Olive oil, that golden cold pressed oil we all know and love, is commonly used in cooking, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and even as fuel. It has been used for thousands of years and is most likely one of the first used homemade beauty ingredients.
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean, where evidence of humans collecting wild olives dates back 10,000 years. At some point throughout history, humans started cultivating olive trees and it is thought that the first olive tree plantations were located in Greece on the island of Crete about 5,000 years ago. Olive oil was long in use by this point and evidence of olive oil production has been found in countries all around the Mediterranean.
Some of these trees from old times are still alive today. Olive trees are some of the oldest known trees in the world. A study was undertaken in 2012 in the Garden of Gethsemane just outside of Jerusalem to try to carbon date the extremely old olive trees that grow there. The Garden of Gethsemane is revered by Christians as the place where Jesus prayed before he was crucified. The study dated sections of the trees at around 1,000 – 1,100 years old.
After the 16th century, Europeans introduced the olive tree to the New World and it is now cultivated in California, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina. It is estimated that there are about 800 million olive trees in the world today, the vast majority (95%) in Mediterranean countries.
Uses of Olive Oil
Olive oil has had hundreds of uses throughout history, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for such a versatile and useful ingredient. Besides food, it has been used as medicine, fuel in oil lamps, in soap making and skincare and in religious ceremonies. Much as cocoa was used as a form of currency, so olive oil was even thought to represent wealth in ancient Minoan society.
Dealing in olive oil was the backbone of the import-export trade in the ancient world. Merchants came from Phoenicia, Crete and Egypt to the Mediterranean basin and even farther, from 600 BC onwards. The Scythians of the southern steppes of Russia came to replenish stocks of olive oil at the prosperous Greek trading posts of the Black Sea which later became the spas of Romania.
For a commodity so versatile and so important, it’s not surprising that olive oil was revered. The ancient Greeks believed the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena and began using olive oil in their religious rituals. Homer, the immortal Greek poet, called olive oil ‘liquid gold’ and the Greek Laws of Solon (an Athenian statesman), during the 6th to 7th century BC, prohibited the cutting down of olive trees on the punishment of death. The wars over Sicily, which led to the defeat of Carthage by Rome, were largely motivated by the olive plantations on the island which were coveted by both major powers.
Olive oil was also a valuable medicine in the hands of ancient Greek doctors. Hippocrates mentions 60 different conditions which could be treated with it, such as skin conditions, wounds and burns, gynaecological ailments, ear infections and many others.
Nowadays, olive oil is of course best known for many uses in cooking. The Mediterranean diet is almost synonymous for olive oil and it is well known that olive oil has many health inducing properties. Supermarket shelves are lined with hundreds of oil bottles containing different brands with different origins and different extraction methods.
- “Extra virgin” olive oil comes from the first pressing of olives, and retains the most flavour and aroma.
- “Virgin” olive oil generally comes from the second pressing.
- Cheaper brands sold as “regular” or “pure” olive oil are made with chemical refining and filtering, which standardise and neutralise flavours and acid contents. They have lower nutrient levels as a result.
Good quality olive oil is cold pressed, meaning that the oil is pressed from the olives with a mechanical grinder or press to extract the oil. This process does not involve heat as high heat can damage the flavour and nutrients in the oil.
Olive Oil in Historical Skincare
Olive oil has a long history of being used as a home remedy for skincare. Egyptians used it alongside beeswax as a cleanser, moisturiser, and antibacterial agent since the times of the Pharaohs. Cleopatra was said to use olive oil as a skin treatment, along with her other renowned beauty treatments such as her infamous milk baths and honey facials.
Archaeological finds proving that the Minoans used olive oil in their daily lives are found everywhere in Crete. One particularly impressive discovery is the untouched olives with the flesh preserved, found at the bottom of a cup sunk in a water cistern at the Minoan Palace of Kato Zakros. The Minoans used olive oil in their diet, as a cleanser instead of soap, as the base for scents and ointments, as a medicine, in tanning, for lighting and to protect delicate surfaces.
Writings of major ancient philosophers and physicians such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, Philostratus, and Lucian were analysed in-depth as part of research into the use of olive oil by the Ancient Greeks. According to the results, the use of massage, together with olive oil rub, helped to reduce muscle fatigue, to remove lactic acid, and to prevent the occurrence of sports injuries through flexibility provided to the skin of athletes. The therapeutic use of oil in the ancient world was fully recognised; and as a result Athenian athlothetes (sponsors of sporting events) provided free oil to all sport facilities where athletes could make free use of it (Nomikos et al., 2010).
Olive oil was also a valuable winner’s prize in Athenian athletic games. The city of Athens needed about 70,000 kilos of oil to reward the winners of the Panathenian Games, held every four years. The winner’s prize varied according to the event. The best runner received about 70 amphoras of 35-40 kilos, i.e. 2,500 kilos of olive oil, while the chariot-race winner got double, i.e. about 5,000 kilos. These prizes were worth a lot of money if you consider that a day’s wages for an Athenian craftsman was 1 Attic drachma, the equivalent of about 3 kilos of olive oil. And that was just the price of common oil, whereas the winner’s oil was much better quality and more expensive. Of course no-one would buy this oil to eat; instead it was used for anointing the bodies of rich young athletes.
Is Olive Oil Good for the Skin?
