Beauty in a dark-glass bottle

Every beauty brand has embraced argan - in its pure form and in combination with other oils - as the ultimate solution for lustrous skin and hair. Is argan really a miraculous one-stop solution? We decode the enigmatic and exciting world of essential oils

The miraculous argan oil suits all skin and scalp types and nearly every high-end beauty brand now has argan in its skincare and haircare offerings. Courtesy: ar57
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"Contains argan oil". It's the catchphrase that any beauty brand worth its aromatherapy R&D is now espousing - with shampoos and serums, cleansers and conditioners, and make-up and moisturisers. The Berber women first chopped up the oil-rich kernels of the Argania spinosa tree, found almost exclusively around the Atlas Mountains in south-west Morocco, in the first century BC. Little did they know that thousands of years on, the resultant argan oil would come to be attributed with near-miraculous properties by the billion-dollar beauty industry.
What sets argan apart from the lavender, rosehip, tea tree and jojoba oils of the cosmetic world is that, despite being an essential oil, it can be used in its purest, most natural form. Many seekers of a wrinkle-free, glossy-haired existence have taken a nasty tumble down the cosmetic-oils slippery slope.
For these are not products that one can simply buy-and-try. An incorrect consistency, dubious storage conditions or, most commonly, a wrong combination, all render the precious oils ineffectual. To this you must factor in your specific skin and hair type; the sedentary or sunlight-filled lifestyle you might lead; and even a mild food allergy that you blissfully ignore when faced with a favourite dish. All of these should play a part in your hunt for beauty in a bottle.
So what makes argan, or liquid gold as it's come to be called, the answer? In a nutshell, because argan is a rare essential oil that does not require a stabilising carrier oil - it can be used in its original, antioxidant-rich form. Plus, its stable composition means that argan requires no parabens or preservatives. It is simply an all-natural product that happens to be loaded with vitamin E and the essential fatty acids that are responsible for a clean, healthy and well-maintained dermatological constitution - without and within.
Argan is also safe, sound and suitable for all skin and scalp types, ranging from dry and combination to greasy. Classified as a "lightweight, dry oil", argan has been successfully tested and proven to regulate the body's production of sebum, the chemical that is the main cause of that annoying adult acne that mostly breaks out on the chin, neck and upper back. The vitamin E then kicks in to remove damaged cells, causing acne marks to fade from the skin's surface, as well as to aid the regrowth of new cells, rapidly forwarding that anti-ageing agenda.
"Argan oil is suited to all of us because it has a small molecular structure, which means it gets absorbed readily and you are never left with an uncomfortable sheen. And because it balances sebum production, it suits even oily skin types," says Mairin Cipolla, the marketing director at Kahina Giving Beauty.
There are a handful of products that employ argan as a stand-alone solution - from WS Argan's Superior Organic Argan oil for fine lines and a flaky scalp to the French skincare brand ar457's Silky Body Oil, which soothes the skin after hair-removal procedures. These products use an undiluted version of argan, and promise that its innate healing and hydrating properties will hold your skin and hair in good stead.
So there should be no cause to use anything else, given that this all-natural solution exists? Not quite, says Lindi Higginbotham, the marketing manager at Dermalogica. "Natural is not the only way to go. If you're trying to hydrate your skin, simply splashing on some 'naturally occurring' water is not going to help your cause. Nature is beautiful but it's not enough; we also have science, which is amazing and effective and nothing to be intimidated by. Aromatherapy, or the use of oils for healing and beautifying, is nothing but a marriage between nature and technology."
Where scientific revelation comes in is in the "power combinations" contained in the majority of oil-based skincare and haircare offerings. Argan combined with the vitamin C-rich maracuja oil brightens the skin; mix it with jojoba and it stimulates new hair growth; rosehip with argan reverses sun damage. Some products work during the day, such as Caudalie's Divine Oil, an alchemy of four vegetable oils, which is best applied in the shower. "The grapeseed, argan, hibiscus and sesame oil combination restricts epidermal water loss when you're out in the sun, playing an essential role in the barrier function that is the main purpose of any skincare product," explains Patricia Manissier, the R&D manager of Caudalie.
On the other hand, Kiehl's Midnight Recovery Concentrate (MRC) works best at night. "Visibly younger-looking skin depends on how effective your skin barrier is, and there's no better time to put this up than when you're sleeping and when your body's organs are repairing themselves," says Cammie Cannella, Kiehl's global vice president of development and education. "MRC uses a combination of essential oils - lavender, rosemary, geranium and rose - and botanical oils such as squalene, evening primrose, coriander and hip seed. The concentration is so potent that it replicates the skin's natural lipids for optimal repair throughout the night."
Dermalogica's Overnight Repair Serum - with argan, jasmine, carrot seed and rosehip oils, which stimulate new collagen production - is a good option for more mature skin.
The weather plays its customary part in the oils game, too. As temperatures cool, an anti-dehydration product, such as the Clarins Hazelnut and Orchid Blue oils or Kiehl's Superbly Restorative Dry Oil with argan leaf extract, will nourish your skin and keep dryness at bay. For the UAE's hot and humid months, a combination of argan with either lotus extracts or tea tree oil will cut through the grease without compromising on the requisite moisture that healthy skin needs to retain.
