Hard Nut to Crack: Beauty and Antioxidant Oil

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In Morocco, argan oil is used to dip bread in at breakfast or to drizzle on couscous or pasta. World-wide, it’s gaining a reputation both as an ingredient in high-end, personal-care products and as a heart-healthy gourmet product.

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Where argan oil comes from: the fruit of the argan tree.

The golden-colored oil, extracted by hand from the fruit of a thorny tree that grows in southwest Morocco, soothes rough skin and gives hair a nice shine, dermatologists say. But while some argan-oil cosmetic products are marketed as anti-aging, there is no evidence it slows signs of growing older.

When ingested, preliminary studies suggest the nutty-flavored oil may have heart-health benefits comparable to olive oil. The data are “encouraging” says Michael Miller, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Preventive Cardiology in Baltimore, but “the jury is still out” on its health benefits.

To make argan oil, Moroccan workers—mostly women—peel the outer layer of the tree fruit then pound its inner nut with a rock to extract kernels, from which the oil is extracted. When the oil is destined for consumption, the kernels are roasted before pressing to add flavor, says Zoubida Charrouf, a professor of chemistry at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, and president of a nonprofit association that helps start women’s cooperatives to make the oil.

Companies say argan oil’s nutrient-rich composition—including vitamin E and an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid that has anti-inflammatory properties—makes it healthy for the skin.

It makes sense antioxidants could protect skin from sun and free-radical damage when absorbed by the skin, dermatologists say, but some argue it’s unlikely antioxidants in argan oil will penetrate deeply enough into the skin to have a benefit.

“Oils don’t get past the surface of the skin. They just sit there,” says Yale University dermatologist Lisa M. Donofrio. Some formulations with argan oil may contain chemical “carriers,” which help the oil penetrate, she adds. Amal Oils says argan oil penetrates the skin naturally.

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The amount of oil used in personal-care products—ranging from face masks and shampoos to make-up and shaving creams—can vary from just a trace to a substantial amount.

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In another study, published in 2005 in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, Moroccan researchers fed 60 male student nurses either olive oil or argan oil with toast for breakfast for three weeks. At the end of the study period, blood samples were taken and both oils worked about equally to stimulate activity of an enzyme believed to protect against oxidative damage that can lead to heart disease.

The study provides initial evidence that argan oil is “in the same ballpark” as olive oil for heart health, but there is no proof it’s any better, says the University of Maryland’s Dr. Miller.

Road Test

In an informal taste test, Tree of Life culinary argan oil, which has 40 calories a teaspoon, had a rich, pleasant nutty flavor.

I also tried bothTree of Life’s pure argan oil on my skin and the Kahina brand from Giving Beauty, which costs $36 for a one-ounce bottle. Both oils felt non-greasy and left my skin feeling softer. A control test with extra-virgin olive oil also resulted in softer skin but it felt heavy and greasy.

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