Nowadays what many people don’t realise is something that people living in ancient Egypt and Greece took for granted; that extra virgin olive oil, all by itself, is one of the best beauty secrets. Extra virgin olive oil has the added advantage of containing strong antioxidants, making it a natural anti-ageing ingredient. These antioxidants help fight off free radicals which attack cells and speed up the ageing process.
One of these antioxidants, hydroxytyrosol, is a very rare and extremely potent polyphenol compound found in the highest concentrations in the best olive oils. Hydroxytyrosol is believed to play a significant role in the many health benefits attributed to olive oil. Studies have shown very strong anti-inflammatory activity from this compound. However, this natural antioxidant is often destroyed during processing or refining of lower quality oils which is why it is important to buy the best cold pressed oils you can find.
Olive oil is found in shampoos, soaps, face powders, salt scrubs, hair conditioners, lipsticks, brilliantines, anti-wrinkle lotions, moisturisers, eye make-up remover, cuticle & nail treatments and even eyelash oils. Adding oil to your skin will not necessarily add lots of moisture, but it will however create a barrier effect which prevents moisture from being lost. The oil traps water beneath it and prevents the loss of water through evaporation thereby making your skin feel softer and smoother. For that reason many people use facial oils on top of their moisturisers or serums.
There has been relatively little scientific work done on the effect of olive oil on acne and other skin conditions. However, one study noted that the abundance of squalene in oils in general shows promise for sufferers of seborrheic dermatitis, acne, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis although the study did conclude the squalene levels are higher in amaranth oil than olive oil (Wołosik et al., 2013). Nonetheless, there is still some debate about the effects of olive oil on the skin and it is best to keep this in mind if you intend to use olive oil on very dry or sensitive skin or on your baby or infant’s skin.
When NOT to use Olive Oil on your Skin
One study undertaken in 2013 found that olive oil might actually not be as good for the skin as previously thought. Olive oil is high in certain essential fatty acids such as oleic acid and linoleic acid. However, a study undertaken by Simon Danby and his colleagues in the UK found that high levels of oleic acid in oils can increase water loss through the skin. As olive oil generally contains levels of oleic acid between 55% and 83%, this raises some questions about its regular use for individuals with dry or sensitive skin or babies/infants.
The researchers also found that olive oil affected the integrity of the top layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, and that prolonged use caused mild skin redness in some people. The study concluded that sunflower oil would be a better option for use as it generally contains low levels of oleic acid (note that there are also forms of sunflower with high levels of oleic acid!). The researchers went as far as saying that the use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage should be discouraged.
“The use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage should be discouraged.”
Research has also not found any evidence of olive oil helping with anything other than severe stretch marks. One study followed a group of 100 women in Tehran who were pregnant with their first child, half of whom were asked to apply olive oil twice daily to their abdomen. The study found that olive oil reduces the incidence of severe stretch marks and actually increases the incidence of mild stretch marks, but it does not significantly reduce the incidence and the severity of stretch marks and it could not be recommended for prevention of stretch marks (Soltanipoor et al., 2012).
This doesn’t mean you need to shun olive oil altogether as it can clearly play a beneficial role for people who do not have dry or sensitive skin and who use it as part of a skincare blend. Olive oil can also be quite a heavy, rich oil to use which is why it is often best blended with a lighter oil such as sweet almond oil anyway when used in skincare.
You can imagine that those Athenian athletes probably got quite greasy in the sun after covering their bodies with olive oil following their sweaty endeavours. Or perhaps they lubed themselves up for a game of grease wrestling, the Turkish National Sport of yağlı güreş where men wear hand-stitched lederhosen and cover themselves in olive oil to make it harder for their opponent to get a firm grip on them.
Make your own Nail & Cuticle Oil
Warm Oil Nail & Cuticle Rub
- 2 tbsp Olive Oil
- 1 tbsp Sesame Oil
- 3 drops of Lavender Essential Oil
Gently warm the sesame oil and olive oil in a bain marie until comfortably warm to the touch. Add in 3 drops of lavender essential oil. Soak your fingernails in the bowl for 5 minutes and relax. The olive oil is rich and will add a beautiful shine to your nails. The sesame oil is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory and the lavender essential oil provides antiseptic properties. This warm oil smells wonderful!
This recipe is also available in Herb & Hedgerow’s BeautyCraft app – the natural beauty app for iPhone, which provides dozens of recipes for homemade beauty products. Download this beauty app for many more hand treatments and lots of other gorgeous natural beauty recipes!
Have you ever used olive oil on your skin? Share your experiences in the comments below!
References and Further Reading
Danby, S.G., AlEnezi, T., Sultan, A., Lavender, T., Chittoch, J., Brown, K., Cork, M.J. 2013. Effect of Olive and Sunflower Seed Oil on the Adult Skin Barrier: Implications for Neonatal Skin Care. Pediatric Dermatology Vol. 30 No. 1 42–50, 2013
Nomikos, N.N., Nomikos, G.N., Kores, D.S. 2010. The use of deep friction massage with olive oil as a means of prevention and treatment of sports injuries in ancient times. Arch Med Sci 2010; 6, 5: 642-645
Soltanipoor F, Delaram M, Taavoni S, Haghani H. 2012 The effect of olive oil on prevention of striae gravidarum: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Complement Ther Med. 2012 Oct;20(5):263-6.