The fruit of the marula tree may not look remarkable, but beneath its tough skin lies a centuries-old African curative. Revered for its healing properties, natural and sustainable marula oil packs a nutritional punch perfect for the face, body, and hair. Indigenous to southern Africa, the sclerocarya birrea, or marula tree, produces a sweet edible fruit. Its bark serves as a remedy for everything from diarrhea and fever to malaria and diabetes, and its roots ease eye pain. But the fruit’s kernels contain the tree’s most valuable element: its liquid-gold oil. Loaded with fatty acids, protein, and antioxidants like vitamins C and E, this nutrient-rich moisturizer has long been harvested for personal use and regional small-batch sale by generations of rural communities.
“African women have been using marula for more than 8,000 years,” says Alapure president Jill Riley. “In the past four or five years, it’s become more popular in the U.S. When we learned about it, many people in the West didn’t know about it.” African Botanics Skincare cofounder Julia Noik has also witnessed an increase in domestic demand since her company’s launch in 2012. “It’s gaining a huge following,” she says. As marula oil evolves from regional cottage industry to mainstream beauty must-have, big brands, such as The Body Shop and Paul Mitchell, niche labels, and their customers are all taking notice.
Marula’s record of success in its natural habitat only adds to its positive reputation. “Women in Namibia who use marula oil daily, particularly the women who process the nuts, have skin that is very soft and plump in appearance despite living in very severe desert conditions,” says Tammie Umbel, founder and CEO of Shea Terra Organics. Anecdotal evidence aside, marula’s seemingly supernatural effects are actually rooted in science, according to a case study by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). A powerhouse ingredient, marula oil is brimming with essential elements for healthy skin, like linoleic and oleic acids (omegas 6 and 9, respectively), and its high antioxidant content helps soothe skin and prevent and reverse free-radical damage. “Due to the roughly 70 percent omega-9 fatty acid content, the oil nourishes the skin, giving it a depth of glow normally only seen in very young skin,” says Marianne Griffeth, founder and president of Prima Fleur.
Plus, marula has such a light texture that it hydrates and heals without clogging pores or causing irritation, says Anastasia McNichol, skincare therapist at Ohm Spa (New York City), so it’s suitable for those with sensitive and oily skin, as well as those with dry patches, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. In fact, it’s so ideal for sensitive skin that marula oil is often used by cancer patients, according to Acure president and formulator Amy Halman, whose company donates products like its pure Marula Oil to the Living Well Cancer Resource Center (Geneva, IL). “Oncology patients benefit from the nutritious, high-quality oil when their skin is in such a sensitive, dry, and often-compromised state,” she says.
To tap into marula’s inherent assets, it’s important that the raw material is processed in such a way that the nutrients make it into the bottle. The modern manufacturing techniques favored by some mass-market companies crush the entire fruit and use heat and chemicals to extract the oil, which nullifies its antioxidant properties, according to a report in The Guardian. The traditional methods favored by smaller producers take much longer, but in this case, the old ways seem best. “Thousands of years ago, women would dry marula kernels in the hot sun and then crack them open to extract the oil, and the overall technique has not changed that much since then,” reads the WIPO case study. Today, the fruit is turned out first, often for alcoholic beverages like beer. As unorthodox as it may seem, the brewing process not only creates a purportedly hangover-preventing aphrodisiac but it’s also essential for separating the fruit’s flesh from its seed, says Riley. After the seeds have been exposed and left to dry for a few months, special tools and stones are used to crack and extract the soft edible kernels, which are then cold-pressed to remove the oil.
Seeking out such sustainably harvested, wildcrafted oil can be expensive, but it’s also a godsend for companies that hope to do good while doing good business. “Marula is an abundant natural resource for the region, harvested to supplement rural livelihoods and assist in economic growth,” says Halman, who sources Acure’s fair-trade, cold-pressed, unrefined marula from Bulilimamangwe, Zimbabwe, via the Marula Project. Griffeth says that incorporating marula makes ethical and financial sense for Prima Fleur, as well, as demand hints at a burgeoning industry. The oil that serves as the base for the Olkerii line is currently produced by Philip and Katy Leakey and 800 of their fellow Kenyans and Tanzanians, but “the opportunity for expanding the business is great, even to the level of creating sustainable, fair-trade work for more than 10,000 people,” she says.
International interest in marula oil has even opened new doors for the people (typically women) who process this formerly provincial product. A year after launching her company, Riley returned to Africa to meet with the cooperative that supplies the marula, and “the women wanted to do more than produce oil—they wanted to learn more about how to make lotions and balms,” she says.
Another added bonus for product developers and spa owners alike is marula oil’s incredible shelf life. Halman cites its “excellent oxidative stability.” PhytoTrade Africa claims that its oxidation induction time is nearly eight times that of olive oil, for example. And Riley notes that its natural antioxidants also play a role in extending the oil’s shelf life.
All of these factors add up to a winning formula. Umbel, who purchases her marula directly from a native group that harvests in Namibia, has been selling her Namibian Marula Cold-Pressed Oil since 2003, and it’s been so successful that she has incorporated the ingredient into a multitude of concoctions—everything from body butter and lotion to more unusual offerings such as Mud-Poo, a powdered mud that turns into shampoo when water is added. At Ohm Spa, Shea Terra’s pure marula oil is used in treatments such as the Balancing ($149, 60 minutes) or the Deep Pore Cleansing ($169, 60 minutes) facials. Co-owner Kathy Yan says a mask absorbs the marula, which helps dissolve sebum and facilitate extractions, while skincare therapist Gisela Gonzalez touts the oil’s ability to reduce transdermal water loss, calling it “an amazing option for reducing the redness that can occur from extractions and chemical peels.”
