In recent days and weeks, there’s been much chatter about using aloe “gel” or aloe “jelly” as a carrier for essential oils in topical aromatherapy applications. And with it is a whole great big heap of confusion and misinformation. I’m seeing faulty information being dispersed and the occasional disagreement over several aspects of this topic including what an aloe gel is vs. what an aloe jelly is and why it matters.
I hope to clear up some of that confusion by addressing what a carrier is and the differences between “aloe gel” and “aloe jelly” as well as briefly explaining why it can be used as a “carrier” in some situations and when the home-user can do so safely. Because honestly, for the non-professional or the person who doesn’t have more in-depth education into aromatherapy and a little basic understanding of product formulation and product function, it’s no wonder it’s all garbled up and confusing.
First, let me say that aloe “gel” can be an appropriate carrier for applications of aromatics when a lipid oil is less than optimal or when better skin penetration and absorption is needed. Yes, it’s a water-based product and Yes, it’s true that oil and water do not mix so as a general rule, you cannot use a water base product as a safe carrier medium for essential oils ingredients designed to help oils mix and incorporate adequately in the correct manner. But in this case, the safety and viability of aloe gel as a carrier is in the function, formulation and end product as well as the specific usage protocols. However, it cannot be done willy nilly or without reserve. There are limitations and appropriate protocols just as with anything within aromatherapy.
And therein lies part of the problem with this newly spotlighted tidbit of information sweeping the community of aromatherapy home users. One of the issues we’re seeing is people are hearing or seeing “use aloe gel as a carrier for essential oils” then running with it like their pants are on fire to implement it or to advise others on implementing it without the knowledge or understanding necessary for practical application. Seriously, why do people do that? OK…no tangent, Ginger. *snaps out of it* I would like to help dispel some of the issues quickly arising and spreading today just by giving a little insight into the sources of some of the confusion and the subsequent out-flow.
The confusion and misinformation seems to begin with people not fully understanding what a “carrier” actually is and what its purpose is. Now that statement may seem accusatory or possibly even inflammatory but its really not. You’ve heard me say before that terminology matters and without full understanding of the terms used in various industries and in relation to context, you get a whole boat full of confused usage of said terms which leads to misinformation being disseminated. That’s the case here.
“Carrier” has several definitions and can be used as a noun or an adjective from a grammatical standpoint. However, in aromatherapy just as in medicine, science, logistics and multiple other areas where “carrier” plays a role , it has a very targeted meaning based on function and context as well as syntax. With that in mind, for aromatherapy purposes, a carrier would be defined as “compound or substance serves to act as a mechanism or medium which moves/transports and delivers another substance or compound to an intended location or destination“ That said, they are only “a carrier” (note the above definition) when they are used to transport and deliver another substance, in the case of aromatherapy – essential oils, to their intended location….the skin. Fixed oils also act as a diluent in this case, reducing the concentration of essential oils so they are not at 100% concentrated form and are diluted (hopefully to a safe dermal percentage rate) when contacting with skin. In addition, they also act as a stabilizer and semi-fixative to prevent quick evaporation of the volatiles (essential oils are volatile oils) before they can be absorbed into the skin for therapeutic use. That’s why you will almost always see and hear me refer to them as fixed oils, not carrier oils.
With all that explained and hopefully understood, fixed oils such as FCO, olive oil, sunflower oil, etc. are not the only substances or compounds that can act as “a carrier” for aromatics for therapeutic use. Lotions, creams, balms, salves, body butters, solvents, solutions, and multiple other product types and substances, including “gels” can fill the role and act as a carrier for essential oils as well. Remember the definition of carrier I gave above and think outside of the box you’ve become accustomed to. In aromatherapy, a carrier is not limited to a fatty oil. In aromatherapy, a carrier is any appropriate mechanism or medium that transports and delivers aromatics to its intended destination or location for applicable use. A fixed oil is just the most commonly recognized medium for “carrying” them and multi-functions to dilute and stabilize the aromatics for safer, more effective topical application. Guess what? With the definition above in mind, by all intents and purposes, the water used in an ultrasonic diffuser or nebulizer is also acting as a carrier to deliver the aromatics into the air and our olfactory systems via inhalation through the help of vibrations, ultrasonic technology and the physics principles of thrust. How ’bout that? Pretty cool, I think. Did you have a clue diffusing and diffusers were quite so involved and interesting in principle or function? Yeah, me either until I dug around into the schisms of it a bit.
