine a spotlight on three of my favourites, including a herbal oil.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Much loved by bees, the graceful borage plant is a favourite of wildlife gardeners. Its oil is rich in GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), said to be useful in treating inflammatory skin conditions. It is a popular skin care ingredient for a variety of other reasons, including skin toning, wrinkle-fighting and moisturising properties. Consider adding it to preparations for clients with older skin or conditions such as eczema. Borage has no known allergy risks, making it a good choice for folk with hyper-sensitive skin, although we always recommend patch-testing in cases of problematic eczema and similar.

Extra! Borage’s blue, star-shaped flowers are edible. Sprinkle a few on salads and drinks. I like adding them to ice cubes. Scatter the flowers onto your ice cube trays when you fill them, to give your ice cubes the wow factor!

St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This is a herbal oil. The St John’s Wort plant itself does not produce an oil, but the plant is seeped (or macerated) in vegetable oil, allowing it to soften and release its therapeutic constituents. Herbal oils have been produced by healers and herbalists since ancient times. Today, herbal oils are often produced using industrial methods, although many small-scale artisans leave glass containers full of the oil and plant matter to gently macerate in the sunshine, following the ways of our ancestors.

Len Price, a much respected elder of aromatherapy, tells us that St John’s Wort was once used as protection against witches and evil spirits. This is an opener for a whole new blog, which I may save for another time! I love the deep red of this herbal oil and it is a fantastic addition to blends for bruises, ulcers and other minor skin wounds. Add it to your burns remedies too, including sunburn. In his excellent book ‘Liquid Sunshine’ Jan Kusmirek recommends applying the oil externally to ease stomach cramps.

Extra! Pretty St John’s Wort flowers are yellow, not red. If you hold one up to the light, you can spot delicate red threads weaving through its petals. It is said that if you crush the buds your fingers will be stained red, although I’ve never wanted to test this.

Avocado (Persea gratissima)

Hailing from the Americas, the fruit of this oil is well-known for its nutritional benefits, as well as being a staple of trendy cafe breakfasts. The oil is naturally green and cloudy. Some producers sell a clear version, but this indicates it has been through a refining process. At Materia Aromatica we prefer unrefined avocado oil and I find my clients love the murky-green hues of their blend when I add avocado to the mix.

Avocado is an excellent skin softener, making it really useful for dry and damaged skin. It is a relatively thick oil. For massage I recommend combining it with a lighter oil, such as sunflower or sweet almond.

This time of year, when many bodies are sun-kissed but also sun-damaged, avocado is a particularly important part of my aromatic tool kit. It is believed to have skin protective qualities, making it an excellent choice to use both at the start and end of summer days. Think also of post-menopausal and older skin, as well as people who work outside all year round. One of my clients is a gardener. Her permanently skin-damaged laps-up avocado oil. Using it in her monthly massage blends helps counteract the effect her job has on her skin.

Extra! It is useful to store many carrier oils in the fridge, but not avocado! You may find it solidifies and refrigerating may also affect its quality.

Enjoy experimenting with a wide range of carrier and herbal oils. Why not challenge yourself to trying a new one!

● Bensouilah J & Buck P (2006), Aromadermatology, Abingdon, Oxon: Radcliffe Publishing Ltd
● Kusmirek J (2002), Liquid Sunshine, Glastonbury, Somerset: Floramicus
● Price L (1999) Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy & Massage, Stratford-upon-Avon: Riverhead
● Wood Z (April 2022), Sunflower shortage: why cooking oil has become so expensive,
The Guardian newspaper, accessed 07/07/22, available from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/apr/05/food-price-rises-ukraine-war-cooking-oil