Differences Between Vegetable Oils and Essential Oils

LavenderVegetable oils and essential oils are sometimes confused in aromatherapy use. Both types of oils are natural oils, and both have therapeutic properties, but they are composed in different ways. There are many different vegetable oils and essential oils that are used in aromatherapy practice, so it is important to firstly understand the basic differences and similarities between the two types of oils before choosing an oil for your personal use.

Vegetable Oils

Vegetable oils are extracted from a wide variety of plants; the part of the plant that is extracted for oil depends on the type of plant. Some plants store oil in their leaves or flowers whereas others store oil in their seeds. Whichever way that the oils are extracted from the plant, the best vegetable oils for aromatherapy practice are cold pressed. Plants that are subjected to a high level of heat in the extraction process lose some of the plant’s therapeutic properties. Vegetable oils are called fixed oils because they are non-volatile and do not evaporate like essential oils. They are also not soluble in alcohol.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are also extracted from plants but are a different type of “oil”. Despite their name, essential oils are typically non-oily, unlike vegetable oils. Essential oils are most commonly steam distilled or cold expressed from a plant. Essential oils are extracted from the glandular hairs, sacs, glands or veins of a plant, including flowers, trees, grasses, leaves and roots. They are volatile and evaporate at or above room temperature; heat typically releases the fragrance of plants in the summer time and this is actually the fragrance of the essential oil of a plant. Essential oils normally dissolve in alcohol. Not all plants produce essential oils.

Uses of Vegetable Oils

Vegetable oils act as carrier oils in aromatherapy. They are typically used in aromatherapy massage but are also used in making aromatherapy lotions and creams. Vegetable oils are called carrier oils in aromatherapy because they “carry” the essential oils to the body. You can use vegetable oils on their own for aromatherapy massage or, for greater therapeutic effect, combined with essential oils.

Don’t confuse vegetable oils used in aromatherapy with vegetable oils used in cooking; vegetable oils used in cooking have usually been refined or processed and do not have the same therapeutic properties as cold processed vegetable oils.

Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are used for a number of health problems in aromatherapy practice. They are used in aromatherapy massage, combined with vegetable oils, or in aromatherapy skincare lotions and creams. You can also add essential oils to aromatherapy diffusers and candles.

Don’t confuse essential oils with fragrance oils; fragrance oils are synthetic substances with no therapeutic properties unlike essential oils that have a number of therapeutic benefits to your health.

Examples of Vegetable Oils

Common vegetable oils include sunflower (Helianthus annuus), sweet almond (Prunis dulcis) and apricot kernel (Prunus armeniaca). More exotic vegetable oils include avocado (Persea gratissima) and olive (Olea europaea). Vegetable oils differ in consistency and viscosity.

Examples of Essential Oils

Essential oils fall into to two major categories. Distilled essential oils include lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), rose, (Rosa damascena) and ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oils. Cold expressed essential oils are citrus oils such as sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and lemon (Citrus limon). Essential oils are light, middle or base note oils, depending on how quickly they evaporate.

Vegetable Oils and Essential Oils

The chemical composition of both vegetable oils and essential oils is complex and the exact chemical composition of each oil depends on the plant species from which it was extracted. Vegetable oils and essential oils are different – but they are also similar. Understanding the difference between the two types of oils will help you make better decisions on choosing the right type of oil/combination of oils for your particular health problem.


  • Price, Len, 1999, Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage
  • Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils
  • Author’s own experience

Photo by eisenrah


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