Living in the Mediterranean, I am so lucky to see the beginnings, the buds if you like, of sweet almond oil way before the golden liquid ends up in skincare. Almonds, with their delicate white and pale pink flowers, are the first fruit trees to come into bud and blossom in Malta.
They make a welcome sight in what is our chill Mediterranean rainy season lasting from January to end March. The early spring sun sees them bloom almost overnight and while they are fairly commonly cultivated and grow wild along our roadsides, it's our neighbour Sicily that lays claim to and is famed for the almond.
The trees were probably introduced to both islands by the Ancient Greeks who colonised south-eastern Sicily and Malta. The name 'almond' comes in a round about way from Latin amygdalus and Greek amugdale [more here on almonds in Sicily].
We were surrounded by flowering almond trees on a weekend break in the hills above the quaint baroque town Scicli, Sicily. It's the lesser known - and all the more enchanting for it - of a cluster of baroque Unesco World Heritage towns in this corner of Sicily. Scicli is known perhaps overseas more as the backdrop for Rai TV's serial Commissario Montalbano. Anyway, back to the almond...!
Sicily has its crème de la crème almond which is grown around the most famous of these baroque beauties - Noto. The Noto almond is protected by the Slow Food Movement, and is in limited supply. Here, we're talking the fine sweet almonds we eat. Think of those amazing Sicilian desserts coated or filled with marzipan! But Sicily is also a producer, along with other parts of mainland Italy, of the almond from which we derive a perfect emollient in natural skincare; Sweet Almond Oil.
Sweet Almond Oil: a hard worker in skincare
As Sweet Almond Oil is a very common ingredient in skincare products, we tend to overlook its own virtues and properties thinking it too everyday; a mere bottle filler and carrier for the skincare goodies - smaller amounts of those special, active and often far more expensive ingredients such as essential oils or macerated or hard-to-extract, rarer seed oils. A typical, basic body lotion may comprise predominantly distilled water along with a flower water (hydrosol) and then near the top of the ingredients' list you'll often find Sweet Almond to create that oil-in-water emulsion with a little help from an emulsifier (preferably a natural one!). Its prolific use in skincare has its reasons - some good and some less so. It's wise to understand what sweet almond oil is and what to look out for on skincare product labels to make sure the oils, lotions and potions you're buying have top-notch almond oil that's working as hard as any other ingredient.
What is Sweet Almond Oil?
True almond oil should be labeled Prunus amydalis dulcis
on the ingredient list. Apricot and peach kernel oils are very similar in composition and often the three oils are used interchangeably. The almond nut kernels contain up to 50% oil and the purest form that we desire in our skincare products should be that extracted physically by a first cold pressing ideally from organically grown and harvested nuts. The method is similar to that of pressing olives. Similarly, this type of almond oil will have a higher price on it than its less naturally-extracted versions, just as we pay more for extra virgin olive oil. However, to produce volume at lower prices demanded by the skincare industry, much sweet almond oil on the market is extracted with chemical solvents in a refining process. Do check the extraction method if buying pure sweet almond oil and ask any skincare formulator or brand about its ingredients if you are in doubt about its provenance.
What about its active ingredients & benefits for our skin?
Sweet almond oil is a light, pale yellow and highly emollient oil with a pleasant slightly nutty scent. It is slow to penetrate the skin so provides an ideal carrier oil in massage. Thanks to the climate of Mediterranean where it grows (and similar to that other carrier oil staple olive oil), sweet almond oil is high in fatty acids - oleic (approx. 65-70%) and linoleic (26-28%).These fatty acids deliver excellent moisturizing to dry skin's epidermis, which is 90% composed of the horny layer of dead skin cells called keratinocytes. Sweet almond oil is also rich in various Vitamin Bs and Vitamin E; the latter known for its anti-ageing properties. It also falls within the pH range of our natural skin so is a body-friendly oil. All in all, sweet almond oil has a long, documented history as a soothing and anti-inflammatory oil to apply to dry, chapped or broken skin and in helping reduce the effects of various skin complaints like eczema and dermatitis.
To sum up
Sweet almond oil is ideal on its own to help moisturize your skin, especially if you've sensitive skin, and makes a sensible plain carrier oil to mix with other active ingredients. If you find it as a mainstay in your skincare products, do check the name on the label is true sweet almond oil not another (cheaper nut or kernal oil). Ensure your skincare product's sweet almond oil is the best possible, and where possible an organic oil extracted by first cold pressing.