Jojoba is one of the more popular oils used in cosmetics and hair products to promote skin and hair health. Likely you’ve heard the word mentioned in advertisements before, pronounced “hohoba,” but what is jojoba oil?
Jojoba, also known as goat nut, deer nut, pignut, wild hazel, quinine nut, coffeeberry, and gray box bush, is a native shrub of the Sonoran Desert and other desert areas in the American Southwest. It is the sole member of the Simmondsiaceae family of plants. Jojoba is endemic to southwestern America, meaning it’s found there and nowhere else, geographically in nature.1
The jojoba plant grows upwards of six feet tall and has oval waxy leaves and small greenish-yellow flowers that bloom from March to May. The seed or nut, which houses the jojoba oil, is small and acorn-shaped and -sized. The common name “jojoba” originated from O’odham name for the plant, Hohowi.2
Bailey’s pocket mouse (which despite its name is a rather large mouse growing to around ten inches in length) is the only known animal to be able to digest the wax found inside the jojoba nut, and it’s the only rodent from the Sonoran Desert that is able to eat the seeds, because they are toxic to most other mammals.3 Those mammals, including deer, javelina, bighorn sheep, and livestock, instead feast on jojoba foliage which is a viable food source year round.
Jojoba is grown commercially to produce jojoba oil, sometimes known as jojoba wax, which is extracted from the plant’s seed. It is currently the Sonoran Desert’s second most economically valuable native plant (overshadowed only by California fan palms, used as ornamental trees). Fifty-four percent of the content of jojoba seeds by weight is the valuable jojoba oil.4 The oil has a very long shelf-life and an extremely high resistance to heat.5 Cultivation of the plant has spread commercially to arid climates in Central and South America.
In the early 18th century, Jesuit missionaries observed Native Americans heating then grinding the seeds to make a buttery paste. They applied this to their skin and hair for conditioning and moisturizing. The O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert treated burns with a salve made from a paste of the jojoba nut. Native Americans were also observed using the waxy oil to preserve animal hides. The nuts made for an emergency food supply, not only for the nutrients of the surrounding nut materials, but also because the oil can help keep hunger at bay.6 Jojoba oil on its own is edible but non-caloric and non-digestible, meaning the oil will pass out of the intestines unchanged.7