Posted by: Bystander PJ16 MAY 2012
Spermaceti is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale. Consisting mainly of cetyl palmitate, it has been widely used in cosmetic products, as a moisturiser and as a carrier oil for fragrances, because it is similar to the natural oils produced by the human skin. A large whale can supply as much as 2,000 litres.
But the cruel slaughter of endangered cetaceans is not the only way to obtain a substance that mimics human sebum. A remarkably similar product is also obtained from the seeds of jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), a shrub native to the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of Arizona, California and Mexico. (The name chinensis derives from a misreading of “Calif” for “China” on a botanical collection label.)
Jojoba oil is unlike any other plant oil. Conventional oilseed crops produce glyceride oils, in which fatty acids are connected to a glycerol molecule. But jojoba seed oil contains no glycerides or glycerol. It is an extremely long straight-chain wax ester composed of fatty acids and fatty alcohols joined by an ester bond. Its structure is much closer to human sebum and whale oil than it is to traditional vegetable oils.
Jojoba seeds contain about 50 per cent oil, most of which can be extracted with standard presses. It is easily refined to be odourless, colourless and oxidatively stable.
Jojoba could also replace whale oil within the pharmaceutical industry, where spermaceti has long been the standard antifoam agent in the fermentation process for producing penicillins. Indeed, research suggests that replacing spermaceti with jojoba oil greatly increases the penicillin yield.
Jojoba oil also has potential in pharmaceutical products for the skin. Creams based on it have been found effective in treating conditions such as psoriasis, sunburn and chapped hands. It is already used in skincare products such as Oilatum Body Oil.
Jojoba oil also enhances the skin penetration of topically applied drugs. Recent research suggests that it could be more effective than currently used cream bases in the delivery of antimycotics such as clotrimazole.
And an increasing demand for jojoba could allow arid nations to grow it to boost their economies and to combat desertification. There is therefore no good reason for cosmetic manufacturers to continue using a product of the brutal whaling industry.