“To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams,” Edith Wharton wrote in a 1920 memoir, “and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.” Nearly 100 years later, she’d likely make the same observation. As I snake through the labyrinthine medieval medina of Fez, dodging donkeys, stray cats, and men in hooded djellaba robes pushing carts overflowing with snails, olives, and sprigs of bright green mint, I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time. Through one doorway I glimpse a man hammering elaborate arabesques into a bronze plate with a tiny chisel; through another, the spectacular interior of a raid, or onetime palace, its walls encrusted with multicolored tiles in a geometric pattern. Later, as a full moon rises over the minarets, I enter a traditional hammam, where I participate in a beauty ritual dating back centuries: The attendant, a sixtysomething woman wearing nothing but a bun and underwear, vigorously scrapes my skin with rhassoul, a gloppy brown lava clay, and douses me in buckets of steaming hot water. Afterward, as I slather myself with argan oil, referred to by locals as “liquid gold,” I think what a funny thing it is that something that has been known to Moroccans since the thirteenth century should prove to be one of the biggest international beauty breakthroughs of the twenty-first.
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Argan oil, extracted from the kernels of a fruit indigenous to this part of North Africa, has truly gone blockbuster: In 2011, 111 argan-oil-laced beauty products arrived on U.S. shelves; in 2007, that number totaled a mere two. It pops up in everything from shampoos to lipsticks to body wash; even Nair features the stuff. “It’s really amazing to me what’s going on with it,” says Josie Maran, who launched her argan-based line in 2007 after a woman she met on a modeling job who “looked 40 but turned out to be 70” revealed the oil to be her beauty secret. “I think it created a whole new category,” she says, noting that it was a trailblazer in helping American women warm to the notion of putting oil on their skin and hair. “Nobody knew they needed it, but once they had it, they couldn’t live without it.”
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As Katharine L’Heureux, the founder of eco-luxe skin-care brand Kahina Giving Beauty, points out, there’s another factor key to argan oil’s ubiquity: Reams of science back up the oil’s effectiveness. Long used as a folk remedy by Berber women to treat wrinkles, scars, and acne, argan extract now has been clinically proven to reduce hyperpigmentation and is said to regulate sebum (argan, improbably, makes oily skin less oily). The pure oil “is extremely rich in vitamin E—containing two to three times the amount in olive oil—and polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Plus it’s anti-inflammatory, highly moisturizing, and easily absorbable,” L’Heureux says. “It’s a single, clean ingredient that can really deliver on anti-aging promises.” Additionally, “the omega-3 fatty acids promote healthy cell walls,” making skin appear plumper, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Argan is the biggest multitasker of all the oils, because it can treat a variety of skin conditions and be used on almost all skin types,” he says. “It’s also beneficial to your hair and scalp.”
A relatively small geographical area—9,900 square miles in southwestern Morocco—produces nearly all of the world’s argan oil, and because the trees are under threat (even the local goats scramble up the branches to gobble the fruit), UNESCO declared the region a biosphere reserve in 1998. The hard manual labor of the harvest—which involves gathering the fruit, stripping away the pulp, and cracking the nuts by hand—is done mostly by Berber women. Since the mid-’90s, a number of cooperatives have been established in the area to ensure that these women, long a marginalized group, receive fair wages, while companies such as Kahina also donate funds for schools and clean water.
For L’Heureux—who led me through a crowded souk to illustrate the olfactive layering of vetiver, rose, and neroli with sandalwood, cumin, and cloves that inspired her to create the new Kahina Giving Beauty Fez Body Balm—the potential social impact of broadening the market for argan oil was a big part of her desire to launch a beauty company. “It intrigued me that I could provide something that people at home wanted while also serving a purpose here in Morocco by giving an economic opportunity to women who have nothing,” she says.
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Back at the hammam, I tap into something else that gives argan oil its power. I adamantly do not enjoy public bathing, but, surrounded by so many women and little girls, laughing, talking, and washing one another’s hair, I feel a sort of sisterhood, and not just because we’re all topless. We may not have a single word of shared language, but we all want soft skin and shiny hair; we all hope to walk out looking radiant. Beyond being a nifty, versatile substance and providing a nice buzzword for companies to slap on their packaging, argan oil carries with it a very real, and important, sense of place. That an ingredient that sounds like something out of a storybook—a golden oil hand-produced by shawled Berber women in an endangered forest where goats climb trees—has crossed oceans, cultures, and ethnicities to become a mainstay on bathroom shelves everywhere is pretty amazing. Ultimately, it’s all about connection. And doesn’t that make it truly modern, after all?
*** This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of ELLE magazine.