Babassu Oil

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Babassu oil comes from the seeds of the Babassu palm tree which grows in north eastern parts of the ginormous Amazonian rainforest. The oil is quite similar to that of coconut. Both are rich in medium chain fatty acids which render them suitable for use not only in skin conditioning and hair care, but also to treat a wide spectrum of anti-viral diseases and conditions. Babassu oil has been used by the natives of Amazon rainforest for cooking and to treat wounds and inflammation of the vulva and vagina (often caused by pathogens like candida) and the accompanying vaginal discharge (called as leukorrhea).  



Source

Babassu palm tree is the Attalea speciosa (also called Orbignya phalerata). In some regions of north eastern Brazil, local communities are given autonomy to cultivate and protect these trees and harvest their palms. These trees form the backbone of the lifestyle of local people who number in the millions. It is thus a tree of not just ecological significance but also essential to economic sustenance of local populace. 

Babassu palm tree
Babassu palm tree (Image:Shutterstock)

Extraction of babassu palm (also referred to as babassu coconut) is done by hand, using traditional wooden tools and it is a painstaking process. But it is ingrained in the local culture for centuries, may be even millenia. Palm seeds are then used to expel oil, which is generally not done traditionally but by big oil manufacturing firms. Therefore, it is difficult to get cold pressed babassu oil.  

Color, Taste and Aroma

Babassu oil looks much different from coconut oil. When it melts, it looks pale yellow in color, whereas coconut oil is white. Both of them are translucent. In terms of aroma, cold pressed coconut oil is just something else. It is so aromatic, permeating the air with a medium coconutty aroma. Palm oils are much milder and not so pleasant in aroma. Cold pressed virgin coconut oil can be eaten directly also, as it is quite palatable. But the same cannot be said for babassu.  



Properties

Babassu oil is a premier therapeutic agent because it exerts so many medicinal effects, many of which are a result of its supreme lauric acid content. Lauric acid is a saturated fatty acid which is found in abundance in coconut oil, babassu oil and mother’s milk as well.  

  • Anti-inflammatory – It is used on the skin to reduce redness, burning sensation, pain and swelling. There are two ways by which it works. One is caused by lauric acid metabolites in the body that directly reduce inflammation. Secondly, babassu oil stops our skin cells from releasing signaling molecules called eicosanoids which are mostly anti-inflammatory but some of them are pro-inflammatory. [1] 
  • Nutrient – Babassu oil when taken internally or even when applied topically provides healthy fatty acids like lauric acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid. It boosts energy levels and aids in lowering fatigue.  
  • Anti-viral – Lauric acid has been documented as a treatment for various kinds of viral infections beginning from the common cold to influenzas, herpes and even HIV/AIDS. [2] 
  • Anti-Acne – Lauric acid kills the bacteria Propionibacterium Acnes (P. acnes). This particular bacteria resides in the hair follicles within our skin naturally. But in the years of adolescence, they may go berserk, multiply rapidly and cause acne or support other bacteria that cause acne. Babassu oil or coconut oil, any one of them can be applied on the skin directly to kill off excess P. acnes bacteria.  
  • Anti-fungal – Lauric acid possesses powerful anti-fungal activity against various kinds of fungi, like the Candida (and its various sub-types) and ringworm causing fungus.  
  • Anti-parasitic – It effectively kills an intestinal infection caused by a parasite called as Giardia lambia. The infection, giardiasis leads to abdominal pains, fatigue and associated nausea and even vomiting. Although the efficacy of babassu oil may not be sufficient to overcome an active infestation, but it sure works as a good prevention strategy against some parasitic worms. It prevents our body from getting infested in the first place, which saves a lot of trouble. [2] 

Health Benefits

Babassu oil for Skin Care

The simplest yet most effective use of babassu oil is in the form of a make-up remover. Many a times, oil- based makeup products cannot be effectively removed with water. They leave a residue. Babassu oil can be used to wipe the face. Just add a few drops of babassu oil onto a cotton ball and rub it across the face. Lauric acid and myristic acid in Babassu oil are natural cleansing agents that dissolve away oily products and dirt that sticks onto it. After the oil has done its work, it is best to rinse off with water and wipe dry with a towel. It is handy to keep a small towel separately for wiping off oily products because otherwise your regular towel is going to get oily. 

Babassu oil is also good for massages. It is fairly dense but spreads well and does not leave much greasiness on the skin. It can be worked into the skin similar to coconut oil and kept as is for about 20 minutes. After that, one should take a long shower to rinse off any oil. Babassu oil massage soothes the skin, reduces inflammation and also invigorates the musculoskeletal structure (the bones, tendons, ligaments, muscle fibers, all of it). It is helpful for people who suffer from inflammatory conditions of the skin, mainly eczema, psoriasis and herpes sores.  

