Abyssinian Oil (Crambe Seed Oil)

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Abyssinian oil is a vegetable oil expelled from the Crambe seed which is an oilseed crop. The oil is very rich in erucic acid, just like mustard oil and rapeseed oil. Abyssinian oil was mainly used to obtain erucic acid commercially which was further used as a chemical in industrial applications after the second world war. It is only recently that some cosmetics makers are marketing it as being remarkably good for skin and hair conditioning. However, because of a serious dearth of modern studies conducted on this oil in the field of cosmetic applications, much of what we know is based on its chemical composition. Some of the claims are mere conjecture.

It is mainly useful for skin cleansing, moisturizing and anti-ageing applications. Since it is light in consistency, it is used to style hair and give them a light shine.

Source

Crambe seeds come from a vegetable known as Crambe abyssinica. It belongs to the same biological family as mustard and cabbage. Abyssinica in its name denotes its origin, it is native to the Ethiopian highlands. This flat-topped plateau with its deep gorges was known as Abyssinia in colonial times. Hence Crambe seed oil is known more popularly in the cosmetic industry as Abyssinian oil.

Color and Aroma

It is pale yellow in color. When it is unrefined it has a mild, pleasant aroma to it unlike other oils from plants in the same family. A sharp contrast to its aroma is mustard oil which has a sharp, pungent smell that can make our eyes tear up. However, of the Abyssinian oil on the market is a refined and deodorized product. This does not have any smell and is a much lighter consistency than cold pressed Abyssinian oil.

Properties

Therapeutic effects of Abyssinian oil can be estimated by studying its chemical composition.

  • Emollient – Moderate amount of oleic acid makes for a nice emollient. It aids in moisturization.
  • Regenerative – Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid which is present in Abyssinian oil. Linoleic acid is the predominant fat in our skin cells wherein it plays numerous roles. Most notably, it forms the lipid barrier that saves our skin cells from losing moisture to the environment due to evaporation. And it keeps the skin hydrated. [1]
  • Cleansing – Small amounts of saturated fats like palmitic and stearic acid are useful in cleansing the skin. These fats act as surfactants and dissolve out oily dirt and makeup products that are difficult to remove with water.
  • Mild anti-inflammatory – Even smaller but significant amount of alpha linolenic acid (ALA) would make it helpful in reducing inflammation. ALA is a kind of omega-3 which helps in inflammatory conditions. [1]

Health Benefits and Uses

Abyssinian Oil for Skincare

It is generally used by firms in anti-ageing products. How effective it is at this task is yet to be known. It is possible that some companies are trying to sell this oil off as an exotic oil. But crambe oil is not so exotic as it used to be. Crambe is now a common oilseed crop cultivated on hectares upon hectares in Europe and even in United States and Canada.

Abyssinian oil can be used to effectively remove oily (hydrophobic) makeup at night. Water soluble makeup can be easily washed off with water, but oily products can be tough to cleanse off. A few drops (3 – 4 drops) of a cleansing essential oil (most preferably rose essential oil) can be added to about 30 ml of Abyssinian oil. A few drops of this oil mixture should be poured on a cotton ball and wiped across the face to clean off products. [2] This should not be used for removing eye makeup. For that, one can substitute rose essential oil with rose water.  Many people have a naturally dry skin and soap-based makeup removers leave their skin even drier. For such a skin type, oil-based makeup removal is much more suitable.

Abyssinian oil provides substantial amounts of vitamin E to the skin. It contains the gamma-tocopherol form of vitamin E, which is similar in antioxidant capacity to the more commonly used alpha tocopherol form. Oils rich in vitamin E are anti-ageing as they scavenge the free radicals lurking around to damage our skin cells.

Abyssinian oil for Acne

It has a low comedogenicity rating of 1, which means it has a low tendency to clog pores. [3] It is light in consistency in comparison to heavy oils like almond or Argan but is heavier than characteristic thin oils like those of grapeseed and jojoba. Its usage is less prone to make our pores clog, and thus it can be used for maintaining skin health in acne. However, there is no evidence of Abyssinian oil having strong antibacterial characteristics that can help to fight off the bacterial infection that causes acne. At best it can provide skin rejuvenation which can be attributed to natural vitamin E.

Abyssinian oil for Hair Conditioning

Heavy oils like castor oil, pure sweet almond oil (unrefined) and Argan oil are used as hot oil treatments to nourish the scalp. Abyssinian is more suitable for hair conditioning. It can be used on damp hair after a shower. 5 to 10 drops of the oil are taken in the palm and rubbed along the fingers. Then fingers are to be run into hair shafts. Excess moisture can be dried off using a fan or blow dryer. It has a low density, which makes it spread easily. 2 or 3 drops of oil are enough for adding shine and nutrition to hair. It also strengthens the hair shafts, so they hold style better.