Now you know way more than you imagined was even a thing about “carriers” and the function and reasoning behind them. Let’s move on.
The confusion and inappropriate spread of wrong information continues with many misunderstanding what “aloe gel” actually is and why many of us specifically note you should use “aloe jelly”, not “aloe gel”.
Technically, aloe “gel” is the “meat” and juice found inside fresh aloe vera leaves. It’s water content fluctuates between 98.5% to 99.5%. Fresh aloe vera gel has many wonderful properties and has reportedly been used for skin care and medicinal purposes for about 3500 years. However, this fresh, straight-from-the-plant gel is not a suitable carrier for essential oils. Oil and water, remember? So please don’t try that at home, boys and girls.
Aloe “jelly”, on the other hand, is the gelatinous product(s) we find sold in bottles and jars for cosmetic and dermal use. It will usually be a thicker consistency ranging from an almost syrup like thickness to very congealed like gelatin we eat. It will be a translucent color or crystal clear and is spreadable like the jellies we love to eat on hot buttermilk biscuits or toast. Most are formulated to somewhat thin and liquefy when we spread it on skin so it spreads more readily. Along with a concentrated and sterilized form of aloe leaf (powder, juice, extract) and water where necessary (such as when powdered aloe vera leaf is used), commercially manufactured and sold aloe vera jelly/gel products will include thickeners (gums, carbomers, polymers), preservatives and sometimes humectants, skin conditioners or other ingredients. The resulting product may be called a “gel” or it may be called a “jelly”. Companies most often call them “aloe gel” because of their gel-like texture and consistency plus it’s a widely recognized product name and type used in the industry and by consumers. For all intents, purposes and product classifications, these are gelled products, thus called “aloe gel”.
More confusion and misinformation ensues with how an aloe jelly/gel product can safely be used as a carrier in some instances and when those “some instances” apply.
Because of these additional ingredients I just described and in conjunction with what a “carrier” is and what it does, a properly formulated aloe “jelly” can be used as a carrier in aromatherapy for some applications and needs. Not all, mind you. But some. These ingredients provide a buffer while helping break up and “scatter” the essential oils with a low or medium viscosity into smaller micro-droplets throughout the water-based medium where they suspend in a type of heterogeneous mixture which can then be used relatively safely on the skin with less risks.
Now, we are not talking about applying essential oils to large area of the body such as full body application or even something like a full back rub when you’ve played too hard and forgotten you’re not 20 years old anymore. More intense issues like this over large areas of the body really need to be guided by a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. It’s important to understand aloe jelly does not dilute essential oils. For diluting, you need a “like” substance meaning water soluble substances to dilute water soluble substance an oil soluble substances to dilute oil soluble substances. To dilute an essential oil, which are classified as “oils” because they are oil soluble, hydrophobic substances, you would use an oil. Specifically a lipid-based fixed oil, anhydrous oil-based product or an emulsified product containing fixed oils (such as lotions or creams). But within limits for smaller areas of skin and localized or spot applications such as a small minor or superficial skin wound, mild skin irritation, bug bites, mild to moderate pain needs and the like…..Yes, you can do that at home with a little knowledge and discretion, considering overall desired effects and risks involved. Larger area or more intense applications should be done only with personalized guidance from a qualified aromatherapist who has the education and knowledge needed to assess the risks vs. benefits involved with the need so a good and safe protocol can be put into place.
Please take heed here. As an outright, across the board replacement for an appropriate fixed oil based carrier, I would not recommend you even remotely view aloe vera gel/jelly in that way. I’ll say again, aloe jelly/gel does not dilute the essential oils. But for some applications and needs at a relatively low and safe percentage of pure essential oil to the aloe gel, it is a viably safe option and in some cases, preferred and recommended by qualified aromatherapists. Oh, while I’m at it….NO, adding a fixed oil to the gel is not a good option. The fixed oil will not mix with the aloe gel nor will it sufficiently suspend in it. Its molecules are too heavy and it will just separate out. In addition, the aloe gel will be useless in this manner for the intention of using aloe gel in the first place, which is to aid in skin penetration or avoiding oiliness. So diluting your essential oils with a fixed oil then adding that to the aloe gel is not advisable or even worth the time. You may as well dilute in the fixed oil and apply that.
Clear as mud? Good.