Babassu oil aids in relieving the inflammation caused by yeast infections of the female genital region. It is called vulvo-vaginitis. The oil should be massaged onto the genital region and left for about 10 minutes. Lauric acid gets dissolved into the skin and starts killing the candida fungus that is majorly responsible for yeast infections. After the massage, the oil should be washed off with water and then the skin should be made dry. In case of a yeast infection, it is of utmost importance to keep the skin dry by preventing further accumulation of sweat. Since coconut oil is equally rich in lauric acid, that can also be used effectively to counter a yeast infection.  

Babassu oil for Acne

When it comes to an active acne infection, babassu oil shows mixed results. It has a comedogenic rating in the range of 1 to 2, as it moderately clogs pores. It can actually aggravate acne in people whose pores are relatively smaller. However, those whose pores do not clog easily (generally people with larger pores) may notice an anti-acne effect as it kills P. acnes bacteria, cleans off the dirt, dead skin cells and excess sebum, and also reduces the redness and inflammation. Whether or not to use babassu oil for acne is a tough judgement call.  

Comedogenicity ratings are not to be taken very precisely because they are rated by people. Since the maximum comedogenicity of babassu oil is 2, therefore, it is only moderately comedogenic. Comparing it to coconut oil that has a comedogenic rating of 4 (out of 5), it is much safer for people with acne. A workable strategy for using babassu oil would be to apply it on the skin using a cotton ball and then washing it off after about 15 to 20 minutes instead of letting it stay on the skin longer. Healthy fatty acids like lauric acid and myristic acid are absorbed quickly by our skin and the excess oil is wiped off. This further reduces the chances of pores getting clogged. Performing a steam facial also helps to open up the pores further and prevent formation of comedones.  

Babassu oil For Hair Strengthening

A prominent study identified that among coconut oil, sunflower oil and mineral oil, only coconut oil had a positive effect in improving the protein composition of hair shafts. The explanation for this is that coconut oil is made up of medium chain triglycerides (smaller sized fat molecules) that are able to penetrate into hair shafts and bind to the hair proteins, thus strengthening hair by reducing loss of protein from hair. Since babassu oil is quite similar in composition of coconut oil, similar chemistry would imply that it would also strengthen hair shafts. This forms the basis for developing deep conditioning products using babassu oil. [3] 



deep conditioner is excellent for chronically dry hair that may either be naturally dry or may have turned dry due to usage of hair straightening treatments and heated iron rods. A deep conditioner is similar in consistency to a serum and it usually contains added amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) because they are absorbed quickly. A cocktail of healthy natural oils and butters is used as the base. The proteins make hair stronger and the hydration provided by water makes them heavier and reduces frizz. A softening touch is added by oils like babassu which makes the hair easier to comb. A few essential oils like mint oil may also be added to give it a refreshing and cooling aroma. Rosemary essential oil is also sometimes used in deep conditioners as it is one of the few documented essential oils to promote hair growth. A deep conditioner should be used on the hair shafts to rejuvenate and hydrate them. Babassu based deep conditioners are ideal for curly hair that has gone a bit frizzy. It is used as a serum only on the hair shafts after a shower when hair is still a little wet.   

Babassu oil can also be used alone, ideally as pre-shower massage oil for the hair. Take a small amount of water in the palm and wet your hair. This provides the minor amount of hydration that hair need on a regular basis. While you let your hair soak up the moisture (takes a minute or two, not more), heat up the babassu oil as it is solid at room temperature. Do not heat it too much as hot oils may strip off moisture and weaken the shafts. Then take requisite amount of babassu oil and massage it into the hair shafts and then into the scalp as well. Perform the massage for about 3 to 5 minutes. Then leave the oil on the hair for about 20 minutes. After that, hair should be washed off. This simple and quick treatment would boost protein retention in hair shafts and as an additional benefit, help in dissolving out dirt and excess sebum from the scalp.  

Nutritional and Medicinal Information

Palm seeds of almost all the palm varieties are swarming with oil. Babassu oil is solid at room temperatures of about 25 °C as it contains about 85 % saturated fats. Despite this, it was and still is used as a cooking oil in its native region. A detailed breakdown on fats in Attalea speciosa oil highlights its similarity with coconut oil.  