An advantage of Abyssinian oil versus a heavy oil, say Argan oil, is that while heavy oil clamps the hair down, light oils make them oily and shiny without clamping them down. The hair looks more voluminous.

Note– cold pressed Abyssinian oil has high viscosity and is thicker than the refined version. For hair conditioning, refined Abyssinian oil is better.

However, one should not have unreal expectations of Abyssinian oil. It may not be so effective at healing split ends, maintaining curls or reducing frizz to a great extent. Its main advantage is in adding shine to hair without the much discomforting heaviness.

Nutritional and Medicinal Information

Chemical composition of Crambe seed oil reveals its high content of erucic acid.

Fatty acid Carbon notation and type Percentage in oil
Erucic acid C 22: 1 (MUFA, omega-9) 63.77
Oleic acid C 18: 1 (MUFA, omega-9) 15.07
Linoleic acid C 18: 2 (PUFA, omega-6) 13.16
Alpha-linolenic acid C 18: 3 (PUFA, omega-3)
Palmitic acid C 16: 0 (Saturated) 0.88
Stearic acid C 18: 0 (Saturated) 0.53
Behenic acid C 22: 0 (Saturated) 2.14
Eicosenoic acid C 20:1 (MUFA, omega-9) 2.40
Nervonic acid C 24:1 (MUFA, omega-9) 0.99
Lignoceric acid C 24:0 (Saturated) 0.44

Source: 4

Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that cannot be made by our body from other fats. We need to eat foods that contain these fats. Topical application of oils containing omega-3 or omega-6 is also effective at replenishing them because our body absorbs them from the skin into the blood. As a result, oils rich in omega-3 and omega-6 are nutritional. Without these fats, we would suffer from a deficiency disease which is seen on the outside as dermatitis.

Benefits of erucic acid on our skin or hair are not known. As we can see from the table, Crambe oil is exceptionally rich in erucic acid. It is also found in oils of rapeseed varieties, mustard varieties and seed oils of some cruciferous vegetables belonging to this family, like the taramira oil.

Mustard oil has potent antibacterial and chemo preventive properties because of organosulfur compounds like allyl isothiocyanate. There is no data on whether Crambe oil contains any such sulfur rich compounds. If such compounds are found on further research, we would begin to find many more therapeutical applications of Abyssinian oil.

Vitamin E present in Abyssinian oil is mostly in the form of gamma tocopherol. A complete breakdown of vitamin E in this oil is as shown in table below.

Vitamin E form Amount in oil (mg per kg)
Alpha tocopherol 7.67
Gamma tocopherol 125.04
Delta tocopherol 3.99

Source: 4

It also contains phytosterol compounds that are plant derived compounds similar in structure to cholesterol. It contains beta-sitosterol, campestanol and more importantly, brassicasterol. Phytosterols are mostly found in vegetable oils and oily nuts and they provide health benefits like lowering of cholesterol, reduction in inflammation, improved cardiovascular health and many more. [5] Unfortunately, Crambe seed oil is not safe to ingest. Therefore, we cannot avail these benefits of phytosterols. Other nutrients, like vitamin E and fatty acids can be absorbed via the skin, but not the phytosterols.

Physico-chemical properties of Crambe seed oil are as mentioned below.

Relative Density 0.900
Viscosity 175 mPa-second (centipoise)
Saponification Value 175 mg of KOH per gm of oil
Iodine Value 88 gm of iodine per 100 gm of oil
Peroxide value 0.806 milliequivalents per kg of oil

Source: 4

Side Effects and Toxicity Issues

It is not suitable for ingestion. Many countries have banned internal use of oils that are so rich in erucic acid because many years back, erucic acid was found to aggravate heart disease in animals when given in large amounts. However, there are entire communities using oils rich in erucic acid as their primary cooking oil on a daily basis.

Buying and Storage

Currently, it is very costly. Prices should come down as it is not an exotic oil coming from the remote areas of the world, say eastern Siberia or the Amazon or Congo rainforests. Nor is it that there is a low supply of the Crambe vegetable to justify such a high price. It tolerates heat well and can be kept without refrigeration except in countries where summers are too hot. Shelf life is around 1 year.

References

  1. Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health. Linus Pauling Institute at the Oregon State University.
  2. https://francesorganicbeautysecrets.com/2014/01/29/Abyssinianoilskincleanser/
  3. https://www.holistichealthherbalist.com/complete-list-of-comedogenic-oils/
  4. Full Characterization of Crambe abyssinica Hochst. Seed Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society. Stavros Lalas et al.
  5. A review on dietary phytosterols: Their occurrence, metabolism and health benefits. Raphael J. Ogbe et al, Asian Journal of Plant Science and Research.

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