What is Jojoba Oil? Jojoba oil (pronounced ho-HO-bah) is the liquid extracted from the seed of the jojoba plant (Simmondsia chinensis), which is also known by a multitude of other names, such as goat nut, deer nut, pignut, wild hazel, quinine nut, coffeeberry, and grey box bush. The jojoba plant is a type of hardy shrub that grows wild in several dry regions of America and Mexico, specifically in southern Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico.
Jojoba seeds closely resemble coffee beans in terms of colour and shape, but are significantly larger and less uniform in appearance. The kernel of the jojoba seed is a pale yellow in colour, and when the extraction is done successfully, each seed should yield approximately half of its original weight in jojoba oil. The terms “jojoba wax” and “jojoba oil” can be used interchangeably to refer to the same compound, as jojoba oil is, in fact, not scientifically classified as an oil. The liquid extracted from the seed is instead chemically considered a wax, despite its outward appearance – it is simply a wax that melts at far lower temperature (~10C), taking a liquid form at room temperature. For this reason, jojoba oil does not get rancid as other vegetable oils often do, allowing for an incredibly long shelf life; its stability in high temperatures is also nigh unparalleled by other, true vegetable oils. However, it is still most commonly known as jojoba oil, and thus will be referred to as such for the purposes of this article.
Raw jojoba oil at room temperature takes the form of a clear and golden liquid with a mildly nutty odour. With further refining, jojoba oil can become both colourless and odourless, making it an easy ingredient to work with in cosmetics and medicines. As it does not produce an unpleasant or conflicting odour when mixed with other substances, chemical additions for the sole purpose of masking odour can be omitted, making the formulation simple and cost-efficient. As a wax in liquid form, jojoba oil also does not require dilution prior to application, and does not feel greasy the way oil often does.
How is Jojoba Oil Made?
The ability of the jojoba plant to survive in an arid desert environment is one of the greatest contributors to modern interest in jojoba cultivation, with America and Mexico being the leading producers of jojoba oil worldwide. Today, 40,000 acres of land in the southwestern parts of the United States is dedicated to jojoba plantations, allowing lands too harsh for conventional agricultural crops to be utilized and remain useful from an economic point of view. Commercial jojoba farms in America have been established since the late 1970s, and the current production of jojoba oil amounts to several thousand tonnes annually.
The production of jojoba oil is now largely automated, and begins in a jojoba farm. The seeds are not collected directly off the plant as they are likely to be immature – they will fall off the jojoba plants by themselves when ripe. Jojoba seeds do not ripen all at the same time, hence a harvester is used regularly to collect any fallen jojoba seeds off the ground of the farm, in a manner much like a household vacuum cleaner. The collected material firstly sifted through multiple layers of fine and coarse mesh to remove twigs, leaves and other debris, leaving behind only the seeds. The jojoba seeds are then fed into a press and crushed, which forces out the wax content within the seeds – the raw wax is cloudy to opaque, and yellow in colour.
What follows is the refining process, where the wax is forced through multiple layers of cloth filters, removing most of the solid particles. At this stage, the wax becomes less cloudy, but is usually not yet clear as is usually seen in commercially sold products. Natural powder absorbents are then stirred into the still-cloudy oil to purify it – any impurities present in the oil will bind to the absorbents, which can then be filtered out, resulting in the clear, finished state of jojoba oil.
En route to storage, the jojoba oil is passed through an ultrasensitive cartridge filter to remove any remaining particles that might have escaped the cloth filters. The jojoba oil is then stored in oil drums, ready to be sold to cosmetic factories and other buyers. Both varieties of jojoba oil are produced in this method, the only difference being the methods of filtration and clarification done. Despite differences in colour and odour, they are identical in texture and consistency.
History of Jojoba Oil
Jojoba oil should not be confused with the jujube plant (Ziziphus zizyphus), which is a wholly unrelated species commonly grown in China. The common name “Jojoba” originated from its O’odham name ‘Hohowi’. The jojoba plant is not native to China, despite having been given the scientific name Simmondsia chinensis. This is a misnomer resulting from botanist Johann Link’s mistake, who misread the word “Calif” (referring to California) on the plant’s collection label as “China”, and named it Buxus chinensis on an early assumption of its genus. Later, an English botanist named Thomas Nuttall would describe the plant as a new genus and species, giving it the alternative name Simmondsia californica; however, while the genus name could be changed, priority rules required that the original species name be retained. This ultimately resulted in jojoba being known as Simmondsia chinensis today.
