The lubricating effects of jojoba oil

Not everything that is useful comes from the lush green forests and meadows of the earth. Sometimes the harsh, dry and arid conditions of the desert can throw up surprisingly valuable things. The dry, woody jojoba (pronounced as ho-HO-ba) tree of the Sonoran desert in North America is the only plant known to store wax esters that can act as a lubricant for both living and non-living machines. Since these wax esters are closely related to natural skin lubricants, jojoba oil has been included in griffin+row’s Nourish and Enrich formulations. Read on to know more about the ‘desert gold’ from this plant.

Introducing Simmondsia chinensis

In accordance with its appearance, the ‘box’ plant jojoba was initially placed under the genus Buxus by Professor Heinrich Friedrich Link of Berlin, Germany. Under the impression that the plant had been sourced from China, he gave the species name of chinensis. Some years later, in 1836, the English naturalist and explorer Thomas Nuttall found the plant in southern California and placed it under the genus Simmondsia with the species name californica. In 1869, it was accepted that the two names referred to the same plant which (according to the international rules of plant nomenclature) was formally given the name Simmondsia chinensis by the Austrian botanist Camillo Schneider 1.

The classification of the plant is still disputed and several manuals refer to it as Buxus chinensis. In fact, earlier botanists included the plant in the family Buxaceae while others suggested that given its unique morphology and physiology, the plant should be placed in a separate family altogether 2.

The name jojoba itself has been derived from the Spanish equivalent of the Native American O’odham name of ‘jojowi’. The Jojoba is also referred to as grey box-bush and the seeds are called goat nut, deer nut, pignut, wild hazel, quinine nut and coffeeberry nut 2.

The plant is endemic to the Sonoran desert that occupies north-western Mexico, southern Arizona and south western California (Baja California). It is now cultivated in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Egypt, Haiti, Israel, Paraguay and South Africa 2.

Traditional uses of Jojoba

In the natural scheme of things, the leaves and seeds of the jojoba are food for desert animals. Deer, peccary and bighorn sheep feed on the leaves while rabbits, squirrels and other rodents consume the seeds.

Humans have also used the jojoba from centuries. The use of jojoba seeds as a cooking oil, food and medicine by Native Americans was noted by a Spanish priest Padre Luis Verlarde. In 1789, the Italian Jesuit priest Francisco Clavijero described the medicinal uses of jojoba by native tribes of Baja California in his “Storia della California” 3.

The O’odham tribes who are the native people of the Sonoran desert extracted jojoba oil for its healing properties. The seeds were heated and crushed with a mortar and pestle to release the buttery substance within. This was then used as a salve for burns and to treat skin and hair conditions. The extract was also used to soften and cure animal hides.

The seeds were carried on long hunts as food. It was believed that eating the seeds during pregnancy helped in childbirth.

In 1933, the oil from the jojoba seed was analysed and found to contain wax esters similar to that from the sperm whale. It was found that both oils retain their viscosity at high temperatures, do not go rancid, dry out or corrode metals. Sperm whale oil had been used as a high pressure lubricant for heavy machinery that came into use with increased industrialisation in the early 1900s. Since whale oil required hunting, tentative cultivation of the jojoba for its oil was explored after World War II 3.

The first successful commercial cultivation of jojoba was carried out in the Negev desert in Israel in the 1960s 4. The attempts to grow the plants from imported seeds took almost ten years before conditions were optimised to get industrial quantities of the oil. The success of jojoba oil production was largely aided by the ban on sperm whale oil which came into force in 1972 by the Endangered Species Act 5.  

Because jojoba oil is resistant to oxidation and can absorb sulphur without appreciable alteration in properties it is now used as an industrial lubricant. Upon hydrogenation it forms a soft wax that can be used in high pressure machines. It is also used in the manufacture of printing ink, linoleum, candles, plasticisers and fire retardants.

Jojoba oil is added to bioreactors as an antifoaming agent during the production of antibiotics 2.

It is an excellent alternative to beeswax as a base for lipsticks and make-up, lotions, shampoos and nail care products. Not only is it vegan, but the viscous oil from jojoba is practically devoid of triglycerides and alcohols 2. Jojoba oil is also added to other essential oil in order to increase their shelf life.

