Argan oil is synonymous with Morocco, and no trip to this gorgeous country is complete without learning about -- and buying -- some of this liquid gold for yourself. The health benefits of argan oil are famous the world over, driving up the demand -- and consequently the prices -- of this unique product. Here’s what you need to know before investing.
What Is Argan Oil?
Argan oil, cold-pressed from the seeds of the deciduous argan tree fruit (Argania spinosa), is endemic to southwest Morocco.
Argan oil has two primary uses. The most common is in cosmetics (especially products for hair, skin, and nails), and the other is for cooking. Don’t mix the two up. You shouldn’t eat cosmetic argan oil, although you could use the culinary oil for massaging into your skin.
The main way to tell the two apart is by the color. The seeds for cosmetic use, which are not roasted, give the oil a transparent, bright-yellowish straw color, whereas culinary argan oil -- made from the roasted seeds -- has a deeper golden-yellow color that borders on brown and looks cloudy.
Cosmetic argan oil is normally packaged in small bottles appropriately labeled in Morocco with the French word Cosmetique, or a similar locally used name.
How Is Argan Oil Made?
In Fes, we treated ourselves to the best shopping in the Medinas of Morocco, an experience that involved our guide taking us to a pharmacy where we were shown how local women make cosmetic argan oil.
Firstly, the nuts are harvested. They look like small, dark pebbles. The process to open the nut is rather basic by today’s technological standards. The women take sharp stones and bang into the nuts with enough force to crack them open. The process is repeated for each nut, making this process labor-intensive and time-consuming -- which accounts in part for the high price tag seen on argan oil products. Next, the tiny kernel inside the nut -- which looks somewhat like an almond, just smaller -- is removed. At this stage, I wouldn’t suggest you eat them -- and I’m speaking from experience. They taste sweet at first but then turn bitter in your mouth.
The next part of this manual process is to hand grind the kernels. This separates the oil out, leaving behind a tacky brown residue. The residue is commonly made into soap, although I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase it again -- it doesn’t lather up like you’d expect and is a little difficult to manage in the shower due to its lack of form.
Today, local women’s cooperatives have been set up throughout southwest Morocco, enabling the profits to be shared between the women and keep alive the knowledge of how to process argan for oil.
In former times, goats used to be an important part of the oil-making process. Given their tough-to-open outer shells, the nuts were sought after in the goat poop. Through the magic of goat digestion, the shells of the nuts become easier to open, and processing started from there.
These days, the demand for argan is too great to wait for the goats to do their business, but in some places, the traditional goat-poop process is still in place. Want to know more about it? Read up on the incredible story of tree-climbing goats in Morocco.
How Expensive Is Argan Oil?
We purchased our culinary argan oil (more on that below) through a Moroccan friend who knows people in a village where it is hand made. He placed the order and we waited for three days (another indication that it was the genuine thing). Our one-liter stash, which arrived at our motorhome door in Taroudant in a reused plastic bottle, set us back 220 dirham -- just over $20 USD.
As a comparison, similar culinary-grade argan oil sells for $119.96 USD per liter on Amazon, so we got a deal!
If you’re in Morocco and you want the real stuff, then ask a local for a recommendation and expect to wait a day or two -- or even three -- for it to be especially made for you.
While in Fes, we purchased a 75-milliliter bottle of cosmetic “liquid gold” at a cost of 120 Dirham ($12 USD), making this a whopping $160 USD per liter! I have seen reports where the price is as high as $263 per liter! Compare this to your regular moisturizers, and you get a feeling for the price.
Why Is Argan Oil So Expensive?
Argan oil is known to be one of the most expensive oils in the world. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought after for culinary and cosmetic purposes.
There are three main factors that make argan oil so expensive.
First, the trees have, until recently, only been grown in one region of one country in the world: Morocco.
Second, the extraction is a time-consuming, hand-production process. Modern-day machines have yet to replace the labor-intensive, delicate techniques required to extract this liquid gold.
Third, the properties of argan oil’s unique elixir have created an unprecedented demand from the rich and famous as they search the world for anti-aging serums. More and more cosmetic companies are including argan oil as an ingredient in their products, putting huge pressure on the limited available oil supply.
How To Use Argan Oil
As mentioned above, there are two primary uses for argan oil. Many people know about the cosmetic use, however, the culinary use of argan oil is more limited, due in part to its short shelf life.
