When you think about natural oils that can help smooth skin or give hair a lustrous sheen, you probably automatically think of those derived from exotic plants, flowers, and fruits. Not all natural oils are of the botanical variety, however, and when it comes to animal-based oils, one of the most buzzed-about (and well-researched!) is emu oil.
Yes, that's emu as in the giant Australian bird. We know you probably have a lot of questions, so we're here to answer the big ones. Keep reading to learn the benefits of emu oil, how it's made, how to use it, and how to find an emu oil product that's ethically sourced.
How is emu oil made, and is it even ethical?
Emu oil is a bright-yellow liquid oil that's made from emu fat, which undergoes filtering and processing to remove bacteria and contaminants. Like their fellow flightless bird, the ostrich, emus evolved to store a lot of fat between their skin and flesh (in the form of a large block that covers most of their body) to survive in the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. Each bird yields about 250 ounces of oil, which contains omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids, and is incorporated into a variety of products from face oil blends to creams to soaps.
Emu oil can be a very sustainable, ethically sourced product. Unfortunately, as with anything animal-derived, that's not always the case. Some farmers raise emus only for their fat, which is obviously problematic. Others, however, use as much of the bird as possible. The emu's skin can be used to make leather for clothing and accessories; the meat, which is lean but high in omega-3 fatty acids, is a popular protein; there are potential uses for emu feathers; and the bird's giant black eggs are carved and painted to create unique pieces of art.
"The emu is 95 percent usable," says Marie-Veronique Nadeau, a chemist and founder of the nontoxic skin care brand Marie Veronique, which features emu oil in several face oil blends. "We source emu oil only from free-range birds raised with chemical-free feed and water in a clean environment and processed humanely in state-inspected facilities."
There are quality options available, but before you buy emu oil, it's important to research the company a bit first. To make the process easier, the American Emu Association has certification programs to verify that manufacturers engage in ethical farming practices and produce products that are free of contaminants. Here's their official list of certified members.
The history of emu oil.
According to the Emu Oil Institute, the origins of emu oil can be traced back 40,000 years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples used emu oil to treat minor aches and pains, help heal wounds and burns quicker, and to protect their skin from the wind and the sun, as well as to treat inflamed joints.
In the 19th century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are said to have introduced European explorers to the oil, presenting it to them as a natural sunscreen. The Europeans took the oil and the knowledge back to their home countries with them, and emu oil's popularity quickly spread.
By the 20th century, American farmers got in on the emu action, importing and raising the birds for their meat, oil, and leather. During this time, emu oil was studied by scientists and began to be used medicinally and cosmetically. Today, the American Emu Association regulates the oil to ensure quality consistency across the board.
Benefits of emu oil.
1. Emu oil smooths, hydrates, and protects skin.
Emu oil is a great moisturizer because it helps improve skin hydration and prevent water loss. Studies have also found that emu oil has penetration-enhancing effects. "The molecule is small enough to penetrate past the epidermal barrier," explains Nadeau. "This means it can act as a carrier for other nutritive ingredients, as well as supply nutritive benefits on its own."
Other studies suggest that emu oil is a useful treatment for dermatitis and eczema, and it's been specifically found to improve itching, erythema, and scales associated with eczema of the scalp. "Its anti-inflammatory properties, probably due to its high omega-3 content, are well-known and supported," says Nadeau. "It reduces swelling, providing relief from skin conditions associated with inflammation."
Emu oil doesn't just help keep skin moist, though—it's also been shown to help increase collagen production. Collagen helps skin maintain its elasticity, which in turn helps reduce the appearance of fine lines. In one 2015 study, women were asked to apply a pad coated with a combination of emu oil, caffeine, and vitamin K to just one of their eyes for four weeks. The eyes that had been treated with the emu mixture had fewer lines, improved elasticity, and a greater reduction in dark circles. Whether the results can be chalked up to emu, or the other ingredients, is less clear.
Emu oil has antioxidant properties as well, which can help counter oxidative stress (and subsequent skin damage) caused by things like pollution, UV damage, and a poor diet. This may be why it's been used historically as a natural form of sunscreen.
Emu oil is also biomimetic—meaning it has a lipid profile very similar to that found in human skin, which makes it one of the most powerful lipids we can apply topically to improve barrier protection. "You can think of it as natural weatherproofing for your skin," says Nadeau.
2. Emu oil may promote hair growth.
As we mentioned above, emu oil can help with eczema, including eczema of the scalp, making it a great topical treatment for head-to-toe itchiness. Beyond that, some studies suggest emu oil may aid in hair growth, too. Research on mice suggests that emu oil promotes the growth of new hair follicles without causing any adverse effects to the scalp or surrounding skin. While more research is needed to determine just how effective emu oil is for promoting hair growth in humans, there's no harm in massaging some into your scalp or using it as a natural, hydrating hair mask.
3. Emu oil may alleviate breast sensitivity.
Another reported benefit of emu oil: It may be an effective way to treat breast sensitivity for new moms. During breastfeeding, some women notice soreness on their nipples and areolae, and emu-oil-infused creams have been shown to help hydrate and soothe nipple skin when used regularly. Emu oil hasn't been proved safe for infants, however, so any mom who decides to try it out for nipple pain, should clean off the oil or cream before feedings, just to be safe.
4. Emu oil may help heal cuts and scrapes.
Remember how we said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples used emu oil to treat wounds and burns? Well, they were on to something. While most of these studies have been conducted on animals (like mice and guinea pigs), researchers say emu oil's ability to promote collagen synthesis and aid in keratinization (the process by which cells beneath the skin are converted into hair and nails) results in an overall positive effect on wound healing. The fact that emu oil reduces inflammation probably doesn't hurt either.
5. Potential perks of ingesting emu oil.
Compared to its topical applications, the benefits of emu oil consumption are less studied. That said, there's still some promising preliminary animal research related to gastrointestinal issues (like IBS) and cardiovascular health.
In one study involving rats, emu oil was found to decrease intestinal inflammation, while another study found that it improved tissue damage associated with colitis. In addition to IBS, emu oil is being considered as a possible treatment option for other gastrointestinal diseases, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and NSAID‐enteropathy.
Emu oil may also help lower cholesterol. In a 2004 study, researchers found that hamsters consuming emu oil had significantly greater reductions in cholesterol levels compared to hamsters who ate other types of oil, like coconut oil.
How to use emu oil topically.
Emu oil can be applied "straight" as a no-fuss treatment for burns or irritating scalp or skin conditions. But in most cases, you can get an even greater benefit by blending it. Here are a few suggestions from Nadeau:
- Use it in a DIY acne oil. Emu oil is a bit thick all by itself (it's a saturated fat, which means it's solid at room temperature), so it's best to mix with other oils. A good acne oil would contain both emu oil and an omega-6-rich oil, like borage oil.
- Use it as a sunscreen primer. Wear an oil blend containing emu oil and carotenoids, like astaxanthin, under sunscreen for additional UV protection.
- Add to moisturizers to boost hydration. If you are going for a very thick moisturizing cream just add a little emu oil to the cream to increase its moisturizing properties.
- Shield yourself from the elements. Layer emu oil under your moisturizer during extreme weather events—heat or cold.
Are there any side effects of emu oil?
There are no known side effects associated with emu oil. It’s generally considered safe for topical use, but experts say more research is needed on oral emu oil supplements. So if you choose to take it orally, always consult with your doctor first.
Remember, if you’re thinking of buying products containing emu oil, you should check out the American Emu Association’s official list of certified members. These providers practice ethical farming, and buying from them will help you avoid contaminants.
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