Bioactivity and associated components of the plant

The thick blue-green leaves of the jojoba plant appear like succulents thanks to the long chain wax esters that coat them. These wax-esters protect the leaves from the dry hot desert climate. However, while some anecdotal evidence of using the leaf extract to treat splenomegaly is available, commercial exploitation of the leaves has not been carried out.

The seeds of the jojoba are the primary repositories of the wax esters produced by the plant. The seeds contain 15% protein, 24-29 % carbohydrate, 3.5-4.2 % fibre, 4.5% water, 1.5% ash and oil. It should be mentioned that a group of poisonous glycosides called simmondsins are present in the seed. 2-(cyanomethylene)-3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethoxycyclohexyl-b-glucoside] is a simmondsin that is also found in leaves, stems and roots of the jojoba 2. Simmondsin is thought to inhibit hunger although the exact mechanism is not known.

The major constituents of jojoba oil are the following-

  • Wax esters: Up to 50% of the seed oil is composed of wax esters. The main wax esters are eicosenyl octadecenoate (C20:1-C18:1), eicosenyl eicosenoate (C20:1-C20:1), docosenyl eicosenoate (C22:1-C20:1), eicosenyl docosenoate (C20:1-C22:1) and tetracosenyl eiosenoate (C24:1-C20:1) 6.
  • Free fatty acids: Free fatty acids that are also present are mainly eicosenoic acid (65-80%), erucic acid (15-20%) and oleic (5-15%), linoleic (5%) and lignoceric acids (5%). Palmitic, palmitoleic, stearic, arachidic and behenic acids are also present in small but appreciable quantities.
  • Sterols: Campesterol, stigmasterol and β- sitosterol 7.
  • Tocopherols: γ- tocopherol, α-tocopherol and β-tocopherol 7.
  • Flavonoids: Two flavonoids isorhamnetic 3-rutinoside (narcissin) and isorhamnetic 3.7 di-rhamnoside are found in the seed 2.

The oil contains very little triglycerides (fatty acids esterified to glycerol) making it extremely resistant to oxidation.

Wax esters and tocopherol: A spotlight on the main active components

  • Wax esters: The wax esters of jojoba oil are long chain fatty acids esterified with long chain fatty alcohols.

Both acids and alcohols are chains of 20-24 carbon atoms long, resulting in a total carbon chain length that is at least 40 carbon atoms long. The length of the chain makes the molecule a wax ester rather than an oil. The double bonds in jojoba wax esters are distant which makes them resistant to aerial oxidation and results in a long shelf life [2].

  • γ-Tocopherol: Tocopherols are commonly known as Vitamin E.

Tocopherols are potent anti –oxidants and help in keeping anti-ageing.

General health benefits and uses of jojoba oil

The oil extracted from jojoba seeds is a light yellow coloured liquid at room temperature. Its composition resembles that of human sebum which makes it completely safe for use. Listed below are some of the uses of jojoba oil in the context of skin care-

  • Moisturising effect: The wax esters in jojoba oil are similar to the ceramides found in human sebum (the natural secretion of the sebaceous glands of the skin). This allows the oil to be easily absorbed and augment the action of sebum in keeping the skin supple. Unlike other oils, it does not clog the pores of the skin. Jojoba oil also works wonders on dry and flaky lips. Addition of the oil to massage oils has now become a common practice 8.
  • Anti-acne effect: Jojoba oil has been found to be useful in controlling excess sebum production that causes acne in oily complexion 9.
  • Antioxidant effect: The tocopherols in jojoba oil are excellent antioxidants which can quench free radicals that affect the integrity of skin cells. This keeps the skin looking young and healthy 8.
  • Anti-ageing effect: With age, the secretion of the sebaceous glands of the skin is reduced. Topical application of jojoba oil actually replenishes the wax esters required for the regular maintenance of the skin. This action results in younger and healthier looking skin 8.
  • Wound healing: The age-old use of jojoba oil has been to treat wounds and burns. This property makes it useful in the healing of damaged skin 9.
  • Anti-inflammatory effects: Jojoba oil has been shown to reduce artificially- induced oedema in laboratory rats with a reduction in myeloperoxidase activity 6.

