Bath Safety: how to use essential oils in the bath

An aromatherapy bath can be a very relaxing and therapeutic experience, and it is one of the most popular ways to use essential oils. However, it can very easily turn unpleasant if you don’t follow one simple rule – disperse! Essential oils are not water soluble, and so pouring them directly into a bath will result in a film of undiluted essential oils sitting on top, waiting patiently for your tender flesh to enter the water. Because the oils are warmed up by the water, and also cannot evaporate, they often sting like crazy.

Many have made this mistake, as you can see in our adverse reaction reports here . Unfortunately, some essential oil users try to dilute essential oils in substances that do not work as emulsifiers and will not disperse essential oils, as you can see in the case where a mother diluted some tangerine oil in full fat milk, resulting in a nasty reaction in her two daughters.

We partnered with Deborah Kallevig from www.unfussed.com  to assemble a list of substances you either already have at home or can easily obtain, that can be efficiently used to disperse essential oils in your bath. We have highlighted those substances that have a false reputation for being suitable (full-fat milk, epsom salts etc.) with an explanation why they don’t work. We want you to enjoy stress-less and safe baths!

Please note: the information below is based the assumption that each ingredient would be used ‘as is’ and not as a minor ingredient in a formulated product. Always bare in mind safety maximums for specific essential oils!

What to use

Substances you may have at home

  • Foaming products (shampoo, shower gel, bubble bath…)

Theoretically, essential oils can be added to each of these products at skin safe levels. However, it is important to note that manufactured products were not formulated with the addition of any extra ingredients in mind. This means that the emulsion itself, as well as the preservative, could be seriously challenged, and fail, if you add essential oils.

Some companies sell stock formulas or bases that DO take into account the addition of essential oils and other ingredients, usually at a maximum additional percentage , say, 1-4% of the total amount by weight. You can safely add essential oils to these bases, following the manufacturer’s guidelines. In ½ ounce of base, 1-4% is about 5-20 drops of essential oil.

To get around the off-the-shelf issue, it is possible to add your essential oils to the amount of product you intend to use at the time you intend to use it. For example, if you’re going to wash your hair and typically use ½ ounce shampoo, then you can put that amount in a little dish, add in your safe percentage of essential oil, mix well, and use. Alternatively, you can pour off enough for a few shampooings into a separate container, add your essential oil percentage and store the rest unmolested. Be sure to use what you’ve made in short order and don’t try to keep it for an extended period, in order to avoid contamination issues.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil per ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) of your chosen bath base. Either use this amount for one bath, or make up a larger quantity for future use.

  • Vegetable oils (coconut, olive, sunflower…)

Essential oils can be safely added to any vegetable oil, properly diluted, if thoroughly mixed. These oils (also known as fixed, fatty or carrier oils) work well to safely dilute and ‘carry’ essential oils. However, once added to the bath, and because oil and water don’t mix, the carrier/essential oil will not disperse throughout the water. Instead, it will float on the surface and cling to the sides of the tub and your skin. So, although the essential oils are safely diluted in the carrier, this does make for a pretty slippery, greasy bath experience. For a slightly less greasy floating bath oil, you could use fractionated coconut oil or jojoba oil.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil per ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) of your chosen bath base. Either use this amount for one bath, or make up a larger quantity for future use.

  • Fractionated coconut oil (FCO)

This is coconut oil that has gone through a physical process where the liquid portions are separated from the more solid portions based on melting points, thus the term ‘fractionated’. No other change has been made to the oil, so the same guidelines apply as to any other vegetable oil. There is also Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides (MCT oil), which is a specific fraction of coconut oil, the medium chain triglycerides, produced through the chemical process of esterification. This makes it an ester and not a true oil. These types of oil have benefits in aromatherapy because they are a fluid, virtually odorless, non-greasy carriers that are colorless and have a light, silky feeling.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil per ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) of your chosen bath base. Either use this amount for one bath, or make up a larger quantity for future use. FCO and MCT oils will make for a less greasy experience.