The rise of jojoba oil to popularity it now holds was greatly due to the ban on sperm whale oil, implemented by the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Before then, sperm oil was commonly used as lubricants, fuel for oil lamps, and as a constituent for automatic transmission fluid, before it was replaced in its role by kerosene and other vegetable oils. Jojoba oil is similar to sperm oil in the sense that they are both waxes in liquid form, and while the unique qualities of sperm oil have yet to be reproduced synthetically to this day, jojoba oil was found at the time to be capable of substituting sperm oil in the complete range of its uses, without the need for major reformulations. It was easily adopted as a replacement for sperm oil, and jojoba oil was soon found to superior to sperm oil when used in cosmetic industries. This was mainly due to the fact that jojoba oil did not have a fishy odour like whale oil did, and remained in liquid form more easily following treatment to obtain its derivatives, unlike whale oil which needed further additives to maintain its liquid form. A jojoba farming craze then erupted, with the jojoba plant being hailed as a ‘miracle crop’, and backless claims were made by promoters stating that it could cure anything from baldness to cancer.
As the origin of the oil’s modern name, ‘Hohowi’ was indeed used in early times by the O’odham people in the Sonoran Desert. They created an antioxidant salve from the paste of the jojoba seed, using it to treat burns. In the early 18th century, native Americans were observed by Jesuit missionaries to create jojoba salves by heating the jojoba seeds to soften them, then grinding them into a paste or a buttery substance using a mortar and pestle. The salves were then applied to the skin and hair as a lotion or conditioner, and were also used as treatment for sores and wounds. The same salve was also rubbed into leathers and animal hides, in order to soften them and prevent them from cracking.
Before scientific analysis proved otherwise, jojoba seeds were consumed by pregnant women who believed they assisted during childbirth. However, jojoba seeds were not considered as proper food in their own right. Indigenous Mexican tribes in Sonora known as the Seri were known to make full use of any edible plants accessible to them, and even they ate jojoba seeds only in emergencies, when no other food was available. This may have been in part due to its appetite-reducing effects which do not actually nourish the body and could contribute to malnutrition, though early hunters and raiders ate jojoba for the main purpose of suppressing hunger when they were out in the wilderness.
In World War II, a diverse range of America’s natural resources were utilized for warfare and related industries such as weaponry. Jojoba oil was no exception, having been used in lubrication and maintenance of machine guns. It was also introduced as an additive to motor oil, transmission oil and differential gear oil.
Uses of Jojoba Oil in Health
Jojoba oil is generally indigestible by all animals, with only one exception being the Bailey’s pocket mouse. It contains no cholesterol or triglycerides, and is not broken down by human metabolic pathways, instead passing unaffected through the digestive system of mammals. This quality makes it quite similar to the fat substitute olestra, which is commonly found in potato crisps – both olestra and jojoba oil are edible, but are non-caloric and non-digestible. For this reason, jojoba oil may become a future option as a low-calorie oil for human consumption. It is worth noting that jojoba oil can cause steatorrhea, a condition in which stools have an abnormally high oil content – this makes jojoba oil function as a laxative of sorts. However, the laxative effect does not apply to the rest of the plant, and jojoba foliage is commonly consumed by all sorts of wildlife all year round. The foliage also often converted into feed and fed to livestock.
Jojoba seed meal has been used as animal feed in the past, as it contains a high percentage of protein (30%), but weight loss has been observed in animals fed with jojoba seed meal, leading people to think that jojoba seeds may contain a substance toxic to animals. Simmondsin, which is a chemical extracted from jojoba seeds, was traditionally thought the aforementioned toxic substance; but following research, it was found that simmondsin functions more in reducing appetite than actually poisoning the body. Research has then moved into possible future use in countering obesity by helping to reduce food cravings. Jojoba oil also contains a significant amount of erucic acid (~10%), which may have toxic effects on the cardiac system at high enough doses. However, as the oil is mostly indigestible and the dosage required for erucic acid to take effect is incredibly high, the risk it could pose via consumption is negligible.
