Meet The Super Oil That's Better Than Coconut

Just when we thought we'd gotten our yearly/lifely dose of skin and hair oils, another super ingredient recently slipped across our desks: mongongo oil. When I first caught wind of the oil — which has been cropping up in hair and skin-care products left and right — my first reaction was, mongon...what?! (Ditto the rest of the beauty team.) It's not necessarily a well-known additive (yet!), but we predict that you're going to be hearing about it more.

The oil is derived from the fruit of the manketti tree (which has the ability to thrive in extreme weather conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa) and has been used for centuries in skin care, according to Anita Sun, an esthetician and co-founder of Dermovia. "The egg-shaped fruit is not only extremely nutritious, [but it] has many useful properties as a super emollient and protectant for both skin and hair," she explains. Each seed contains a good amount of vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps stave off skin damage and signs of aging), as well as nutrients like calcium, copper, and zinc.

Mongongo oil is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are known to remain on the skin longer than saturated fatty acids (think coconut oil) or monounsaturated oils (jojoba and almond oils), explains Sun. "[The fatty acids] deliver a protective, emollient layer on the surface of the skin and act as a barrier to prevent moisture from escaping through the pores," she says. "These fatty acids can retain moisture and keep the skin glowing, while smoothing out rough texture and diminishing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines." Fountain of youth, is that you?

But it's really the acidic properties of mongongo oil that make it such a standout. The first of which is linoleic acid, which is great for calming inflammation, explains founder of Uma Oils Shrankhla Holecek. If you suffer from redness or eczema of some kind, mongongo is your answer.

All of these benefits piqued the interest of Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson, who recently began using the ingredient in her brand's products. But it was the alpha-Eleostearic acid (which adds another layer of sun protection) that really won her over. "When you apply the oil to your skin, it actually will create a shield over your skin or hair when it's hit by UV rays," she explains. "When you go outside and you have it on your lips or skin or hair — which is how they use it in Africa, they coat themselves in [the oil] — it turns into a protectant."
These were also gamechangers for hairstylist Peter Lamas, who's started incorporating the ingredient into his new hair-care products. "It has sun protection, strong antioxidants, and the minerals are fortifying [to the] the hair and scalp," he says. "It's loaded with vitamins, nutrients, fatty acids, and proteins, which are essential for hair growth, health, and vitality." Basically, adding it to your hair routine is a no-brainer.

Holecek adds that mongongo oil is particularly great for people with inflamed scalps or dandruff, as well as those with dry, rough, or damaged hair; that helps explain its presence in natural-hair brands, like SheaMoisture and celebrity hairstylist Andre Walker's latest line.

Of course, no mention of an "up-and-coming" oil is complete without a holy-grail coconut comparison. While some of the experts we spoke to say that the association would be like comparing apples and oranges — which is true, both oils have different benefits — Holecek has some pretty strong opinions on the matter. For one, she calls out the presence of lineolic acid in mongongo oil as being a major advantage over its coco counterpart.

"I absolutely do see [mongongo oil] rising in popularity, because it provides a set of benefits that coconut oil doesn’t," she says. "This oil has the capability to reduce inflammation, especially when it's mixed with other complementary oils [likes rose, neroli, and tea tree]. It could be truly miraculous for someone who [has eczema], breaks out often, and needs something that calms their skin...Coconut oil is not going to have those properties, it’s just going to form a thick layer around your skin and basically sit there." Mongongo oil is also less comedogenic than coconut oil, meaning it's less likely to clog your pores over time.
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I absolutely do see [mongongo oil] rising in popularity, because it provides a set of benefits that coconut oil doesn’t.

Shrankhla Holecek
Aside from the skin and hair perks, there's a deeper benefit that comes from mongongo oil's rise in popularity — and that's the economic factor. "There's something good that comes out of purchasing these oils, not only because of their high quality and the way they are taken care of and produced, but also how these small farm cooperatives are being helped by selling these oils to the rest of the world," explains Lamas.

But with this increase in popularity, it's more important than ever to check where the oil is sourced, Holecek urges, "With any oil that comes from areas that are economically underdeveloped, such as Africa, it is important for us, as consumers, to check our sources and try to identify producers that have fair trading practices in place," she explains.

So if and when you hit up your specialty online food or vitamin stores in search of this magic oil, look for the PhytoTrade Africa certification on the label, which will ensure its legitimacy, Holecek says. "Especially as the oil gains popularity, it’ll become more and more important that the indigenous population is not getting exploited, or, you know, paid very bad wages for collection of this nut." With all that we'll gain from the use of it, it's the right thing to do.