Argan Oil: A Precious Ingredient Linked to Environmental and Ethical Concerns

Argan oil with fruits
luisapuccini / Getty Images

Argan oil is nicknamed “liquid gold” by the cosmetic industry and portrayed as the pride and joy of Morocco, its country of origin. The scientifically proven nourishing properties of this oil make it a particularly coveted ingredient for both skin and hair care

However, the recent spike in interest—the global argan oil market size was valued at $223.9 million in 2019—has an impact on the fragile environment where the argan tree is grown and the workers in the supply chain.

Explore the truth behind the ethics and sustainability of the argan oil industry, including the environmental value of argan trees, the important contribution of women cooperatives in its production, and what to look for in the products you find in beauty stores.

What Is Argan Oil? 

Argan oil is a pale yellow oil extracted from the kernel of argan tree nuts, found inside the fruit of the argan tree. Packed with fatty acids and vitamins A and E, this premium ingredient is incredibly beneficial for both hair and skin. It can be used as a stand-alone product or incorporated in the composition of nourishing masks, balms, and creams.

The argan tree is endemic to Morocco; the species grows almost exclusively in the southwestern region, along the Atlantic coast, between tourist hot spots Essaouira and Agadir. This area, called the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve, was declared a UNESCO protected ecosystem in 1998. 

Argan oil is harvested across the reserve’s 2.5 million hectares of forests, which are divided into three zones. The central zone is specifically devoted to scientific research and the other two are used for commercial exploitation.

Marrakech Of Morocco
Women work next to a bag filled with argan nuts at an argan oil cooperative in the outskirts of Marrakesh, Morocco. Yuriko Nakao / Getty Images

It has traditionally been the work of indigenous Berber women—the Amazighsto retrieve the kernels from the nut and extract the oil using an ancestral tapping technique passed down through generations. They’re still in charge of this labor-intensive task and have formed independently owned cooperatives to preserve their status and this ancient practice. 

Products That Contain Argan Oil

Known as a natural antioxidant and emollient oil with nourishing properties, argan oil, which can also be listed as Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil, is found in the following beauty products: 

  • Moisturizers and hand creams, including body lotions, scrubs, soaps, and shower gels
  • Eye creams, facial oils, cleansers, and anti-aging serums 
  • Shampoos, conditioners, hair masks, permanent color creams, serums, mousses, and leave-in conditioners including heat protectants 
  • Nail polish 
  • Makeup removers and cleansing balms
  • Lip balms and lipsticks

How Is Argan Oil Produced? 

The preparation of argan oil is slow and tedious. It involves a seven-step process, which is done fully or partially by hand depending on the production facilities. This know-how, dating back to the 12th century, has been registered on UNESCO's Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2014. 

The fruit is harvested during the summer season, sun-dried, and carried in traditional handwoven baskets. Each fruit is then individually peeled and its nut cracked open between two stones of different sizes rhythmically tapped against each other. This particular step is always done by hand. 

Close-Up Of Moroccan Amazigh Woman Hands Squeezing Argan Paste
Amazigh woman squeezing argan pastein Morocco.

Idris Laaziz / Getty Images

The extracted kernels (2 or 3 per fruit) are air-dried in clay containers, ground, and cold-pressed by hand or mechanically into a thick paste, which releases the precious oil.

It takes about 220 lbs (100 kg) of fresh fruit and 20 hours of work to produce 34 oz (1 liter) of oil, as Zoubida Charrouf, a chemistry professor at Mohammed V University of Rabat, explained in her TED Talk. Professor Charrouf has devoted most of her career to studying and highlighting the work of Berber women in the argan oil trade.

Is Argan Oil Vegan? 

Close up of hands holding argan oil nuts
Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

Argan oil is vegan, which means no animals have been used in the production process. You may have read that the oil is extracted from the excrement of climbing tree goats, but this technique has widely been discarded for more efficient methods (i.e. handpicking) in line with international hygiene standards. 

However, argan oil can be combined with other ingredients, which may not be vegan and it’s good practice to look for reliable certifications such as Vegan Certified and PETA-approved Vegan at the back of beauty products' packaging. 

Is Argan Oil Cruelty Free? 

Pure argan oil is cruelty free, but it can be used in the composition of products that aren’t. Look for the Leaping Bunny or Beauty Without Bunnies certifications to ensure your argan oil product is cruelty free.

Is Argan Oil Sustainable? 