Jojoba oil is also recommended for the rejuvenation of dry and brittle hair. While it is claimed to have some anti-fungal activity, it has a proven anti-insect activity against the larvae and pupae of the red palm weevil [6]. The oil is also used as a pesticide to control white flies on crops and powdery mildew on grapes9.

Botany and grow it yourself

The jojoba plant is a woody, evergreen shrub that belongs to the family Buxaceae. It is a desert plant that thrives in well-drained coarse sandy soils or neutral to alkaline soil with an abundance of phosphorus.  

It is a native of central Arizona, California, Baja California and north- western Mexico where precipitation does not exceed 5 inches per annum.  Although a heliophyte that can withstand extreme fluctuations in the daily temperature, frost can destroy seedlings and high temperatures may cause sunburn on fruits and loss of seed.

The plant develops from a main stem with lateral branching. This gives the shrub a hemispherical appearance, where the dense branching is close to the ground. The shrub has a deep tap root system with the main root reaching 8-10 feet below the soil surface. This enables the shrub to tap limited water resources that are trapped in aquifers below the surface of the desert soil. Feeder rootlets, however, are not plentiful.

Leaves are oval and oppositely placed on the stems. They last for 2-3 years and go through a series of colour changes from grey-green to yellow to reddish-yellow. The leaves are also covered with a waxy substance. 

The growth of jojoba starts with new shoots with floral buds coming up after the winter-spring rains. Pale green female flowers and small yellow male flowers appear at the axils of the shoots on separate plants (jojoba is dioecious).  Fertilisation is through wind pollination that takes place in the warmer month of March. Capsule formation also takes place at the fork of the twigs. The capsules may contain a single seed or 2-3 seeds. Ironically, seed size and oil content appears to be dependent on the rain at the time of seed maturation 10.

The seeds may be germinated to generate seedlings. However, grafting is the preferred method for large scale cultivation. The shrub is long- lived and may survive up to 200 years.  

Glossary

Ester: An ester is a compound formed from the combination of an organic acid (-COOH) and an organic alcohol (-OH). Long chain fatty acids can undergo esterification with the –OH groups of glycerol to give rise to triglycerides. The wax esters formed in jojoba seeds are a combination of long chain fatty acids with long chain alcohols.

Dioecious: Plants species that are dioecious have separate male and female plants. Fertilisation occurs after cross- pollination which can be carried out by insects or water or air.

Heliophyte: A heliophyte (helios = sun + phyte = plant) is a plant that necessarily needs exposure to the sun to ensure proper growth.


References

  1. Sherbrooke WC and Haase EF. (1974). Simmondsia chinensis. In Arid Lands Resource Information Paper No. 5.  University of Arizona Office, Arid Lands Studies, Tucson, Arizona. Retrieved from https://oregonstate.edu/dept/ldplants/sich.htm (29th August 2017).
  2. Orwa C, Mutua A, Kindt R, Jamnadass R and Anthony S. (2009). Simmondsia chinensis. In Agroforestree Database: a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0. Retrieved from http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Simmondsia_chinensis.PDF (28th August 2017).
  3. Arya D and Khan S. (2016). A review of Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) “The Desert Gold”: A multipurpose oil seed crop for industrial uses. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research 8(6):381-389.
  4. Cultivation of jojoba. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.jojobaisrael.com/Jojoba_Israel/ (29th August 2017).
  5. Bagby MO. (1988). Comparison of properties and function of Jojoba oil and its substitutes. In Proceedings of the 7th international conference on Jojoba and its uses. (A R Baldwin, Ed).
  6. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis). (2010). Retrieved from http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/life-science/nutrition-research/learning-center/plant-profiler/simmondsia-chinensis.html (29th August 2017).
  7. El-Mallah MH, El-Shami SM. (2009). Investigation of liquid wax components of Egyptian jojoba seeds. Journal of Oleo Science 58(11):543-8.
  8. How jojoba benefits the skin. (2010). Retrieved from https://blog.echolife.com.au/2010/03/18/how-jojoba-oil-benefits-the-skin/ (29th August 2017).
  9. Gladwell H. (2007). Jojoba oil and skin care. Retrieved from http://www.steadyhealth.com/articles/natural-remedies-jojoba-oil/jojoba-oil-and-skin-care (29th August 2017).
  10. Gentry HS.(1958).The natural history of Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) and its cultural aspects. Economic Botany 12(3): 261-295.