It’s been called “liquid gold” by marketers everywhere. Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Eva Longoria, and Taylor Swift swear by its benefits—and the fruit from which this product is made looks like it’s from another world.

Argan oil may be one of the latest beauty product fads. But it’s got a backstory that may surprise you.

Any hair product with argan oil in it is a treat for my perpetually frizzy mane—whether curly or straightened, it reins in the most persistent of my flyaways. But what am I buying, when I’m purchasing argan oil? Where does this product come from—and who’s involved in the production?

Here’s what to know about argan oil:

What is argan oil?

Argan oil is used as a light, moisturizing treatment for hair and skin. Argan oil made its debut on the commercial beauty scene several years ago as an ingredient in a hair product line called Moroccan Oil (which, interestingly, is not Moroccan, but Israeli). Products containing argan oil are everywhere now—Bloomberg counted just 29 products containing argan oil in 2008, but that number skyrocketed to 588 by 2013.

As a beauty serum, the oil tames frizziness and gives hair lots of shine. It is also added to moisturizers, self-tanners, and masks. Argan oil can be used in its unrefined state as a hair and skin treatment—and this “natural” quality may have contibuted to its commercial success.

Where does argan oil come from?

Argan oil comes from the fruit of argan trees which grow primarily in southwestern Morocco. There are about 21 million argan trees currently situated on about 9,900 square miles of land in this region.

The argan tree is uniquely suited to desert life: their extensive root system reaches a deep water table and anchors them firmly against strong winds. These trees also prevent soil erosion, and offer shelter and snackage for goats.

Goats standing in (and snacking on) argan trees. How cute is that?

When the trees are left to thrive, they’re a boon both for the ecosystem and the economy in the communities where they grow.

But with the argan oil industry booming, there’s concern that we may outgrow the current supply of argan trees. Argan trees flourish in parts of Morocco and Algeria but have been hard to cultivate elsewhere. Many of the trees have been lost to agriculture, both by clearing and by deep ploughing that damages their roots. Some of these trees have also been harvested for their wood.

How is argan oil produced?

The oil is extracted through a time-intensive process: gleaning the fallen fruit, cracking them open, and squeezing the meat into a meal mixed with water gradually until a small amount of oil has been produced.

Extracting the oil is no easy feat, and currently there’s been no way to mechanize the extraction, requiring all oil production to be done by hand. This technique has been practiced by Berber women in southwestern Morocco for centuries. But recently, argan oil’s success has led to rapidly growing work opportunities for these women.

When argan oil started to gain traction a few years ago as an in-demand beauty product, many of these women were able to form collectives. Within these co-ops, the women worked together not only to make the oil, but also to make business decisions with their distributors. Being a member of these collectives offers women the chance to have a wide spectrum of social interaction, to learn business skills, and to consistently support their families financially.

And yes, that means that some argan oil is feminist.

As the industry grows and bigger companies take over, some of them contract the work to individual women. That’s still beneficial, but less so than contracting through the collective: these women are still making money to support their families, but they don’t get the social and community benefits and business experience of working together.

What can I do to make sure my argan oil is responsibly sourced?

Want to make sure that your argan oil purchase helps women in these countries, in the fullest possible way?

Find out who makes your argan oil. Look for products that source their argan oil specifically from women’s cooperatives, created and run by Moroccan women. Support companies that show transparency and a commitment to supporting these cooperatives.

A great place to start? Kenza International Beauty, which was created by a Moroccan woman who now lives in the United States. Another is Neal’s Yard Remedies, which supports the Tighanimine Cooperative (the world’s first Fairtrade women’s cooperative for argan oil) and which has received top marks for its ethical standards.

Fair trade designations are definitely a good way to know that the company makes the environment, the economy, and the lives of the people in a particular area a priority. But the “Fairtrade” certification is also an expensive process to go through.  If a business doesn’t have the fair trade designation, they may still be supporting practices that are good for people and the environment, but you’ll have to do your research.

In addition, be prepared to pay a little extra for higher-quality products from companies that pay workers a living wage.

The global economy is as awe-inspiring, interesting, and precarious as a goat balancing in a desert tree. Having access to goods from around the world is great, but before we snap something up on the shelves of stores, it’s worth a look behind the scenes to be sure where our money is going.

You could be putting your hard earned dollars towards the empowerment of women, and the preservation of a biosphere and a traditional means of production. That’s worth a few minutes on Google, no?


Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.