In the desert plains of southwestern Morocco, bordered by the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, a scrubby desert tree holds tenaciously to the chalky, sandy soil. The deeply seated roots of the argan tree actually serve to anchor the soil in place, protecting against encroachment by the expanding aridity of the Sahara Desert to the south.
This same tree is equally deep-rooted in the culture and economy of the region, due to the pure argan oil that has been pressed for centuries from the seeds of the tree’s fruit. And just as the tree itself has staved off invasion by the desert, the production of natural argan oil has assured against encroachment of economic extremity, particularly for women of the region.
Moroccan Argan: A Tree of Tradition
The gnarled argan tree has become so threatened that UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) founded a biosphere reserve and conservation project to protect the tree, along with the socio-economic role it plays among the local population. Several regional and international groups have begun to fund small cooperatives of women, who work together to extract the pure argan oil from fruit seeds, and cooperatively sell or export the oil.
The co-ops are creating security and independence for women who would otherwise have few financial resources. Co-op members now make nearly ten times as much income as they made before joining the cooperative, and the benefits are already being felt by the next generation in the form of health care, education, improved nutrition, and broader opportunities available to the children of these women workers.
Many of the traditional aspects of argan oil production are still retained. The pulpy argan fruit is fed to livestock and the nutshells used for fire fuel. Even the collaborative assembly-line style of collective work fits the traditional model that Berber and Moroccan women have been using for centuries to extract pure argan oil from these fruit seeds.
Processing and Pressing Pure Argan Oil
The process of extracting pure argan oil is still carried out entirely by hand. Because the argan nut boasts one of the hardest nutshells in nature, even machines designed to crack them will fail more often than not. Instead, the nuts are manually with the use of two stones, and the seeds or kernels removed from the interior.
The seeds themselves are then ground into a paste with an azerg (a hand-made type of mill), and water added to make a mixture. By kneading the paste and pressing it with rocks—a process that can take as long as several days—the amber-colored argan oil is gradually extracted. Those familiar with the process generally judge that it takes about thirty hours of work to achieve a yield of one liter of pure argan oil by this traditional method.
Magnifying Yield with Mechanization
In recent years, a mode of mechanical extraction has been developed to make the method more efficient. The practice of cracking the hard nutshells is still undertaken in the traditional manner with hand-held stones, but the oil extraction itself is more easily accomplished by machine. The mechanical process pulverizes the seeds, then presses oil from the powder without mixing water into the paste. This procedure is much faster than kneading the paste by hand, yielding a liter of oil in about three hours of work, compared to roughly thirty by traditional methods.
The resulting oil in some cases is a lower quality, not because the pressing process is inferior to the traditional method, but because the seeds themselves can become oxidized by exposure to air during the time it takes to transport them to a market and then to the processing site. However, the local women’s cooperatives benefit from their on-site location, not requiring any delay for transportation. The fruits can be gathered directly from the trees (or the central nuts collected from the spoor of goats that climb the trees and eat the fruit), and the process of cracking the nuts and pressing the seeds can be undertaken immediately.
Enjoying the Effects of Pure Argan Oil
Once the process of extraction is completed, the oil can be sold in its pure form, or added as an ingredient in the many cosmetic and health products in which it is traditionally used. Popular applications include using argan oil for hair health, for skin moisturizing, and for treatment of various dermatitis disorders.
Argan oil benefits are derived from the oil’s natural composition, consisting of Vitamin E, moisturizing mixtures, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agents, cleansing compounds, and several natural antioxidants. Antioxidants function to fight the effects of aging, reduce the risk of cancer, and reverse cell damage caused by free radicals. Vitamin E is a critical component for growth, maintenance, and repair and regeneration of skin cells and hair cells.
These active ingredients, merged with the medley of moisturizing elements and the infection-fighting abilities of anti-inflammatory and antiseptic agents, combine their characteristics to provide—in this single substance—a comprehensive regimen for overall hair and skin health. These manifold benefits of argan oil, as well as its relative rarity (due to its labor-intensive production and its limited regional source) makes pure argan oil a highly sought-after commodity.
The oil itself is marketed in a number of different forms. Given its all-natural origins, argan oil can be incorporated with confidence into organic or vegan brands of cosmetics, lotions, foundations, facial masques, eye creams, lip balms, sunscreens, perfumes, and other products.
For those who prefer to apply unadulterated pure argan oil to their skin or scalp, the product can be purchased with eyedroppers or pump sprayers for application. It can be selectively applied to treat acne, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, scarring areas, stretch marks, brittle nails and hair, cracking skin on the feet, and any other areas of concern. Just a few drops will go a long way, whether rubbed into the fingernails, combed through the hair, or massaged into the skin. In purchasing and applying pure argan oil, consumers can be assured of supporting a sound social cause, as well as serving their own health.