If you’ve visited a beauty salon or spa recently, you’ve no doubt seen personal care products for the hair and skin containing argan oil. Often called “Moroccan oil” as well, this beauty trend isn’t just for vanity – it also has numerous medicinal and cosmetic properties. Containing natural phenols and fatty acids, argan oil is a good daily moisturizer for both the hair and body, and it as been used for centuries for conditions including skin diseases, acne, rheumatism and burns. Consumption of argan oil has also been linked to the prevention of various cancers and heart disease as well as obesity.
A drought-resistant plant, argan trees only produce fruit in the hot, dry conditions of southwestern Morocco. Due to this extremely specific growing area, argan oil is one of the rarest in the world. Its popularity as a beauty treatment in North America has exploded over the past few years despite its higher price tag, and its reputation as a healthy oil has soared as well.
What’s behind this rich beauty treatment? Traveling through the southwestern side of Morocco near Marrakech and the coast, you see sign after sign advertising organic argan oil for sale. Follow them and you’ll find co-ops for producing and selling not only the lush beauty balm, but also argan soap, cooking oils and nut butter. Employing mostly women and often older women, these argan oil co-ops provide jobs for females who otherwise might be hard-pressed to find work outside the home.
Extracting oil from the hard, shelled argan seed isn’t an easy task. After the seed has been air-dried, the thick rind must be removed to expose the fleshy inner pulp; this is accomplished by banging the tough nuts in between two rocks. Each argan seed contains one to three kernels, which are removed and placed aside into a basket. A labor-intensive, time-consuming process, the extraction of the argan kernels can only be done by hand.
Dozens of women sit on the floor alongside the wall in a long cement building, each sitting on a thick pile of blankets and surrounded by a collection of baskets. Paid by the weight of the kernels that they process, the ladies chat with each other but keep up the pace, and the room is a cacophony of banging rocks.
Once separated, the argan kernels are ground and pressed in a traditional stone grinder with a heavy handle. Women take turns at this strenuous task, which produces a thick, brown mash that will expel pure argan oil. This unfiltered oil is then decanted, and fragrances like orange blossom, lavender or amber are sometimes added. The finished product is sold in the form of soap, massage oil, hair oil, face oil, lotion, cooking oil, nut butter and more.
While sitting on the floor and smashing nuts between rocks might not be your idea of a dream job, for many of the women who work at Morocco’s argan oil co-ops, it is a rare opportunity to acquire a steady income. Just as argan oil production improves the social status of women as a whole, argan tree cultivation helps to improve landscape stability by preventing soil erosion and replenishing local aquifers. Numerous agencies exist to encourage sustainable production practices, and today argan oil is responsible for providing jobs for 2.2 million Moroccans.
The bottom line? While this lush beauty treatment is not a budget option, you can purchase it in good conscious. Whether you choose to slather it on your face, use it to condition your hair or spread it over your entire body, you’ll know that your money helps to create jobs, stabilize the environment and improve the socio-economic status of women in Morocco.
Image: Shilo Urban