a non-greasy emollient for hair, touted for its ability to add shine and penetrate the hair strands
Baobab oil is one of several fruit-derived oils and butters that women’s co-ops and fair trade practices are helping to make readily available outside of their native regions, where they have been appreciated for their nourishing and protective properties since ancient times. With the surge in popularity of all things natural, it is not surprising for various oils to enjoy preferred status as those of us in the west get acquainted with these ‘new’ exotic ingredients. Coconut oil, shea butter, and argan oil have all been readily welcomed by consumers, both as stand-alone topical treatments for hair and skin and also as ingredients incorporated into finished products.
As a relatively recent arrival to the marketplace in the US and Europe, baobab oil is rapidly making its way into this highly-valued family of natural ingredients. It is touted for its effectiveness as a non-greasy emollient for hair, for its ability to add shine, and for its ability to penetrate the hair strands, where it can add elasticity and suppleness. There are also anecdotal reports of baobab oil helping to eliminate dandruff and reduce environmental damage to the hair. So what exactly is baobab oil? Can it live up to the claims? How does it differ from some other popular botanical oils?
Baobab oil is obtained from the baobab tree (Adansoniadigitata), an indigenous species found throughout the hot, arid regions of the African continent. This tree is sometimes referred to as the “upside-down tree”, in reference to its distinctive shape, with its extremely large trunk and relatively spindly, root-like branches of its crown. The gigantic trunks serve as water storage structures for the trees, a feature which enables them to survive the harsh annual drought seasons to which they are subjected. The trees, which can live to be hundreds or even thousands of years old, are iconic symbols of the glorious landscapes of Africa. Baobab trees have been highly valued since early human history for their delicious fruit, which is high in moisture, vitamin C, and other nutrients. The seeds of these large fruits are the source of the precious oil, which is used for cooking, as a skin emollient, and as a hair moisturizer.
To obtain an organic, unrefined product, a cold-press method is used to extract baobab oil from the seeds. This maintains the quality of the oil by preserving the molecular structures of its fatty acids. Like other naturally-derived oils, baobab is comprised of a mixture of fatty acids and vitamins, including vitamins E and D, saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Vitamin E (α-tocopherol) is a fat soluble substance found in many botanical oils, including baobab. This vitamin is very beneficial both when ingested and when used topically, because it is a highly effective anti-oxidant. Its molecular structure allows it to absorb energy from the environment that would ordinarily initiate formation of free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species), which can cause oxidation and spoilage of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Free radicals can also do substantial damage to hair and living tissue. In this manner, vitamin E helps preserve the oil and also can help minimize UV, pollution, and thermal damage to the hair and skin when applied topically.
The fatty acid profile in baobab oil is somewhat unique in that it contains relatively equal proportions of saturated to monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fat. It is perhaps most similar to almond oil, mango butter, and cocoa butter, but really is pretty distinctive. Depending upon where the tree is grown and the specific soil and climate conditions in the area, the fatty acid composition will vary somewhat.