A good way to know whether a product will live up to its promise is to do a quick scan of the ingredients listed on the bottle. As Donna Azzar, the brand manager at WS Argan, puts it: "The fewer ingredients listed on the packaging, the more pure a product is." And according to Higginbotham: "When you see parfum or fragrance listed as an ingredient in an oil-based product, drop it immediately because it means that artificial elements have been introduced into the oil. These artificial fragrances bring sensitivity and irritation to the skin and the scalp on a microscopic level and can lead to acne or pigmentation, which are the two big concerns in this region.
"This is not to say that a product that smells good is to be avoided - just look out for the difference between 'lavender parfum' and simply 'lavender' on the ingredients list," she adds.
Price is another factor that hints at quality. Because the extraction process of essential oils - whether rare or common - needs to be conducted in an extremely controlled and technologically sophisticated environment, some companies cheat by using a grade 2 or, worse, grade 3 extraction level. Simply put, the first oils that come out (grade 1), whether from a cold-pressed extraction or a distillation extraction, contain the most active and beneficial properties. "If a cold-pressed argan kernel is sent forward for heat application (grade 2), it loses many of its nutrients and can even be rendered impure because of the external forces at work," explains Higginbotham.
But the only real indicator of an expensive grade-1 extraction is the cost that then trickles down to the product itself. So be wary of a low-cost product, and do a basic check of the company's history and reputation on the market.
Once you've zeroed in on an oil of choice, do ensure that you've got the magic touch down to a pat. "Rubbing is a no-no. Use a gentle patting motion to ensure an even application on the skin, and press - don't spread - a small amount into sections of your hair," says Cannella, adding, "It's advisable to patch- test formulas that contain ingredients that may be new for you. Your skin can be sensitive even to the most natural ingredients so do an overnight compatibility test - on the inside of the wrist and then on a small part of your face - the lower cheek, perhaps."
A redeeming reality for the high cost of your precious formula is that just two or three drops should suffice for your face and neck. "Any excess oil can be removed by dabbing gently with a muslin cloth, and avoid spreading an oil-based product to the eye contour area," says Fatima Zuhra Rassassi, a training manager with Clarins. And instead of wasting the excess oil on your hands, just rub it into your cuticles and the nail bed, or gently swish your fingers over your eyelashes. Then place the tightly sealed bottle in a cool, dark, dry place - no bathrooms, no window sills, and definitely no extended periods in places with unnatural lighting.
Now, if you're thinking that these exacting requirements and multiple product ranges are a little baffling, you are quite right. Enter any major department store, and, even if you manage not to get accosted by the surprisingly swift perfume sprayers, the rows and rows of pots, jars and flagons (with oils, always opt for a dark-tinted glass bottle) are enough to leave your head spinning.
The good news is that you only need one or two products at any point in time. And there are two complementary ways to find out which is the one for you: the obvious first is to seek out an expert, and the necessary second is to become one yourself.
While a skin aesthetician or dermatologist can test and predict the current condition and requirements of your skin by a simple face-mapping procedure and then recommend a product combination best suited to your needs, you should also take it upon yourself to read and research exactly what's out there.
"Be smart about your skin. Study it, observe it, consult an expert and yet do your own research. A sales rep, no matter how well trained, will not know everything about you. Also, avoid shopping for oils online until you know exactly what suits you," says Higginbotham. And, of course, what you need in your 30s will differ greatly from when you're in your 40s and so on.
As with most fashion and beauty fads, oils have emerged, subsided and made commercial comebacks, but consider what the Berbers knew all those centuries ago: oils are not so much cosmetics as they are care products. Don't buy into, or indeed reject, a skin or hair formula based on a marketing whim. If you find an oil that suits, stick to it for a while and then switch - your cells change periodically with age, lifestyle and weather conditions, and science never rests either.
And when a new oil combination hits the market, check that it fits the criteria you've set from all the groundwork you've done. Then put your faith in that "latest and best" product - hopefully, it won't be too much of a risk because, if one were to venture an educated guess, it will say "contains argan oil".
Our top picks
Kiehl's Midnight Recovery Concentrate
A potent combination of essential oils, including lavender, rosemary, geranium and rose, as well as botanical oils such as squalene, evening primrose, coriander and hip seed oil, which join forces to offer optimal skin repair while you are sleeping.
Dh217 for 30ml; Dh321 for 50ml
Dermalogica's Overnight Repair Serum
A good option for more mature skin, the night-time serum contains argan, jasmine, carrot seed and rosehip oils, which stimulate new collagen production.
Dh395 for 15ml
Clarins Blue Orchid Face Treatment Oil
Made from 100 per cent pure plant extracts, including rosewood, patchouli and blue orchid, this bestselling oil promises to tone, revitalise and restore radiance, and is recommended for the coming cool, dry months when the skin is at its most dehydrated. Dh213 for 30ml
Ar457 Silky body Oil
The French luxury skincare company ar457 specialises in all things argan. Its Silky Body Oil makes the skin at once softer and firmer, and, best of all, argan's "dry oil' qualities mean you can get dressed straight after application.
Dh325 for 50ml
Caudalie Overnight Recovery Oil
A blend of six active oils, Caudalie's Overnight Recovery Oil will deeply nourish the epidermis, while repairing the skin barrier and soothing sensitive skin. All you need to do is apply six drops every evening.
Dh190 for 30ml