Very little is lost during the production process of argan oil. The discarded fruits and pasty dough are used to prepare beauty products or given to village animals, and the nutshells are burned for fuel. However, the sustainability of this ingredient depends on the management of the argan tree forests, which are susceptible to over-farming and deforestation.

Global production of argan oil is expected to reach 19,623 US tons or $1.79 billion by 2022, up from 4,836 US tons in 2014. This has led to argan oil farmers hitting the trees to make fruit fall prematurely, endangering the ecosystem and turning a fairly eco-friendly enterprise into an unsustainable one.

The argan tree is a very resilient species, capable of withstanding extreme heat. It also possesses great environmental benefits. Its deep roots help provide soil stabilization by absorbing water. As such, Morocco’s argan forests act as a natural barrier against desertification. 

Argana Valley Oasis - Home of the Argan Tree - Argana Valley, Morocco

Oliver Smalley / Getty Images

To help sustain its industrial cultivation, the local population has also developed a water conservation technology called "Matifyia." This rainwater reservoir is carved into rocks and contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as to the conservation of biodiversity. 

Today, man-made "arganiculture," in which young argan roots are grown in a controlled environment and transplanted into orchards, is being trialled at the Institut Agronomique d’Agadir. Researchers hope to lessen the pressure caused by soaring international demand and find solutions to global warming’s impact on the reserve.

In addition, the United Nations created the International Day of Argonia, which takes place every 10th of May starting in 2021, to help foster global interest in its protection. 

Can Argan Oil Be Ethically Sourced? 

Zoubida Charrouf’s scientific body of work, summed up in her TED talk, is the most comprehensive source of information regarding ethical practices in the argan oil trade. She explained that the extraction of argan oil, being an extremely labor-intensive process, makes it particularly prone to exploitation. According to the expert, traditionally men would be in charge of the business side, depriving Berber women (95% of whom can’t read or write) of financially benefiting from the trade. 

Although not entirely solved, this issue has been addressed by the formation of Berber women-owned cooperatives. In 2013, there were 170 of them employing 4,500 women across the region, according to Charrouf.

Inside cooperatives such as Targanine and Afoulki, women are in charge of the production of argan oil from beginning to end and share profits equally. 

The women are offered economic and social development support such as access to education for themselves and their families. However, salaries tend to be around $221 per month, according to a BBC reporter on the ground, while the living wage is established at 2570.86 MAD ($265) per month in Morocco, so still under the minimum requirements. 

The Project for Market Access of Products of Terroir (PAMPAT), launched in 2013 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), is also structuring the supply chain for the worldwide sale of argan oil transformed products to effectively reach the local community, support the cooperatives, and champion women empowerment. 

Can Argan Oil Be Produced Organically? 

Detail of Argan Tree (Argania spinosa) prickly branch with ripe fruit, used for expensive and rare cosmetic oil
Milan Sommer / Getty Images

The argan tree constitutes a vital source of food for herds of animals, such as goats, especially during drought. It grows in the wild without the need of human intervention, pesticides or herbicides. 

The best labels certifying that an argan oil product has been organically produced are Ecocert and COSMOS

Other Concerns With Argan Oil 

Argan oil is registered as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). This means the term "argan oil" can only be used to describe oil whose production is closely linked to the protected Souss-MassaDraa region of Morocco. Argan oil produced anywhere else isn’t technically true argan oil. 

Consumers are advised to seek 100% cold-pressed argan oil and ensure it has been produced by a small-scale, independently owned and operated, women co-operative. This information should be clearly stated on the brand’s website. If it isn’t, consumers are advised to inquire directly with the brand to find out, as not all argan oil is ethically produced. True argan oil is yellow rather than gold and is generally expensive. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How to identify a product that contains argan oil?

    The scientific name of argan oil commonly found in beauty product ingredients lists is argania spinosa kernel oil. Remember that ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ones used in the greatest amount at the top. 

  • When does argan oil expire?

    When correctly stored in a dark tint glass container, in a cool room, away from direct sunlight, argan oil can last up to two years.

    Fresh argan oil has a nutty or earthy smell, contrary to expired argan oil, which smells rancid. Some argan oil can be odorless. 

  • Is argan oil actually good for your hair?

    Packed full of antioxidants, vitamin E, and omega fatty acids, Argan oil has been used for centuries by people in the north-African country of Morocco for cosmetic purposes.