Sweet almond oil is a viscous oil with a yellowy colour. Cosmetic scientists like it because it gives a rich lubricious feel to cream formulations. Marketers like it because it sounds natural. More on that in a minute. It contains a lot of unsaturated fatty chains. This is something that might turn out to have some benefits for the skin, though there is no formal evidence I can cite to justify this at present. The skin contains some chemicals that look a lot like the unsaturated bits of sweet almond oil and which seem to help protect the skin against bacteria. It isn’t impossible that adding sweet almond to the skin boosts this sort of thing and so helps build the skin’s barrier and protective function.
So it is pleasant to use, quite likely to be beneficial and natural. It does have a small snag. The high degree of unsaturated material makes it prone to oxidation. So older samples can develop a bit of a musty smell. This can carry over into products made from it, though this is something formulators know about and take into account. It contains vitamin E which helps slow down the oxidation and also gives marketers something else to talk about. And it contains some phytosterols which although present at a low level do give the oil its distinctive character and may well be beneficial on the skin.
It is a tree nut oil, so if you are concerned about that kind of allergy it would probably be best to avoid it. I don’t think the risk of an allergic reaction to almond oil in a cosmetic product is very high, but the consequences if it were to occur are quite severe so it is logical to take precautions if you have grounds for feeling you are at risk. Use levels in cosmetics are pretty low, so if you have inadvertently applied it to sensitive skin I wouldn’t panic just yet. I’d assume you are safe unless some symptoms appear.
The other thing about sweet almond oil is that in reality it is not remotely natural. It is the result of extensive genetic manipulation by man. In the wild almonds contain cyanide which makes them bitter to the taste and capable of doing harm if eaten. The natural variety is called bitter almond. It does have some uses as a flavour, notably in amaretto biscuits, but is not remotely as popular as sweet almond. The sweet almond is rare in the wild, and is the result of a genetic defect. This was exploited by humans and the cultivated form is the result of selective breeding to create a species that could not survive in the wild. So sweet almond is genetically modified and distinctly the result of human activity. The natural version contains traces of dangerous chemicals that can damage your health.
I have already written about its history on a previous blog post.
In my opinion the best use for sweet almond oil is the one I have already mentioned, as an ingredient in skin creams. It lends itself to skin creams aimed at dry skin where it seems to be particularly beneficial, though it is fine for other creams purely for its skin feel. It can also be used in massage oils where its lubricity is appreciated. It can be used as an ingredient in soap making too where it contributes to a creamy lather. It is too expensive to be used in mass market soaps but artisan and hobbyists often spot its potential.
All in all a very useful material so long as you are aware of its potential for oxidation.
Notes For Chemists
I wasn’t joking when I said it had a high level of unsaturated fatty side chains.
It contains around 0.04% tocopherol when fresh, which obviously will go down over time and is clearly not enough to adequately protect the oil from oxidation.
Its official name is Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis Oil. The dulcis bit means sweet. Bitter almond is called Prunus Amygdalus Amara Kernel Oil – where amara means bitter.
In my experience it is particularly prone to distorting plastic containers. If this bothers you, keep it in glass bottles. I actually quite like the effect on plastic because it reminds you that this is an oil that is best used fresh.