a non-greasy emollient for hair, touted for its ability to add shine and penetrate the hair strandsBaobab 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.
Role of the fatty acids on hair
When botanical oils such as baobab are applied to the surface of the hair, a variety of different things can occur, depending upon the composition of the fatty acids in the oil. Short and medium chain saturated fatty acids such as lauric, palmitic, and stearic have a linear molecular geometry, which permits them to diffuse through gaps in the cuticle layer and to penetrate into the cortex where they can impart suppleness and elasticity to the hair. Spectroscopic studies have also shown that monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid can likewise penetrate into the interior of the hair strands. This can be beneficial for parched hair that has been damaged by the environment. However, it is important to note that hair that is extremely porous can soak up too much of these oils and become limp, greasy, and even frizzy. Frizz occurs because excess fatty acids can swell the hair and cause the cuticle to lift and the surface of the hair to become rough and unruly.
Higher molecular weight saturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are too large and bulky to easily diffuse through the cuticle into the central portion of the hair. They sit on the surface of the hair and form an occlusive film. This seals water inside the hair and also prevents humidity from getting into the hair. The film also reduces static electricity and provides emollient properties, making combing and detangling much easier.
Baobab oil is interesting in that its fatty acid profile is approximately one-third saturated fats, one-third monounsaturated fats, and one-third polyunsaturated fats. Thus, it works to improve softness and elasticity when the saturated fats and oleic acid penetrate the hair shaft, while the polyunsaturated fatty acids on the surface create a film that acts as an emollient and slip-agent, making detangling easier. Additionally, the film adds gloss and shine to your tresses, while maintaining an optimum moisture balance by minimizing diffusion of moisture into or out of hair.
Baobab oil comes from the fruit of the beautiful baobab tree found in Africa, and thanks to women’s co-ops and other trade arrangements, we are fortunate to have the ability to observe its effects on our skin and hair for ourselves. It has significant amounts of Vitamin E in it, an antioxidant that protects hair from environmental damage caused by formation of free radicals. Also, the unique fatty acid profile for this oil means that some of the oils can diffuse into the cortex of the hair and improve its elasticity and suppleness, while the remainder forms a protective film on the surface that adds shine, decreases tangling, and helps to seal in moisture while blocking out humidity. This special combination of properties means that baobab oil should be especially beneficial for fragile hair or damaged hair exposed to a very hot and dry climate, hair damaged by heat styling or chemical processes, hair exposed to humid conditions, and also hair damaged from swimming or activities in the sun.
There are a number of ways you can incorporate baobab oil into your hair care routine. Try applying a few drops to your hair along with your styling products to gain some protection before you go out in the summer heat. You can also add a few drops to some almond oil, warm it up, and do an intense oil treatment to improve the health of damaged hair. Adding a drop to your conditioner may also give you softer locks. Just remember, it is important with oils to not overuse them either in quantity or frequency. A little caution can help prevent excessive absorption of oils into the hair shaft, which can lead to frizzy, limp hair. Removal with a mild shampoo is also essential, as organic oils can build up and make hair appear greasy and weighted down.
Finally, it is important to note that many of the currently available “baobab oil” products are made of predominantly silicone ingredients and which contain very little baobab oil. These products probably will not reveal the full beneficial properties of baobab oil for you, and may cause some unpleasant effects to your curls if used too often. Fortunately, it is possible to obtain 100% pure, cold-pressed baobab oil from reputable vendors to incorporate into your own routine and products.