Now, to address the “which aloe gel should I use” and “what should I look for or avoid when buying an aloe gel” questions. There is no “one” answer to that. There are many good to great aloe jelly/aloe gel products on the market. But ultimately, it boils down to personal preference, what fits your need, your budget and your criteria. While some will tell you to make sure it’s “only aloe vera” with no other ingredients, or to avoid ones with any additives, thickeners, preservatives, ingredients you can’t pronounce or horror of horrors, the dreaded “chemicals”, that is not advice I would even entertain. It’s entirely based on personal opinion and I’m not afraid to go on record saying it is very misguided and uninformed advice. The simple fact is: (1) It’s not an aloe “jelly” product without thickeners and other ingredients necessary to transform a watery liquid into a gel, therefore is not suitable for aroma-therapeutic use as is, and/or (2) It’s not a safely formulated product without sufficient and efficient preservatives. Also, some additives enhance the product and make it better for the skin as well as various intended applications and uses.
To put it bluntly and being direct, without the additives, thickeners and preservatives an “aloe gel” product is not suitable for using in aromatherapy and I dare say, not suitable and safe for any use. If all you see on the label of a product being called aloe vera gel is “100% pure aloe vera”….RUN! Without the ingredients/chemicals you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce , the aloe gel product is most likely low quality or at the least, poorly formulated and just not going to be a safe one to use. It may also be entirely ineffective for this or any other intended use and purpose.
Side note and rant coming in 3….2…..1
Side Note: You likely don’t recognize and can’t pronounce the ingredients because they are the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients (INCI) names. This means they are the Latin names assigned to the ingredients that’s used internationally for global recognition throughout the industry. Not the common names, the Latin names. You probably do not speak Latin, right? You likely don’t even read Latin, do you? Therefore it will not be familiar to you or used in conversation regularly. Easy and radical solution here. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, look it up and research it a little through reliable resources. You may be surprised what those “chemicals” actually are.
Rant: Listen, y’all. I’m going to be as honest and upfront with you on this as I can be because safety and truthful, evidence-based information are priorities I take very seriously. I believe they empower you to make informed choices rather than create an atmosphere of fear, dread and hopelessness or control your behavior by inciting emotions. In my opinion, if a company and brand boasts of being “free from” these ingredients or “chemicals” in their products…any product that requires stability and a shelf-life beyond a few days, then that company/brand is clearly showing us a few things if we’re willing to see them. What are those few things, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. That company/brand is: (a) Questionable in their expertise and formulating skills, clearly not possessing the knowledge required and likely not considering or able to ensure safety and stability of the product, (b) Contributing to and operating out of misinformation and chemophobia, (c) Playing the marketing buzz word game, (d) Labeling their product in a non-compliant manner, omitting ingredients from said label and promotional material for label appeal, out of ignorance of the law or out of rebellion of the law, (e) Hyping the products by cherry-picking for the purpose of influencing customer perception and increasing sales, (f) Have questionable ethics and integrity, or (g) All of the above.
Big national or global brand company. Regional brand and company. Small independent company. Just a seller (not all who sell products are legal companies…there are many hobbyist and DIY’ers selling these days) or a reseller. It doesn’t matter. If they concentrate more on what they do not have, use or do instead of what they actually have, use and do, think about that very carefully and ask yourself why is the “No” more important than the “Yes”. On a more personal, “IMHO” note: If a company or retailer/seller speaks and promotes their products in such a way as to invoke or play on fears, makes unsubstantiated claims or just seems to echo a trend, mindset or current hot topic, that’s makes them part of a large problem in our world today, not a company/brand or person with a solution for a need among a population I can trust and support. Just my two cents worth there. Rant over!
As for aloe gels in particular, I can honestly say most aloe “gel” products on the market that are actually gelatinous aloe gel/jelly are going to be OK for this use. I do, however, recommend a specific retail available aloe gel product to people, offered by a colleague and mentor whom I trust. I’ve put this one to rigorous testing for compatibility, safety and usefulness in aromatherapy myself and feel confident in recommending it. I wrote a review article about it here. This is not the only aloe “gel” product you can use but in my educated and experienced opinion as a professional formulator and a budding aromatherapy practitioner, it is one of the best because of its formula and consistency.
So there you have it. I hope this provides you with useful information and clarity on this topic while answering questions you may have had. In the least, I hope it gives you food for thought. If you would, drop me a comment here or on my Facebook page to tell me what you think and what you learned from this article. It will be most appreciated.
Until next time….ENJOY THE AHHH MOMENTS, Y’ALL!