Easy to purchase

Things you need to order but are easy to get from suppliers and re-sellers that cater to the crafters.

  • Solubol

This is a dispersant for essential oils in water-based systems like body mists and sprays which are high in water or hydrosols. Start mixing at a 1:1 ratio up to a 1:8 ratio (essential oils:solubol) until you achieve full solubilization – aka essential oils are fully incorporated. Ingredients (INCI): sucrose stearate, Helianthus annus (sunflower oil), cera alba (beeswax), Sterculia urens gum, acacia gum, Propolis cera (bee propolis), glycerin, lecithin, Cocos nucifera (coconut oil), tocopherol, L-ascorbic acid, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf extract.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil with Solubol at the recommended ratio. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.

  • Polysorbate 20

This is a safe non-ionic surfactant that can solubilize essential oils into a water based system. It is soluble in water and glycerin and partially soluble in fractionatedcoconut oil. Best used for adding small amounts of essential oils – 2-3% is ideal, or whatever is skin safe, but you can go up to 15% or so if needed, in water based products like room spray, body mist, linen spray. Not suitable for carrier oils. Start mixing at a 1:1 ratio.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil with an equal amount of Polysorbate 20. Add to bath.

  • Polysorbate 80

This is a safe non-ionic surfactant that can solubilize carrier oils and essential oils into a water based system. It is insoluble in glycerin, soluble in water, and partially soluble in fractionated coconut oil and soy bean oil. Best used for carrier plus essential oils in products like scrubs, dispersible bath oils, bath bombs, bath melts. Can be used for body sprays. Use up to 20% max with carrier oils and 5% max for just essential oils. Start mixing at a 1:1 ratio.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil with an equal amount of Polysorbate 20. Add to bath.

  • Natrasorb Bath: INCI Tapioca Starch

This is modified tapioca starch. It will absorb and carry large quantities of carrier and essential oils and is particularly useful for bath products. The starch is processed to create little ‘pockets’ to hold the oils in a solid, powder form. Once the natrasorb bath comes into contact with the water, it dissolves and releases its carrier/fragrance load safely dispersing them into the water. It will not cling or leave a film on your skin or the tub. Very easy to use. Great for including in a dry shampoo. Use from 1 to 50%.

How to use: Mix 5-20 drops of essential oil with 2 tablespoons of natrasorb. Add to bath. Can be used immediately or to prepare a quantity for use over time.

Click on the image below for easily shareable guidelines on proper dispersion of essential oils in your bath.

Do not use!

These substances have been (wrongly) assumed to disperse essential oils in bathwater. Here is a list with an explanation for why each is not a suitable dispersant.

  • Cornstarch

Regular cornstarch is oil and moisture absorbent in its dry form, but it has no physical mechanism to “hold” essential oil once it is added to bath water. It is insoluble in cold water, and with heating, the granular structure will first swell then begin to break down and disperse. However, any carrier oil or essential oil that hs been added to it when dry will release directly into the water, floating or clinging to surfaces and skin.

  • Baking soda

Baking soda is fully water soluble but has no physical mechanism to “hold” or disperse carrier or essential oils. You may be able to incorporate the oils by mixing or kneading where it appears there are no clumps or other visible signs of the oils, but the baking soda will dissolve in the water, leaving the oils floating in the tub.

  • Epsom salt or regular salt

Salt is fully soluble in water and will dissolve once added to your bath. However, adding essential oils to salt and then stirring does not properly dilute or solubilizing the oils, even if the salts appear dry. Salt is not a carrier for essential oils. You can first dilute your essential oils with a vegetable oil and then add to salt to create a “wet” mixture. The salt will mostly stay incorporated with the carrier oil/essential oil, but only until added to a bath. Then, the oils will be released to float and cling to skin and surfaces.

