CBD Carrier Oils: Coconut Oil vs. Hemp Seed Oil
If you’ve got a curious mind, as we do, you’ve likely wondered why we take CBD oil rather than just plain CBD by itself. If CBD is the only active therapeutic compound in a CBD product, why can’t we just swallow a spoonful of it and be done with it?
Well, the body doesn’t really work that way, unfortunately. In order to digest things properly and absorb minerals/nutrients for use, compounds must be broken down and absorbed through the intestinal wall.
While we can absorb CBD by itself, it is much more efficient (up to three times more efficient, in fact) when we ingest it along with a carrier oil. Since cannabinoids from the cannabis plant (like CBD and THC) are fat-soluble (meaning they dissolve in oil rather than water), infusing them in a saturated fat enhances their bioavailability drastically.
But why is CBD oil often made with coconut oil? We all know that hemp (where many CBD oils come from) produces a natural oil from its seeds, so why don’t we just use hemp seed oil instead? The answer comes down to lipids and how the human body absorbs them.
CBD + Coconut Oil = The Perfect Combination
Coconut oil is pretty much the perfect carrier oil for CBD because of its saturated fat content. The way that cannabinoids work molecularly is that the higher the lipid content of the oil they are in, the better and more efficiently they can absorb. Conveniently, coconut oil contains up to 90% saturated fat, as opposed to olive oil and hemp seed oil which only contain around 14% and 11% fat content, respectively.
These lipids come in forms of either medium-chained or long-chained triglycerides and the body transports each type differently through biochemical transporters. Medium-chain triglycerides absorb and break down quickly whereas long-chained triglycerides require certain enzymes to help absorption and breakdown.
Since the saturated fat content of coconut oil largely comprises medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) instead of long-chain triglycerides (LGTs), you don’t need to be concerned about it clogging up your arteries.
In fact, coconut oil is one of the only natural oils that has a high content of MCTs. While these serve as an excellent energy source that is much easier to metabolize than complex carbohydrates or LCTs, they also act as an advantageous carrier for CBD.
Ultimately, the reason why most of the best CBD oils are made with coconut oil as opposed to hemp seed oil is because coconut oil has more saturated fat. Therefore, it can break down and carry more CBD molecules, and ultimately deliver more cannabidiol to our cells for absorption.
Without coconut oil, a large percentage of CBD molecules simply end up making their way to the liver, at which point they’d be treated as waste and simply excreted through urine. This is why you want to select a CBD tincture that uses coconut oil over olive oil or some other type of oil.
The Science Behind Coconut Oil and CBD
A few studies exist on why coconut oil acts as the molecular carrier of choice for CBD. While a lot of the scientific language can be pretty complex and confusing, what the research basically says is that when you ingest CBD in a high-fat oil (like coconut or pure MCT oil), you’re getting the maximum possible absorption.
Here’s how it works: lipids (the scientific word for fats) stick to the walls of whatever internal transport system they’re traveling through. Think about our blood vessels, for instance: you’ve heard of clogged arteries and plaque buildup that causes heart disease. Well, this is due in part to high amounts of bad fat in the system. These lipids stick to the artery walls and do not break down easily (metabolize), so they just sit there and accumulate.
Good saturated fats, on the other hand, actually absorb very quickly and easily directly through the intestinal wall. One type of good fat is medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), like those that occur naturally in coconut oil.
Since lipids can absorb directly through the intestinal walls instead of passing through the entire digestive system, a fat-containing substance like coconut oil can maximize the bioavailability of CBD. Scientifically, this is referred to as intestinal lymphatic transport.
Lymphatic transport is crucial when taking certain medications (CBD included). It means these medications avoid the liver breaking them down. If CBD enters the liver, it metabolizes it into smaller components. At this point, it becomes less efficacious in terms of its therapeutic or pain-relieving potential.
On a side note, this is also why liposomal transport is used to deliver certain medications. It allows them to pass directly into cells through the gut lining. Some companies are already experimenting with CBD liposome capsules for maximum absorption.
Final Thoughts on Why CBD Is Made with Coconut Oil
To be clear, not all CBD oils are made with coconut oil. There are plenty out there that are infused in olive oils or natural hemp seed oils, and they do indeed work just fine – depending on how their manufacturers extract and process them.
All fat-containing oils, like coconut oil, provide for the maximum absorption rate of CBD into the body’s cells, by allowing it to pass directly through the intestinal wall instead of entering into the liver.
As you’ll find if you end up using CBD frequently, many of the best CBD oils and tinctures are infused in a quality coconut oil or MCT oil. However, just like with anything else related to your health and body, we encourage you to work with a cannabis-knowledgeable physician or PCP before trying any type of cannabis or CBD product.
Why is CBD oil made with coconut oil? Well, there are a few reasons. Here we explain why coconut oil is (usually) better than hemp seed oil.