The uses for jojoba oil predominantly lie in the pharmaceutical sector, especially in externally-applied healthcare products. As it can be refined to become colourless and odourless, jojoba is a good carrier for several other essential oils, and often functions as a cosmetic base. It is most commonly found in skin and hair products, such as lotions, moisturizers, shampoos and conditioners. The pure oil can also be applied directly to skin, hair and cuticles as a moisturizer, and has an antimicrobial effect which helps in control of acne and disinfection of damaged skin. It has also been shown to provide relief from eczema and psoriasis, conditions characterized by dry, itchy patches on the skin which are prone to microbial infection.
Jojoba oil is unique amongst its niche for the remarkable resemblance of its esters to that of human sebaceous glands – the liquid wax esters in jojoba wax makes it very similar to sebum, which is a waxy substance produced by our skin as a protective layer against infection and dehydration. As a general rule, oil-based products are not recommended for direct application to skin, as they break down easily, and may actually result in an aging effect. However, jojoba is exempt from this rule as it is a highly stable wax, and its advantageous chemical makeup allows jojoba wax to act as a natural skin conditioner, a quality nearly unmatched in any other plant-sourced oil. Jojoba oil also helps to regulate the body’s production of sebum when applied to oily skin or greasy hair – by moisturising the affected area, it effectively encourages the body to reduce its production of sebum. In this sense, it is functionally similar to whale oil, its predecessor and animal counterpart; as of the current day, jojoba has successfully taken the place of many animal fats in the manufacture of lotions and creams.
Pure jojoba oil can be used as a makeup remover, massage oil, lip balm and as a treatment for sunburns. It is generally harmless when applied topically, but uncommon cases of dermatitis have occurred following application when used by people with sensitive skin. Pre-existing cases of dermatitis may also be worsened following contact with the oil.
Other Uses of Jojoba Oil
Jojoba oil holds a significant value for industrial application, especially as a heavy-duty lubricant. This is largely because the oil is odourless and resistant to high pressure, and its viscosity is not affected by extreme temperatures up to about 300 degrees Celsius. This makes it highly stable compared to other oils, which can become runny and less dense when exposed to high temperatures. Its viscosity index is in fact much higher than that of petroleum oil, and with jojoba being a renewable resource, it is likely that jojoba oil may soon replace petroleum oil as an industrial and engine lubricant. Jojoba oil can also be polymerized to form factice, which is used as a processing aid and property modifier in rubber production.
The chemical structure of jojoba oil consists of long straight monoesters of 22 to 44 carbon atoms, as opposed to a large triglyceride content which is found in most vegetable oils. A certain amount of energy is stored in each of the carbon bonds, thus the abundance of carbon atoms present in jojoba oil gives it an energy density comparable to that of diesel. The pre-treatment process of jojoba oil to prepare it for use as a biofuel is also simpler compared to that of other minerals and bio-oils. For this reason, jojoba biodiesel has been looked into as a possible alternative to petroleum diesel, serving a role as a cheap, sustainable and environmentally-friendly fuel. It has been predicted that combustion of jojoba oil would result in lower levels of toxic fumes being emitted compared to diesel, which would help to reduce air pollution – the release of poisonous nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases can be greatly reduced, and sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions could be curbed entirely.
Jojoba oil is used in pharmaceutical industries to minimize foaming in the manufacture of antibiotics, and as a protective coating for use in the leather industry. Heavy industrial uses aside, jojoba oil also plays a role closer to home, in the form of many products we use in our daily lives. Jojoba oil is a natural fungicide, and can be used as an organic, non-toxic alternative to chemical fungicides for controlling mould and mildew. It has also been proposed for usage in candles, plasticizers, detergents, and fire retardants.
One of the few disadvantages to its use is that jojoba oil is still relatively costly, as the supply from current levels of jojoba farming is nowhere near enough to support global demand should it be implemented as an alternative resource to petroleum. More uses will become economically possible once the supply of oil increases and the price drops accordingly.