  • Milk (animal or vegetable)

Animal milks are an emulsion of fat in water. Nut and plant milks are created as stable emulsions of oil (fat) in water. All milks are water soluble and are not suitable carriers, dispersants or solubilizers for essential oils, again, because water and oil don’t mix. While you may be able to create a temporary emulsion between essential oils and milk, particularly in high fat content animal milk, at a molecular level there is nothing holding the drops of each liquid together except for the mechanical action of vigorous whisking. Once in the bath the essential oils float on the surface, perhaps slightly more dispersed than if undiluted oils were added, but not much. You will still have virtually undiluted essential oils coming into contact with your skin.

  • Witch hazel

Witch Hazel Distillate is all water and completely water soluble. Witch Hazel with 14% alcohol is also completely water soluble. Remember, water and oil don’t mix! The alcohol proof and percentage is too low to be an effective solubilizer for essential oils.

  • Glycerin

Glycerin is completely water soluble. Essential oils are oil soluble. Glycerin is not an appropriate carrier for essential oils because oil and water don’t mix!

  • Alcohol

At least 160 proof alcohol is necessary for proper dispersion of essential oils with 190 proof being preferable. Everclear and perfumer’s alcohol fall into this category and the purchase of both is restricted in some areas. (You cannot dissolve essential oils in vodka.) So long as you first dissolve the essential oil in the alcohol, a certain percentage of water can be added with no separation. However when added to a bath, any solution of alcohol and essential oil floats on the surface with an oil slick appearance. The alcohol rapidly evaporates, leaving the essential oil virtually undiluted to attach to your skin.

  • Aloe vera 

There are several types of Aloe Vera leaf extract – Gel, Jelly, Juice and Liquid. There is also a powder that is meant to be reconstituted in water. None of these are appropriate carriers for essential oils in the bath. Aloe Vera Jelly, which has added thickeners and preservatives, may be used as an essential oil base for direct application to the skin. However, if added to the bath, the essential oils will separate and float, as with other watery bases.

List of suppliers:

US
Lotioncrafter – www.lotioncrafter.com
Wholesale Supplies Plus – www.wholesalesuppliesplus.com
Ingredients To Die For – www.ingredientstodiefor.com
Making Cosmetics – www.makingcosmetics.com
Brambleberry – www.brambleberry.com
The Herbarie – www.theherbarie.com
The Formulator Sample Shop – www.formulatorsampleshop.com
The Sage – https://www.thesage.com/
New Directions Aromatics – www.newdirectionsaromatics.com/
SaveonCitric – www.saveoncitric.com
Camden Grey – www.camdengrey.com
Sunrose Aromatics – www.SunroseAromatics.com

Canada
Windy Point – www.windypointsoap.com

EU
Gracefruit – www.gracefruit.com
The Soap Kitchen www.thesoapkitchen.co.uk
Soaposh www.soaposh.com
Phoenix products – http://www.phoenixproducts.co.uk
Plushfolly – http://plushfolly.com
Aromantic – aromantic.co.uk
Aroma Zone – https://www.aroma-zone.com

About Deborah Kallevig: Like so many others in the skin care business, I caught the formulating fever well after my first career path was set. As a former EMT and Respiratory Therapist, as well as a skilled home cook, I found that trading in my scrubs and apron for a lab coat was easier that I expected.
I built on my experience with herb craft, college science & math, and advanced baking and kitchen skills as I delved into cosmetic formulating. I buckled down to learn everything I could about the skin care industry, including the regulations, concepts, ingredients and lab techniques.
My self-directed learning is ongoing, through research, participation in various groups, classes and workshops, and with constant trial and error formulating. I feel empowered to create body and beauty products that are carefully considered, elegantly made and effective in their simplicity. I love making stuff!

Deborah is the Head Mixtress at Unfussed Body & Beauty, www.unfussed.com and you can reach her here: unfussed@gmail.com

Special thanks to Ginger L. Moore for her input on alcohol as a dispersant.