Carrier Oils for CBD: How to Choose the Best One
Lana Butner, ND, LAc, is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist in New York City.
If you’ve ever used a CBD oil, you’ve gotten more from the product than just cannabidiol (CBD). For multiple reasons, manufacturers need to put CBD into carrier oils. You should always check the label of your CBD product and know what’s in it.
Many carrier oils are similar, but they may have differences that are important to you for various reasons. Most of them are nut-based or plant-based oils that some people may be allergic to. Others might not taste good to you or, depending on how you’re using the CBD, might irritate your skin.
CBD is an abbreviation for cannabidiol. It’s one of 100+ chemicals in the cannabis plant that may have health benefits.
Benefits of CBD Carrier Oils
You can find CBD products using a bunch of different carrier oils, sometimes alone and sometimes in combinations. They serve several important functions.
One key reason for using a carrier oil is that they improve the bioavailability, which means they help your body absorb the 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, and then the oil carries the CBD into the proper tissues so they’re more accessible by your body.
CBD is a potent chemical, which means you don’t need much of it for a medicinal effect. However, that poses a problem when it comes to dosing. To deliver appropriate 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 may have health benefits all on their own, which you may then benefit from. 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 into your CBD regimen is one way to get slightly more. (It’s debatable whether one or two droppersful a day is enough to have any tangible impact on your health.)
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% Δ-9-THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the chemical in marijuana that gets you 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 taking certain medications. Always check with your doctor before adding anything to your treatment regimen—even a “natural” product like CBD in a dietary 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 skin reactions to sun exposure. Be sure you’re familiar with the potential side effects of whatever products you’re using.
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 it’s normally safe to eat, such as nutmeg.
Essential oils are sometimes 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 for side effects, as well.
Common Carrier Oils
Some CBD oils may contain one or more carrier oil. Any number of carrier oils are in use, but some are more common than others and have better-known safety profiles, as well.
Some of the most popular carrier oils are:
- Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Olive oil
- Avocado 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.
Medium-chain triglycerides are a type of fatty acid that your body can quickly absorb because it doesn’t have to break them down via digestion before sending them off to the lymph system. It also absorbs easily through the skin.
Long-chain triglycerides require more digestion time and short-chain triglycerides are often consumed by gut bacteria before they’ve had time to be absorbed, so MCTs are the most useful.
- 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
- Temporary digestive side effects in some (nausea, gas, diarrhea, vomiting)
- Possibly, 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:
- Help with weight loss by reducing your appetite, increasing metabolism, and making your body burn calories faster
- Have benefits for people with autism, epilepsy, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease
- Activate the immune system to fight yeast and bacterial overgrowth
While promising, much of this research is preliminary and more work is needed before MCT oil can be recommended for these uses.
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 MCT.
Hemp Seed Oil
They come from the same plant, but hemp seed oil (sometimes called hemp oil) and CBD oil aren’t the same things. CBD comes from the flower while hemp seed oil, as you probably guessed, 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.
That makes it a common choice for “full-spectrum” products, which contain all of the component chemicals of the hemp plant rather than just CBD.
- 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
- 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 not be to your liking
- Side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, throat irritation, slow heart rate, high blood pressure
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.
- Due to anti-inflammatory abilities, it may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
- It may improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Used topically, hemp seed may reduce acne and other conditions involving skin inflammation.
Olive oil is probably the carrier oil you’re most familiar with and 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.
- High in iron, vitamin K, vitamin E
- Rich in antioxidants
- Highly researched
- Absorbed by skin even faster than MCT
- 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
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 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 find it in products meant to be ingested, as well.
- 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
- 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 only been performed on animals. It’ll need to be studied in humans to determine whether it’s a safe and effective treatment for any condition.
Preliminary evidence suggests it may:
- Lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, which decreases your 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. Its slow drying time may help it last longer than some topical preparations, as well.
Avocado allergies are possible. If you experience itching in your mouth after ingesting avocados or avocado oil, don’t ingest any more and talk to your doctor about it.
Some allergies tend to occur together. People with avocado allergies may also be sensitive to:
- Other fruits and vegetables
This is called oral allergy syndrome. If you have an allergic reaction to any of these things, you should be tested for a reaction to the others, as well.
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.
A Word From Verywell
It’s hard to say which CBD carrier oil is the best—it depends on multiple factors, including the type and uses of the CBD product, whether you have allergies or certain conditions, and your personal preferences.
If you try one you don’t like, you can always try a different one. The most important thing is that you’re making informed choices about what you put in and on your body.
Your doctor is an excellent resource for helping with these decisions, and it never hurts to run it by your pharmacist to make sure the product you’re considering won’t interfere with any of your medications.
CBD oils contain a carrier oil that impacts absorption and helps with dosing. You should know the benefits and possible side effects these oils offer.