Note this post originally posted in 2017, has been edited and brought up to what we understand about these oils in 2024.

Nature's oils, fats, and waxes play a vital role in how our bodies, including our skin, are constructed.

Nature is supremely economical, and the elements that make up plant oils and animal fats are also present in our skin and bodies.
Fats are necessary for life processes in all forms and at all stages of life.

Seeds, Nuts and The Oils they Produce

Take the seeds of the plant world. They are often small but can be large, even dangerous if a large coconut or cannonball were to fall from a great height.

Yet each carries the potential for life. As the source of a plant's regeneration, the seed carries what the young plant needs to become a mature and independent shrub, tree, or crop.

In those seeds, the sun's energy transforms into lipid and non-lipid compounds, which include vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols that color, scent, and flavor the oil. This combination of nutrients nourishes the seedling toward growth and independence until the plant can survive independently.

The variety and type of plants that grow in each region, from the tropical and semi-tropical around the equator to the temperate climates further north and south, are specific to their native regions. The potential of more oils from many more seeds than those we know of currently can be pressed for their oils, and the list grows annually.

Tropical Oils

Oils from tropical regions tend to be butters and viscous oils, which are more saturated and carry fewer double bonds, which predominate in the oils from the temperate zones.

Seeds from the tropics produce oils suited for that environment; often solid, or semi-solid, non-liquid vegetable butters: coconut, cocoa, mango, illite, sal and shea butters. 

The oils are solid because their fatty acid structure is primarily saturated; the carbon atoms of the oil’s fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen atoms, and all the carbon atoms have hydrogen atoms attached.

 This creates straight, or flat carbon chains that fit tightly together giving the appearance of solidity. These butters and viscous oils are stable in warm climates, which means the fatty acid chain doesn’t have a place for oxygen to attach to the carbon atoms. They do not go rancid or oxidize readily.

Oils from Temperate Climates

Further north and south, moving away from the equator, temperate climates produce liquid oils: almond, apricot, olive, marula, and camellia.

These fatty acid chains are no longer saturated; carbon atoms now have double bonds where hydrogen atoms are absent along the chain. The carbon chains, no longer saturated with hydrogen atoms, bend where the double bonds replace missing hydrogen atoms. This bending of the fatty acid chains gives us liquidity in oils, now called unsaturated fatty acids.

The bent chains cannot lie close to each other, as could be done with saturated carbon chains that make up the plant butters, creating the appearance of liquidity.

In addition, the missing hydrogen atoms are the point where oxygen can attach to the carbon chain. Over time, the oil will go rancid and oxidize, and some will dry thoroughly to the touch. 

We saw the development of unsaturated liquid oils moving north to the earth's temperate zones. Still, as we continue north or south in the Southern Hemisphere, we begin to see oils that carry additional double bonds. These polyunsaturated fatty acids form in plants of these extreme climates, from raspberry and blackberry seeds to flax and cranberry.

How The Structure of an Oil Indicates its Application

Understanding the differences in the oils’ structure will help you better care for your skin, protect it from damaging sun exposure, and improve your health by choosing the best oils to cook and flavor foods.

Saturated Oils, the Solid Butters

Tropical oils that serve local communities are shipped all over the world. With worldwide transportation, we can also take advantage of oils from every region. Coconut, shea, mango, cocoa, and babassu are among the available tropical oils or butters.

Produced by trees in tropical climates with warm temperatures and bright sunlight, nature has endowed them with compounds that offer protection from the extreme effects of sun, heat, and UV exposure. 

The healing fraction of oils that include antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, along with fatty acids, helps protect skin tissues against damage from environmental exposure, including too much sun. The skin is shielded from damage and overexposure yet able to perform important functions like making vitamin D in the skin and barrier integrity.

Protecting oils from light, heat, and air extends their shelf life and minimizes oxidation. Solid butters like coconut oil are good choices for cooking, as the saturated nature of the oil avoids harm from oxidation. 

Unsaturated Oils, Liquid and Reactive

The drawing represents the center of an unsaturated chain where two carbon atoms are bound by a double bond in the absence of hydrogen atoms. There can be up to five of these double bonds in a fatty acid chain though one, two or three are the norm.
As a counterpoint, the temperate region oils’ ability to attract oxygen has the benefit of carrying oxygen and light energy inside the body through the metabolic system. What is harmful in one situation, consumption of oxidized oils, has value in another. What oxidizes outside of the body, transports necessary elements inside the body.
Protection of the liquid oils before consuming them in food is important and necessary to maintain health.
In the realm of liquid oils there are varying degrees of reactivity to oxygen with names indicating numerical states: monounsaturated and multiple degrees of poly-unsaturation. The carbon chains of these oils aren’t saturated with hydrogen and can attach to oxygen, thus are increasingly fragile to oxidation and damaging to our bodies when consumed in a damaged state.

Monounsaturated oils, like olive and avocado, remain reasonably stable when handled carefully, kept cool, and in dark storage bottles. The most common monounsaturated fatty acid is oleic, named for the olive. For thousands of years, Olive oil in the Mediterranean region has been the center of culture for cooking, body care, skin protection, rituals, and food preparation. Other popular monounsaturated oils are macadamia nut, avocado, and almond. All nourish, protect, and condition the skin. Oleic monounsaturated fatty acid is a common fatty acid and a component of nearly all oils. It helps keep moisture from evaporating from the cells and is one of the fatty acids created by our skin’s oil production mechanism, the sebum.

The polyunsaturated oils make up the remaining general group of fatty acids. Poly, meaning many, means that there is more than one point on the carbon chain that can attract oxygen, making them fragile to heat, light, air, and time. The essential fatty acids, EFAs, discussed at length in health articles and blogs, fall into this category. 

Polyunsaturated oils include those missing hydrogen at two points or more along the chain. The more places the chain bends, where it is missing hydrogen atoms, the more reactive and fragile the oil.

Being termed ‘essential,’ the two essential fatty acids must be consumed in the diet as the body is unable to make them from other compounds. The challenge is protecting the fragility from rancidity with cold temperatures and careful handling. 

  • Susan! I am fascinated by lipids and their role in the body and have studied them also. Few people understand that a wide variety of healthy fats is very beneficial in our diets. I have your book of course (2 copies, one for onbe to share with others) and just discovered your wonderful blog! As I am reading through it I have become curious about the possibility of cooking with the hard butters other that coconut and Ghee (my usual choices). Have you ever cooked with shea, mango, cocoa, babassu etc?

    • Hi Valerie, they are all possibilities for cooking. Cocoa butter is of course the fat in chocolate – or should be. Red palm oil has red carotenes that become vitamin A in the body and lots of vitamin E. Shea butter is a cooking oil in Africa. I haven’t used them all but yes they would be great supplements to the diet.


    • It’s hard to say one oil is better than the others. We are all individuals and our skin responds differently to what we put on it. I suggest that you use just a small amount of an oil for a few days, a couple of drops right after washing, and see how your skin responds. Then if it does well, try another and in time you’ll have several you can combine to make your own facial oil.

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