The story of jojoba is full of misconceptions and confusion. Even its scientific name, Simmondsia chinensis, was given to it in error by an 18th century botanist, Johann Friedrich Link who accidentally mixed up his Mexican jojoba nuts with some other seeds from China. Jojoba is, in reality, native to the deserts of North and South Americas and hadn’t been cultivated anywhere else up until 1970s.

Then, of course, the extract of jojoba is commonly called jojoba [nut] oil, when it is actually a pure liquid ether, very rarely found in nature. The chemical difference between oil and ether may not seem very substantial, but it accounts for their very different qualities. A molecule of vegetable oil contains fatty acids and numerous alcohol groups, which oxidise easily, changing the oil’s structure and turning it rancid. Jojoba ether’s molecule contains only one alcohol group and forms a solid chain of monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids and fatty alcohols. Ether can not oxidise, has an independent anti-oxidant action and basically never spoils. Jojoba oil found in Egyptian pyramids in tightly sealed jars is still perfectly fine after thousands of years! Jojoba ether can, however, polymerise when exposed to direct sunlight. Even a small doze of UV can make ether chains bind together into one long polymer chain turning liquid into viscous mass. Jojoba “oil” must be kept in opaque or dark jars away from sunlight, in a transparent glass container it’ll turn into thick wax-like polymer in the space of few hours.

Jojoba oil’s composition is very similar to that of spermaceti — liquid ether found in head cavities of sperm whales.

For a while it had been mistakingly believed to be the whale’s semen, hence the name, and widely used. In the XVIII century people used it to make candles, and later lubricants and cosmetic creams. In the XX century they started extracting cetyl alcohol from it. Today hunting sperm whales is prohibited and spermaceti is successfully substituted by jojoba oil—thanks to its almost identical composition. In the whaling days the whalers noticed that cuts and burns on their hands healed almost instantly after they handled spermaceti. It appears that Native Americans had made similar observations about jojoba oil: according to Spanish missionaries they used jojoba to treat sores, wounds and burns. Jojoba also served as a disinfectant, skin and hair balm and one of their magic rituals’ paraphernalia. In the XVII–XVIII centuries the indigenous people of Mexico and South America used jojoba oil as their ‘liquid gold’—a local currency to trade for food, weapon and jewellery.

However the healing properties of jojoba were scientifically confirmed only in the 1970s. Before that jojoba oil was used in America during the war as an alternative lubricating oil for military hardware and sometimes for making paints. But when chemical analysis confirmed that jojoba oil was identical to precious spermaceti, the former drew the attention of both hardware manufacturers and environmentalists. In the 1970s several large conferences were held in California on jojoba oil—how to grow the bush, where to plant it (jojoba grows best in the desert climate). There even was a Jojoba Witness society, headed by a Dr. Thomas Miwa, with 12 members who called themselves ‘pilgrims’ and along with the conferences’ participants strived to end the extermination of whales and substitute spermaceti for jojoba completely—in hardware manufacture, pharmacology and cosmetics. Back in the day their ideas were considered unrealistic, but today we can establish it as a fact that they’ve won.

The composition of jojoba oil determines its cosmetic properties. It’s complexion is quite similar to that of the waxy ethers, synthesised by the sebaceous glands of young and healthy skin, which is why the oil has nourishing and softening effect, quickly restoring the skin’s natural protective properties. Jojoba oil contains a lot of vitamin E, that has anti oxidant properties, enhances the skin’s ability to regenerate and helps retain moisture on its surface. The ether molecule is constructed of fatty acids, primarily docosahexaenoic, gadoleic, erucic and oleic fatty acids—all of them but the latter practically never found in other vegetable oils or extracts. Another substance found in jojoba oil is an unusual protein, very similar in composition to the collagen of the human skin—it is responsible for the jojoba oil’s ability to restore the skin’s resilience and elasticity.

One of jojoba oil’s peculiarities is its ability to change structure: in a warm environment it looks like a thick golden liquid, when cooled down it turns into a wax-like paste, and if you heat it up it’ll become liquid again without losing its useful properties. Jojoba oil is almost scentless and since it can retain the aroma and properties of ether oils dissolved in it, it is often used as a base oil in aromatherapy.

Jojoba oil can be used as a separate ingredient, but it is also a valuable substitute for lanolin, mineral oil, synthetic ethers.

It is most often included in cosmetic solutions for dry, dehydrated and mature skin, it can be used in pure form as well—for instance, for hair care or to treat skin fissures and flakiness on elbows, knees and feet. Jojoba oil is also a very popular base for lip care solutions, primarily lip balms and lipsticks.

Recently jojoba oil has been introduced into cosmetics for oily skin—it has a bactericidal, anti inflammatory effect, and it doesn’t clog the orifice of hair follicle, because it doesn’t glue together the dead skin cells, therefore not causing comedones.

The indigenous people of America used to eat jojoba oil, but it doesn’t really have nutritional value—the ethers practically don’t assimilate in the digestion process and the oil comes out unchanged. This quality makes it possible to use jojoba oil based solutions to treat women’s cracked nipples during breast feeding.

    • INCI: Simmondsia Chinensis Oil

Meder Beauty Science Products with Jojoba

Excerpt from “The Science of Beauty” by Dr Tiina Meder
© Dr Tiina Meder
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