07 February 2011

For the fountain of (natural) youth, look no further than sustainable Moroccan argan oil

Upon first glance, the thorny, twisty-trunked Argan tree (Argania spinosa) – with its gnarled foliage and permanently wind-swept look isn’t what one might regard as a supermodel species. Between the lines, however, a treasure lies in wait, a fact that Morocco’s foraging goats know all too well. The tree, also known as “ironwood," bears olive-shaped fruit during the summertime that are so irresistible to the hoofed critters that they happily perch on its branches -- which often soar up to 35 feet in the sky – just to dine on their fleshy exterior.

This wacky spectacle is memorable in and of itself, however, local Berber farmers have been known to kick things up a notch (yeahhh, let’s make that several notches) by going where very few would dare – tracking herds during their feasting process simply just to obtain the interior argan nut that the goats are incapable of digesting. You know what that means, right? Mmm-hmmm. Whether vomited immediately or passed slowly but surely through the digestive tract, these incredibly dedicated souls manually retrieve the nuts with the express purpose of cracking their impossibly hard shells and accessing the oil-laden seeds within.

All that for a nut?!?! If you think that the commitment of Morocco’s farmers is unparalleled, it turns out that stalking goats is just one of the many steps required to take the nut from its raw form into a viable liquid gold. Of course, now that the global cosmetic industry has caught wind of Argan oil’s beautification and anti-aging properties, there’s clearly a lucrative method to their madness, and they’re not the only ones benefiting.

Not too long ago, experts feared that the Argan Tree would meet the fate of countless other plant species pushed beyond the brink by excessive harvesting, agricultural farming, and its use as a fuel source. Sadly, efforts to propagate the tree in other global regions have failed, so it’s crucial that the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserv – a relatively small 25,900 square kilometer forest situated between the Atlantic and the Atlas Mountains (that just 100 years ago was twice as large) – is protected. Perhaps now that a mini-Argan oil industry has taken root, its future will be a lot brighter.

Government-established fair trade female cooperatives are also reaping the benefits. While the Argan oil extraction process is undeniably labor intensive -- requiring that workers hand-crack each nut between stones, roast the interior seeds, grind them into a paste, and finally hand-squeeze the mixture in an effort to sufficiently draw the oil completely out – the steady work enables women to offer their families a far better quality of life than was previously possible, including access to education and health care. Furthermore, the Argan nuts are sustainably harvested, with every by-product – including ‘waste shells’ – used for practical applications such as household fuel.

So, just how super-duper is this oil, you wonder? Containing a rich, comprehensive blend of nutritionally beneficial unsaturated fatty acids, carotenes and vitamin E, Argan oil has long been a nutty-flavored culinary staple for ages, but it’s also reputed for its ability to restore the hydro-lipid layer of skin and hair to their former lustrous glory. Here are just a few of the beauty benefits of this surprisingly light and quickly absorbing oil:

  • Restore elasticity to your complexion and reduce the appearance of lines associated with aging.
  • Combat facial blemishes, scars, burns and various other unwelcome skin conditions.
  • Use in place of conventional moisturizers to restore moisture to facial and body epidermis.
  • Rejuvenate chemically processed hair, temper split ends and make tresses look shiny.
  • Treat notoriously brittle nails and cuticles.
  • Got stretch marks from weight fluctuation? It makes them look less obvious, too.
Known as one of rarest oils in the world, roughly 12 to 20 hours of manual labor are necessary to create one precious liter, so prices are understandably high but various sources suggest that even when applied sparingly, the user benefits tremendously. If you're interested in giving it a whirl, several manufacturers sell a certified organic version of 100% Argan oil, including:
I recently purchased a small bottle at my local health food store and while it's far too early for me to comment on its real-world benefits, I've got to say that my face and hair have slurped it right up without there being evidence of any oil slick behind. Personally, I'm not looking for the fountain of youth (okay, maybe just a little), but I really do like the idea of using a pure plant-based emollient that helps to sustain a far-off ecosystem and its surrounding people (rather than slathering on a bunch of chemicals cooked up in a lab). How about you?

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/9796108@N07