Fatty acid (lipid)  Carbon notation and type  Percentage (by weight of oil) 
Lauric acid  C 12:0 (Saturated fat)  50% 
Myristic acid  C 14:0 (Saturated fat)  20% 
Palmitic acid  C 16:0 (Saturated fat)  11% 
Oleic acid  C 18:1 (MUFA)  10% 
Stearic acid  C 18:0 (Saturated fat)  3.5% 

Source: 4 

Lauric acid steals the center of attention with its myriad therapeutic properties. It is a naturally powerful anti-viral agent. It is metabolized in our body into a compound called as monolaurin. This compound dissolves out the outer membrane of cells that are infected with viruses. [5] Without its protective covering, the cell spills all its contents into the plasma and the virus comes flooding out of its hiding place. Our immune system then has a greater chance of identifying the virus and initiating the process of killing it. For millions of years, viruses have saved themselves from immune response of animals and humans by hiding within body’s healthy cells, hijacking its DNA and using its DNA for the benefit of viruses. Monolaurin is being studied for its role in reducing transmission of HIV/AIDS virus and the hepatitis viruses and also to reduce the viral load in these diseases.  

Topically, babassu oil is effective against fever blisters, genital herpes (which also causes blisters or sores around the genitalia and they are quite painful) and genital warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). If it is used as a cooking oil, then lauric acid is absorbed into our body through a special channel (called as the portal vein) directly to our livers where it is further converted into usable products like monolaurin. This is a faster method of absorption which means oils and foods rich in medium chain triglycerides provide an instant energy. This is why athletes take MCT based supplements. Babassu oil has also been explored as a treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate that leads to loss of bladder control and many other symptoms) using a nanoparticle-based delivery mechanism. [6] 

Myristic acid acts as a cleansing agent and as an opacifying agent (natural sunscreen). Palmitic acid is a powerful emollient (a kind of moisturizer) and so is oleic acid. Stearic acid helps to keep the pH of skin balanced and also plays a role in maintaining the natural lipid (fat based) barrier of our skin that keeps moisture from evaporating.  

Palm oils are one of the few oils to contain the tocotrienol form of vitamin E. Most of the foods that we consume that are rich in Vitamin E contain mostly the alpha-tocopherol form. Actually, Vitamin E comes in many forms and all these forms act as antioxidants in our body by employing different mechanisms. Since Attalea speciosa is also a kind of palm, there is high likelihood of babassu oil containing tocotrienols.  

Side Effects and Toxicity Issues

It is considered a relatively safe oil with minimal toxicity. Only a few people report it as being a mild skin irritant, leading to some skin inflammation. It does not emit any harmful vapors and is quite stable at high temperatures too.  

Buying and Storage

It is important to consider the sustainability of the Amazon rainforest when buying this oil. Unscrupulous exploitation of this tree and many others has led to thinning of the rainforest in Brazil and surrounding countries. Therefore, one should buy from a seller that has an indisputably good reputation for using environmentally best practices in harvesting and producing natural oils. For deriving the most health benefits, one should go for cold pressed babassu oil which is extracted from organically cultivated trees.  

Babassu oil has a very long shelf life because it contains majorly saturated fats which are much less prone to rancidity. Saturated fats do not react with free radicals to the extent that the unsaturated ones do. So, oils like coconut or babassu can stay the same freshness and quality for 2 to 3 years translating into one of the longest shelf lives among oils. It makes sense to buy them in wholesale if you have tried it once or twice and gotten positive results. There are a few good wholesale products online as well. Be on the lookout for products labeled as “refined” oil. Refining could mean anything from a simple filtration to remove some heavy particles to harsher treatments like bleaching or treating with basic reagents (alkali) to reduce some initial acids. Refined oils by virtue of chemical treatment lose some of the vital phytonutrients. For example, the palm oils upon refining lose their carotenoid content. All carotenoids are powerful antioxidants and some of them like carotene as act as vitamin A in the human body.  

References

  1. Effects of babassu nut oil on ischemia/reperfusion-induced leukocyte adhesion and macromolecular leakage in the microcirculation: Observation in the hamster cheek pouch. Maria Do Carmo el Barbosa et al, Lipids in Health and Disease. 
  2. Lauric Acid – WebMD. 
  3. Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. Rele AS and Mohile RB, Journal of Cosmetic Science. 
  4. Babassu Oil – Wikipedia 
  5. Analysis of Monolaurin, Beta- Carotene, Weakened Beta-Carotene and their Antagonistic Properties with HIV: An Exploratory Study, Paul Inbaraj, International Journal of Science and Research.  
  6. Nanostructured systems containing babassu (Orbignya speciosa) oil as a potential alternative therapy for benign prostatic hyperplasia, Valeria Pereira de Souza et al, International Journal of Nanomedicine.  

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