Babassu oil is derived from the fruits of the babassu palm, a tree native to the tropical rain forests of Brazil. The oil is similar to coconut oil and is used in cooking and cosmetics. It is light yellow in color and semi-soft at room temperature, but melts easily when rubbed into the skin. This oil is increasingly becoming a substitute for coconut oil, and its wild harvest is a major industry in Brazil.
The babassu palm was discovered by French paleontologist A.D. d'Orbigny in the early 1800s. The South American natives called the tree babassu, and d'Orbigny gave it the scientific name Orbignya oleifera. This palm grows up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) tall. It has several clusters of up to 500 fruits that resemble small coconuts. The oil is derived by cold pressing the seeds of these fruits. Babassu oil is made up of 70 percent lipids, with a high percentage of lauric and myristic acids. It is these acids that give the oil its low melting temperature.
When babassu oil comes into contact with the skin, it draws the heat out and creates a cooling effect. It is a common ingredient in lotions, creams, lip balms and hair conditioners. The oil forms a protective layer on the skin that isn't greasy or shiny, and it can be used on all skin types. It is also useful for people with eczema and other types of dermatitis because it is gentle and non-comedogenic.
Babassu oil is also commonly used in soaps. It converts to soap easily and produces a hard bar. Soaps made with this plant extract lather quite well, but are usually mixed with other oils with a higher oleic acid content, such as sunflower oil, to keep the soap from drying the skin. The oil from babassu soap is absorbed into the skin easily, and is soothing on itchy skin.
Scientists have been experimenting with babassu oil as a bio-fuel, and in 2008, Virgin Airways sponsored a trial in which babassu and coconut oils were used to partially power one engine of a Boeing 747. As a sustainable fuel, babassu oil is promising because it is only harvested in the wild from tropical rain forests so it does not contribute to de-forestation. The shells of the fruits can also be used as biomass for fuel after the oil has been harvested.