Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Purity Month | Liquid Gold: Pure Argan Oil

"What does women's rights have to do with argan oil? Well, that's one of the reasons I am so intrigued by it." -- Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor for Healthy Living, Care2.com

[February was named after the Latin term februum, meaning purification. Februa, or Februatio, was the Roman festival of ritual purification based on washing or cleaning, held on February 15 (full moon) in the old lunar Roman calendar. From purification rituals throughout history to the importance of pure substances in science and technology, from the issues surrounding ecosystem purity to the growing interest in pure foods, the concept of purity in its various forms is the focus of Purity Month on 13.7 Billion Years. Have a suggestion? Send an email to 13.7billion@gmail.com.]

The semi-desert savanna of the Sous region in southwestern Morocco is dominated by a tree found nowhere else in the world: the argan (Argania spinosa), a gnarled and thorny tree between 25-30 feet high that lives up to 200 years. And this is the source of an oil that the natural beauty industry has called a miracle oil and "liquid gold."

Goats like to eat the argan's fruit, which has a hard pit that contains one to three small seeds. In ancient times, Berbers collected the undigested pits from the excrement of goats and ground them to produce a nutty oil used for cooking and cosmetics. Today, the fruits, which take a year to mature, are harvested directly and the goats are kept away. (Sometimes, as this photo shows, the goats outsmart the farmers.)

A relict species from the Tertiary age (between 65 million to 2.6 million years ago), the argan is endangered, and Morocco's arganeraie forests—about 3,200 square miles—are part of a protected UNESCO biosphere reserve that has designated 10,000 square miles as an argan-growing region. The sustainable cultivation of the argan tree and the expanding international market for its highly-prized oil drive an ecosystem reforestation project led by the Moroccan Water and Forests Authorities and Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie (UCFA), a fair trade working cooperative staffed by Berber women.

Co-sponsored by the Social Development Agency (SDA) with the support of the European Union, the UCFA shares its profit with the women of the local Berber community. The project's goals are to "allow optimal tree growth, plant argan nurseries, and create education programs," writes Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor for Healthy Living on Care2.com. "The community realizes the value of the argan tree and they are involved with its protection."

The value is derived from its oil, one of the world's rarest vegetable oils. Due to high concentrations of tocopherols (Vitamin E) and carotenes (Vitamin A), it has been celebrated for its supposed support of healthy skin and hair. Used by Berber women for centuries, in recent years argan oil has become a hot beauty product, particularly among consumers who appreciate it's support of a women's cooperative and ecosystem conservation.

"When I first found argan oil, I brought it back to the U.K. to have it analyzed," says Liz Earle, who runs an organic skin-care line in England, according to the New York Times. "It was so remarkably high in vitamin E and had these very interesting phytosterols, which are good for scar tissue and so many other things," adding, "Culturally, what it does is good…It provides income to a group that wouldn’t otherwise have it."

"Even without the beauty claims I think I’d be clamoring for argan oil in support of the cooperatives," says Breyer. "[B]ut as it turns out I think I am beginning to believe the hype. I first tried products featuring argan oil when I tried the Aveda Green Science line—but as much as I love the Aveda products, it was hard to tell what the argan oil was like since it is just one ingredient of many. More recently I have tried pure argan oil from a company called Eden, and boy oh boy is it something else. I have always been a huge fan of using jojoba oil on my skin, and this is even better. It is lustrous and rich, but very quickly absorbed. Now I suppose I’ll have to try it for a few weeks before I notice a difference, but at this point an improvement feels inevitable."

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image: Goats on an argan tree (Argania spinosa) in Morocco. Goats climb these trees to eat their fruit. (credit: marco arcangelli

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