Babassu Palm

Like many of the wild-crafted organic butters and oils I’ve written about, babassu is intimately tied to women, fair trade, tradition and community. Unlike shea butter, babassu has not yet become a household name. But with the benefits of babassu, there are many reasons to give it a try. Because of the health and prosperity it lends it is considered by many, a Tree of Life.

Babassu Origin and Growth

Like ojon and acai, babassu (Orbignya phalerata in Latin) is a type of palm. Babassu palms grow along the southern and northeastern edge of the Brazilian Amazon. Ironically, it flourishes in economically challenged provinces such as Maranhao. Babassu palm also grows in parts of Mexico and Guyana. The trees grow up to 60 feet tall and occupy almost 29 million hectares of forest. In its native areas, it forms the dominant plant coverage.

A Most Useful Palm

Babassu has more than 35 uses, ranging from attracting game to repelling insects. The leaves of babassu palm are used to create thatch-roof housing, woven mats and to construct walls. The stems are strong and woody, lending themselves to usefulness as timbers. Though it may sound foreign to many, it is well-known in the Amazon of Brazil. Most of its value is derived from the seed kernels within the fruits. The fruit resembles small coconuts and grows in bunches, ranging from a few dozen to hundreds. The mature fruit fall from the tree mainly from August to November but continues into January and February, which is the time the rainy season begins.

The seeds contain the oil that is gaining popularity in the hair-care industry, and is being added to shampoos, conditioners and pomades. Babassu forms a protective, soothing coating on the hair shaft, helping hair withstand diverse weather conditions and direct-heat styling tools while also limiting damage to the hair shaft from coloring or other chemical treatments. The oil leaves the skin and hair feeling velvety and supple.

Babassu has superior emollient qualities (emollients draw moisture from the air, making hair and skin a pliable nature and a healthful glow.) This exotic oil is also used for cooking and to make cosmetics such as creams, soaps, shower gels, powders and body butters. Indigenous and other people use babassu oil (where it grows as a native plant) as a moisturizer. The oil is noted for its light feel and the fact that it is easily absorbed into the skin. It is preferable over heavier oils because of its non-greasy application. Surprisingly, it works as well for oily skin as it does for dry skin because it is an adaptable oil.

The seed kernels are cold pressed to produce the oil; the fruits are wild crafted and organic. Cold pressing means pressure is used to extract the oil rather than chemical solvents, which makes this a very wholesome oil.

Babassu Chemistry 101

The oil is very high in essential fatty acids, which makes it ideal oil for skin and hair. Babassu oil is also high in lauric acid. Lauric acid is very low in toxicity, making it a good choice for use in soaps and shampoos. Lauric acid is solid at room temperature and melts on the surface of the skin or scalp. Babassu oil also contains high concentrations of myristic acid. Lauric and myristic acids draw body heat, lending babassu oil what herbalist call coolant and refrigerant qualities. It cools down the skin and scalp, making it useful in the summer or when using heat appliances on the hair.

Babassu contains a significant amount of oleic acid, which is healthful when consumed. Oils with good concentrations of oleic acid are known to lower blood cholesterol. Like most palms, babassu contains palmitic acid. Palmitate is both antioxidant and a vitamin A compound. Palmitic acid is one of the most common saturated fatty acids.

Fair-trade and The Quebradeiras de Coco (Nut Breakers)

In the late '70s, indigenous people used the babassu palm as a way of defining community. The trees were used to make a stand against loggers and cattle farmers. Loggers were clear cutting babassu palm-rich Amazonian forests as were cattle farmers. The Quebradeiras de Coco are primarily women, and they chanted and performed rituals in the forest to move the loggers and farmers off their trees. Eventually they were successful. Indigenous people in the Maranhao region of Brazil continue to incorporate them into their lives.

Today commercial activity around the babassu palm affects the income of more than 2 million rural Brazilians. Babassu is even used as local currency in some areas. People are allowed to exchange the nuts for goods and services once a week. Women continue to sing, chant and perform ritual around the harvesting and processing of babassu nuts. The women gather and collect the ripened fruit from the ground, placing them in hand-woven baskets. The fruits are gathered and the women crack the nuts open using wooden clubs, sweat and perseverance. Inside the nut is the oil-rich kernel.

Companies such as Aveda and the Body Shop buy the oil directly from indigenous women’s collectives such as COPALJ -- which stands for Cooperative of Agro-extractivist Producers. It consists of a dozen communities in the Maranhao area. The collective handles the collection, pressing of the nuts into oil, and selling the product in the international marketplace. Aveda and The Body Shop have done a great deal to bring babassu, and those who harvest and process it, to the attention of the international community.

Fair trade means the indigenous people, and others working with them, are paid fair market value for their product. In order to be considered fair trade by the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, a product’s sale has to lead to decent working conditions, local sustainability, respect for the local environment and better prices for rural citizens.

The money generated from the sale of babassu oil helps otherwise severely impoverished areas and families gain a viable income. So buying hair or skin care products featuring babassu help improve the lifestyle and living conditions of many people living in Brazil.

Products Containing Babassu

  • Aveda Be Curly Curl Enhancing Lotion
  • Aveda Damage Remedy Shampoo, Conditioner and Restructuring Treatment
  • Aveda Smooth Infusion Shampoo and Conditioner
  • John Masters Organics Hair Pomade
  • The Body Shop Spa Wisdom Monoi Moisture Bath
  • The Body Shop Brazilian Nut Scrub
  • Avalon Organics Ylang Ylang Conditioner
  • Anita Grant Babassu Shampoo Bar
  • Aeto Fortifying Olive, Babassu & Jojoba Oil
  • Nexxus Phyto Organic Babassu Mud Conditioner
  • Epoch Baby Powder
  • Babassu Liquid Powder helps protect baby’s skin and lungs since it doesn’t have the small particulate matter of dry powders. Babassu Liquid Powder is an unscented cosmetic that comes from the bottle as lotion then dries on baby’s skin as an absorbent powder.
  • Do-it-yourselfers will be pleased to know you can buy the oil pure from many online shops to use in hot oil treatments or to make your own shampoo bars or conditioners. A reputable company is From Nature with Love. They sell 16 ounces for about $10, and a gallon of the oil is approximately $40.
  • Many Handmade Soapmakers incorporate babassu oil into their blends, including www.soapdance.com, which features herbal, earthy and karma-enhanced soaps. Also, check out the Handmade Soapmaker’s Guild’s website for other reputable soap makers using babassu oil.