Is your beauty oil made from goat turds? Not anymore

ESSAOUIRA, Morocco —  Morocco's little-known argan oil is poised to be the next big thing in beauty products, but don't tell anyone that it was once extracted from goat droppings.

No one is trying to hide the goats' traditional role in producing argan oil. But in this roadside shop outside of the coastal Moroccan town, the women aren’t exactly eager to dwell on goat-related matters, either.

The artisans here are producing and selling argan oil, an increasingly trendy cure-all skin treatment. It is an amber-colored liquid that also livens up salads and tastes great in stews. The last thing they want is a customer thinking that their exquisite product passed through a goat's digestive tract and exited through its rear end.

“All the work now is done by hand,” said Naima Elattaoui, 28, as she showed visitors around the Tiguemine Argan Cooperative, where 25 of her colleagues spend their days making argan oil in a stone courtyard just a few miles from Morrocco’s balmy Atlantic coast.

That’s by hand, Elattaoui said, not hoof. Close to 90 percent of the argan oil made in Morocco gets exported, and the export product these days is by all accounts goat-free. Carefully, with tenses rigorously confined to the past, Elattaoui will say this:

It used to be that goats would climb up into the gnarled trees dotting the nearby hills. It once was the case that they ate the pecan-sized argan nuts, digesting the soft outer peel. Previously, the animals defecated the now-peeled nuts onto the ground. In the past, the local women followed behind, gathering kernels to crack, roast and grind into the highly sought-after, labor-intensive oil.

But that’s all over with, Elattaoui said, and people mostly do the peeling now. And it’s hard to blame her for insisting on this story. There’s business on the line.

Although argan oil has been prized here for centuries — rubbed on babies, brushed into hair and drizzled over couscous — the product has lately taken off abroad. Whether because of the oil’s distinctive, toasted flavor or its apparently restorative effect on skin, Moroccans say demand for argan oil has surged among foodies and cosmetic-sellers in America and Europe.

“It’s been a huge success,” said Zoubida Charrouf, a professor at Rabat’s Mohamed V University, who published chemical analyses of the Omega-6 and vitamin E–rich oil that helped spur foreign interest in argan. “Without international demand it wouldn’t have developed like this.”

In the space of a decade, argan-selling has become a $40 million-per-year business, Charrouf said, with the number of Moroccan oil-making cooperatives jumping from just three in 1999 to more than 150 today.

The price too, has climbed. Fifteen years ago, the oil sold for about $3 in the local souks, Charrouf said. Now, whether you’re buying here or in a chic New York boutique, a liter will set you back at least $30, and often considerably more.

“Like caviar,” she said. “It’s just about as rare.”

One American argan importer called Eden Allure — a two-year-old Florida-based start-up — saw its sales jump somewhere between 25 and 50 percent last year, according to one of the company’s owners, James Moore.

Moore said he isn’t surprised, adding that his Moroccan-born mother has been using the stuff since childhood. “She’s 61 and her hair and skin are just gorgeous,” he said.

Even established cosmetics players are getting into the argan game. Kiehl’s, the high-end New York-based chain of health and beauty boutiques, joined the fray in 2006.

“Someone on the Kiehl's team visited Morocco on holiday and saw local women selling it and using it for their skin and in their hair,” said Roberta Weiss, one of the company’s product-development executives.

Kiehl’s argan-infused salves, lotions and emollients have been selling so briskly Weiss said the company plans to launch an argan shampoo, conditioner and something called “Argan Gold Smooth & Gloss Hair Mist” later this year.

It’s not cheap. Kiehl’s currently offers an argan body oil billed as “Superbly Restorative,” priced at $30 for a 4.2-ounce bottle, which works out to just over $1.19 for each teaspoon of oil. The guys at Eden Allure – who advertise their oil as organic – charge twice as much.

To be sure, the stuff takes prodigious labor to extract. The women at the Tiguemine cooperative estimate it takes 130 pounds of raw argan nuts — two trees worth — to yield one liter of oil. And that amount takes one woman a week of eight-hour workdays to produce.

The women peel skin from each nut, smash it open with a stone, then pick the inner almond-sized kernels from among the broken shells.

For cooking oil, the kernels are roasted over fire. For the cosmetic stuff, they skip to the next step, stone-grinding the nuts into a thick paste which — at Tiguegmine — the women then roll into orange-size lumps, from which they later hand-wring each golden drop.

“It takes a lot of time,” Elattaoui said. “And a lot of strength.”

Despite the workload, the members of the cooperative say they prefer to forego any four-legged help. “Oil made with goats smells like goats,” said Aicha Amsquine, 57, who said she’s been pressing argan nuts for 47 years.

“This way is harder but the quality is better,” she said. “And you don’t have to touch anyone’s crap.”