Shea Terra Organics is also on display at Jivana Holistic Spa (Burlington, VT), where owner Cathie Hansen-Barre uses the Shea Butter & Malawi Sugar 2-n-1 Body Scrub with Namibian Marula for her Organic Shea Butter & Sugar Scrub ($80, 45 minutes), a full-body exfoliation on a heated hammam table. Marula Body Nectar Spray is also incorporated into the massage portion of the Traditional Hammam Experience ($165, 2 hours).
At the vegan-organic Le Petite Skincare Spa (Cortlandt, NY), owner Mary T. Prenon uses Alapure’s marula oil and hand creams in all of the treatments—the creams during the massage portion of her facials and the pure oil as a moisturizer for clients with sensitive, dry, or aging skin. “It’s very light, highly moisturizing, and not greasy,” says Prenon.
For her popular African Botanics Skincare collection, Noik merges high concentrations of pure, wild-harvested marula with other actives and botanicals from the African continent. The products are the centerpiece of The Marula Ritual ($250, 80 minutes) at The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Los Angeles. At each stage, marula is the star. After a body polish with Marula African Muti Mud Mineral Body Scrub, the guest is wrapped to allow the mud to penetrate. While cocooned, the therapist performs a scalp and facial massage with pure marula oil, and the treatment finishes with a full-body massage using marula oil.
More established brands have also profited from the results of marula’s recent move to the spotlight. A cult favorite since its introduction in 2008, Clarins’s Pure Melt Cleansing Gel With Marula Oil has recently been re-embraced by clients, says brand ambassador Christopher Truffa. “Clarins has always been a pioneer in plant science, and the use of marula oil is no exception,” he says. “Our sales of Pure Melt Cleansing Gel are consistent year after year, and the customers who use it come back time and again to replenish.”
Still, some dermatologists and estheticians caution that marula might be more effective as part of a balanced treatment regimen than on its own. Olga Lorencin, founder and owner of Kinara Skin Care Clinic and Spa (Los Angeles), offers “hydrating, protective, soothing” marula oil as an option for her custom masks, but only recommends it in pure form with other oils such as rosehip. She chose marula because it complements other oils, she says, but “it has limitations by itself. It’s by no means a miracle—it’s a piece in the much larger anti-aging picture.” Beverly Hills dermatologist Harold Lancer, M.D., also advocates for combining marula with other products for best results. His Lancer Skincare system features the oil in two items—Intensive Night Treatment and The Method: Nourish, a moisturizer suitable for nearly all skin types—designed to be used in conjunction with the rest of his line.
As if face- and bodycare weren’t enough, marula is also a great addition to the haircare market. Industry giant Paul Mitchell has devoted an entire line to the ingredient, bringing marula to the masses with MarulaOil shampoo, conditioner, mask, and two conditioning treatments, all made with wild-harvested, cold-pressed oil from an African cooperative. Prima Fleur has dipped a toe in the haircare pool as well, with its recently launched Olkerii Marula Hair Treatment Oil, Conditioner, and Crème Cleanser. Acure also offers several marula-infused hair products.
Griffeth notes that in the 25 years she’s been developing and manufacturing skin- and bodycare products, she’s never seen such an extraordinary oil. Her customer feedback “has been tremendous,” she says. A valuable addition to any menu, marula is an ingredient that promises to wow even the most seasoned spa-goers.
Nourish and protect clients’ skin.
1. ACURE Marula Oil: Ideal for dry, chapped, and rough skin on the face and body, this 100 percent pure oil crafted without pesticides is high in antioxidants and is easily absorbed. www.acureorganics.com
2. African Botanics Neroli Infused Marula Oil: Minimize pores and improve skin’s appearance with this light, multifunctional facial oil that infuses skin cells with powerful antioxidants, as well as vitamins C and E. www.africanbotanics.com
3. Alapure Enriched Marula Oil: Moisturize without leaving the skin greasy with this enriched lightweight oil that is infused with cedarwood, lavender essential oils, mandarin, and wild sunflower oil. www.alapure.com
4. Au Natural Organics Pure Marula: Rich in antioxidants and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, this oil softens and nourishes the skin while also conditioning dry, damaged hair. www.aunaturalorganics.com
5. Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil: Combined with antioxidants and omega-6 and omega-9, this oil delivers clinically proven anti-aging benefits and advanced protection against environmental stressors. www.drunkelephant.com
6. Fiafini Skincare Pure Marula Beauty Oil: This ultra-nourishing cold-pressed oil is high in essential fatty acids and nutrients that moisturize and condition the skin. www.fiafini.com
7. Marula Pure Beauty Oil Light Hair Treatment and Styling Oil: This silicone-free, color-safe leave-in product locks in moisture, tames flyaways, and controls frizz with no greasy buildup. www.marula.com
8. Nexxus New York Salon Care Oil Infinite Nourishing Hair Oil: This oil-infused system has a unique blend of precious oils, including babassu and antioxidant-rich marula, which help to smooth hair while adding shine. www.nexxus.com
9. Odacité Pure Elements Marula-Neroli Serum Concentrate: Infused with neroli and rose oil to promote healthy skin, this deeply restorative serum creates a protective layer on the skin to ensure long-lasting hydration. www.odacite.com
10. Prima Fleur Skin Care Olkerii Marula: This high-oleic oil contains bioactive lipids that defend skin from dehydration and free radicals and minimize the appearance of fine lines. www.primafleur.com
11. PurErb Serenity Calming Moisturizer: This cream infuses the skin with an exotic bouquet of botanical oils and extracts, including baobab, kakadu plum, and marula, that soothe and hydrate stressed skin. www.purerbskincare.com
12. Shea Terra Organics Namibian Marula Cold-Pressed Oil: Nourish aging skin with this wild harvested oil from Namibia, which improves moisture balance and elasticity. www.sheaterraorganics.com