Curly expert Jonathan Torch waxes poetic when he describes the benefits of jojoba.

“Jojoba is an amazing ingredient for hair as it will moisturize very naturally,” says Jonathan Torch of Toronto’s Curly Hair Institute, who plans to launch a finishing product in the spring next year that contains jojoba for shine.

“I have found that jojoba oil blends with the hair so efficiently that it should replace the use of silicones in cosmetics," explains Torch, who has been researching jojoba for nearly two decades. "Jojoba has a very tiny molecule so it creates a shine that is non-greasy, and to find a lubricant that is non-greasy is difficult to do."

Many plant extracts are sprinkled into moisturizing hair care products for people with curly and kinky hair. But only one plant has a seed oil that is remarkably similar to the oil produced by human sebaceous glands -- jojoba (also known by the scientific name, simmondsia chinensis).

Check the package of a botanical beauty product and there’s a good chance you’ll find jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-ba) listed as an ingredient. It doesn’t take long to understand what all the buzz is about.

Jojoba plants, which look like woody bushes, are native to California, southwest Arizona, and northern Mexico. During the early 18th century, Native Americans discovered the healing properties of jojoba (which is actually a liquid wax -- not an oil) for wounds and insect bites, as well as for softening and preserving animal hides.

Native American tribes tried to cultivate the desert shrubs and make them economically viable back in the 1930s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering the prospects of commercial farming of jojoba. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the commercial production of jojoba really took off in the United States. At the time, there was a ban put in place on hunting sperm whales, which were sought after by the beauty industry for their natural oil. Recognizing that jojoba extract is similar to sperm whale oil, the industry then turned its attention on the plant.

In the 1990s, as its popularity grew internationally, jojoba plants were also being cultivated in Argentina, Israel, Peru and Australia — all countries with appropriate climates for the plants to thrive. Although they can survive steamy temperatures, scorching heat can harm the plants. In extremely cold climates, frost also can wreak havoc on the plant’s flowers. This is critical considering it can take up to three years for flowers to bloom after planting a jojoba seed.

Coffee beans, left, are similar to but smaller than jojoba seeds.

The flowers from the female plants, which are pollinated by male plants, transform into hardened capsules with the coveted seeds tucked safely inside. As the seeds grow, the capsule dries in the sun until it breaks open and the mature seeds fall out. If you were to see them on the ground, you may mistake them for coffee beans — although jojoba seeds are larger and vary in shape and size.

The extract from jojoba seeds contain what are known as alpha, delta, and gamma tocopherols — which are all forms of vitamin E — so the high interest in finding more cosmetic uses for jojoba is not surprising.

John Davis, co-founder and director of AG Hair Cosmetics, points out that jojoba also contains vitamins A and D, and it’s a natural antioxidant.

“Jojoba acts as a humectant on the hair and scalp by sealing it to prevent moisture loss,” Davis says. “All hair types will benefit from jojoba but hair that is dry and damaged will benefit the most, as jojoba coats and seals the hair cuticle. This maintains moisture balance, essential for healthy hair. Jojoba also smoothes the hair and protects it from damage caused by brushing and combing the hair.”

Dr. David Cannell, vice president of research and development for Redken, adds that jojoba is also nourishing because it’s rich in fatty glycerides.

“Glycerides are softeners and emollients for dry hair particularly and are hydrophobic (water-hating),” Cannell explains. “By helping to restore natural emollients on the surface of the hair, you improve shine, softness and help control frizz.”

Back in Toronto, Torch has been on a mission to create a finishing product that shines without silicones. He thinks jojoba is the answer. Although he has found nothing in his research to indicate that jojoba structurally repairs hair like silk amino acids do, the cosmetic benefits of jojoba are incredibly promising.

“I’m having quite a lot of success using jojoba,” Torch says. “It’s amazing.”

Jules Nachtigal, vice president of research and development for Conair, agrees that jojoba adds a healthy luster to hair, and it works especially well on dry tresses.

“Jojoba is an ingredient which can add moisture and help lubricate the hair shaft,” Nachtigal says. “In this respect, it is quite beneficial in assisting and maintaining curl formation.”

Meanwhile, Christo of New York’s Christo Fifth Avenue salon recommends jojoba only for the scalp. “It's only use as a treatment by itself would be to manage a dry, flaky scalp,” he says.

Lisa Saul, owner of Atlanta’s EcoColor salon and hair color products, has been using jojoba on her clients, and in her hair color products, for the past 15 years.

“Before every haircut in our salon we do a scalp massage with jojoba oils and essential oils to remove build up on the scalp, and essential oils have therapeutic qualities,” Saul says. “We also use jojoba to do moisturizing treatments under the dryer for people with textured hair.”

Curl guru Lorraine Massey of New York’s Devachan Salon is also developing a hair cleansing gel and a body-care product line that incorporates jojoba, as well as other botanical extracts. It will be available by summer in 2007.

“Jojoba has no color, odor and has an amazing shelf life," Massey marvels. "It's amazing in its properties. The word ‘job’ in ‘jo-job-a’ is not in there for nothing!”

Some Products Containing Jojoba

Cutler Intensive Conditioner Greenridge Herbals Jojoba Shea Hair ButterHobaCare Jojoba Jessicurl Oil Blend Jessicurl Too Shea! Extra Moisturizing Conditioner Curl Junkie Curl Rehab Curl Junkie Guava & Protein Deep Fix Reparative Conditioner Curl Junkie Hibiscus & Banana Honey Butta Leave-in Conditioner Mixed Chicks Leave-in Conditioner Miss Jessie's Curly Buttercreme Miss Jessie's Baby Buttercreme Ojon Ultra Hydrating Shampoo Ojon Ultra Hydrating Conditioner Ojon Hydrating Thickening Shampoo Ojon Hydrating Thickening Conditioner Fairy Tales Super-Charged Detangling Shampoo Fairy Tales Detangling ConditionerMyHoneyChild Olive You Deep Conditioner Hair Rules Nourishment Leave In Conditioner Ecco Bella Hair & Scalp Therapy Wen Sweet Almond Mint Oil Wen Fig Oil Crabtree & Evelyn Jojoba Oil Conditioning Shampoo & Conditioner Mill Creek Jojoba Shampoo Paul Mitchell Shampoo One Phytologie Phytojoba Shampoo Lanza Hair Repair Protein Plus Shampoo Jason Jojoba Conditioner TÇB Hair Food Crudoleum Hair Conditioner Herbal Essences Replenishing Shampoo for Dry Damaged Hair Cafe Earth Dry Hair & Scalp Treatment Nature's Gate Natural Jojoba Shampoo Bumble & Bumble Alojoba Shampoo and Conditioner Organic Root Stimulator Jojoba Oil Bumble & Bumble Grooming Creme Redken All Soft Addictive Hair Transformer Lush Rehab Natural Shampoo Nexxus VitaTress Biotin Shampoo Queen Helene Jojoba Hot Oil Treatment