Packed with rejuvenating vitamin E and full of rich antioxidants, fatty acids, and other compounds that help hair, skin, and nails glow, argan oil is reported to promote youthfulness and beauty. It apparently started as a hair product you couldn’t do without. I’ve tried it twice, unsuccessfully, in my hair as a conditioner, so the jury is still out for me when it comes to this particular use. It is suggested for use as a leave-in conditioner. I don’t like the greasy look or feel, so traditional conditioner has my vote, for now.
Argan oil is popular with women who prefer using natural, organic substances on their skin instead of artificial chemicals or more-processed products.
Pure argan oil glides on easily, is light on the skin, and is absorbed into the pores to give a glow like no other. It is suggested for use as a night moisturizer before bed to help reduce wrinkles, especially around the eyes.
Sufferers of sensitive skin can enjoy the healing properties of this all-natural oil. For those with olfactory sensitivity, the argan oil scent disappears within a few minutes of being applied to the skin.
Finding ways to eat this liquid gold wasn’t so easy. Our Moroccan friend suggested we eat it every morning with breakfast. I’ve drizzled it on top of peanut butter on my toast, which is delicious, but I wanted to find a healthier way to consume argan oil, so it was time for some research.
I can highly recommend making a traditional Moroccan dip called amlou. This is a blend of roasted ground almonds, honey, and salt, which turn into a dip or paste that you can spread on fresh Moroccan bread known as khobuz -- and one of the tastiest foods to try in Morocco.
You can also dip bread straight into the oil itself, although I found the flavor to be a bit strong to my tastebuds.
Apparently, it is awesome when added to tagines or other savory dishes, and I’m still experimenting with this.
I have, however, made date and walnut balls using argan oil in place of coconut oil, and these are particularly scrummy. They are relatively healthy with no added sugar and just a few ingredients. Great for a sweet snack after dinner.
In order to prolong the shelf life of culinary argan oil, place it in the refrigerator with a pinch of salt. The oil will harden but turns back to its liquid form after sitting on the counter for a short period of time.
Eating a small amount of argan oil daily is said to provide anti-aging effects and to help keep your skin hydrated and smooth.
What Does Argan Oil Taste Like?
As best I can describe it, this oil has a toasty, roasted, nutty flavor, much like sesame seed oil but not as strong and without the bitter aftertaste.
What Does Argan Oil Smell Like?
Culinary argan oil has a mild nutty aroma (some identify it as a smell of popcorn or a rubber band). I liken it to a rich roasted nutty scent with buttery notes.
The cosmetic oil has a much milder scent compared with its culinary sister, making it suitable for those with sensitivity to strong smells.
The best-quality argan oil should be non-deodorized. The deodorization process removes the argan nut’s scent along with many important nutrients that make the oil so sought after in the first place.
How To Identify Real Argan Oil
Smell the oil to ensure you can pick up its unique scent. If it smells like sunflower oil or paprika, it is not the genuine article. Likewise, if it is odorless, walk away.
When purchasing cosmetic argan oil, ensure that there is only one ingredient: 100 percent argan oil (Argania spinosa kernel oil). It should contain no preservatives, no fragrances, not even water. Anything mixed with it will degrade the effects of the oil.
As a completely natural product, this oil will absorb into your skin. Try some on your hand and wait 30 minutes or so. If it has absorbed into your skin, it is the real deal. If it is still oily and visible, it’s fake.
Storing your oil in the fridge also serves to prove its authenticity, as it will harden. If your argan oil doesn’t harden, it’s not authentic.
Threats To Morocco’s Argan Trees
Despite its uniqueness and indispensability, the argan tree sadly faces a variety of serious threats.
Goats are one of the primary threats to the argan forests because they climb the trees to graze on the leaves. The goats, and the aggressive fruit-harvesting techniques of some locals, can damage branches and dislodge the buds that are essential to the next year’s production.
What is interesting, however, is that goats can be an important part of the oil-making process, as mentioned above.
The Future Of Argan Oil
Nearly half of the argan forest disappeared during the 20th century -- and its average density dropped from 100 to less than 30 trees per hectare. This historical pressure on the forest was driven by demand for high-quality charcoal (especially important during the World Wars) and, more recently, by conversion of land to fields for export crops such as tomatoes.
Attempts to propagate and grow argan trees elsewhere in Morocco and the rest of the world have been a dismal failure in the past. However, the trial continues, and we have heard about argan trees surviving outside of Morocco.
In recognition of its ecological value and local economic importance, the entire 2.5 million-hectare argan forest region was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998. I hope this helps to secure a more positive outlook for the future of this rare gift from nature.
Interestingly, there is a new competitor emerging on the world stage that might reduce the demand for argan oil: the oil from the prickly pear cactus. But that’s a story for another time.