The Secret to Perfectly Hydrated Skin
Slather on homemade coconut oil using an age-old recipe.
For more than a decade, I have studied the traditional uses of plants—a field known as ethnobotany—in Micronesia, a very remote area of the Pacific Ocean where people still use plants for many aspects of their daily lives, as their ancestors have done for centuries.
According to the ethnographers who visited the region a century ago, coconut oil was widely used by the royalty who ruled the islands and was known as “royal oil.” Traditionally it was used to keep skin moist, protecting it from the sun to maintain its suppleness and beauty. Commoners also used the oil—which was perfumed with essences from local plants, flowers, and certain aromatic woods—but bathed and anointed their bodies less frequently. With the adoption of European clothing, the need to protect one’s skin from the equatorial sun was reduced, and slowly the daily ritual of using coconut oil to anoint the body and hair after bathing was lost. Today, visitors to the Micronesian islands can still purchase freshly made coconut oil in grocery stores and souvenir shops.
While spending time on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, I was fortunate enough to learn the process of making scented oil from Maria Raza, an affable woman originally from the island of Kosrae and widely recognized as the maker of the best-perfumed coconut oil in her area.
To scent her oil, Raza uses the flowers of a common tree, locally known as seir en wai, or ylang-ylang. It is the only perfuming ingredient that remains in use for making traditional oil on Pohnpei and Kosrae—and it's also one of the key floral notes in Chanel No. 5. The yellow-green flowers of ylang-ylang are carefully picked, the fragrant petals pulled from the flower and gently piled on a clean cloth. Raza then places several large handfuls of flower petals in heated coconut oil, stirring until the petals are completely covered. After several hours, the aromatic essential oil found in the petals infuses into the coconut oil. As evening approaches, Raza takes the pot off the fire and pours the oil-flower mixture through wire mesh to remove what remains of the petals. Over the next several days, the process is repeated, with more petals added to the same batch of coconut oil, which begins to take on a delightful fragrance—subtle but not overwhelming.
How to Make Royal Oil
Making royal oil in the traditional way is fairly simple and inexpensive, and it can be done at home with a few easy-to-obtain ingredients.
1. Pick fresh flowers or leaves with which to perfume the oil. Tropical ylang-ylang may be hard to come by, so try other aromatic flowers, such as rose petals—particularly a fragrant variety like the Damask roses that are traditionally used in perfume making. Try mint or lavender for an invigorating blend. It is fun to experiment with different plants until you identify one—or a mixture—that has an aroma you find pleasing.
2. Start with a few cups of pure coconut oil (which can be purchased at a drugstore) and heat it gently in a pot or double boiler. Low heat is essential, as too much heat will burn the oil and give it an unpleasant smell. If that happens, discard and start the process again.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and add a cup of chopped petals or leaves. Let the aromatic essences from the plants infuse the oil for 4 to 6 hours. If the oil begins to solidify, slowly heat it back up. Then, using a wire mesh scoop or strainer, remove the plant material. Repeat the process, removing the old flowers and adding new ones each time during the next day or two, until you find that the oil pleases your senses.
4. Pour the oil through cheesecloth or a metal kitchen strainer and bottle it in a glass or plastic jar.
Useful tip: Add the contents of a capsule or two of vitamin E to each bottle (discarding the gelcap) to prevent oxidation that might lead to rancidity.
Note: Oil stored below 76°F will turn into a white solid fat. Keep perfumed coconut oil in a glass or plastic jar that can be placed under a hot faucet, where it will slowly return to a liquid for easy pouring.
Cheat sheet: To perfume coconut oil without investing the time needed to make it the traditional way, try using an essential oil instead. For each cup of warm coconut oil, add a few drops of essential oil, stir carefully, and test on your skin, smelling it to see if you like the concentration.