Apricot kernel oil: myth, legend or science?

Apricot kernel oil is sold as a luxurious cosmetic wonder-balm ©Sciengist

Apricot kernel oil is sold as a luxurious cosmetic wonder-balm ©Sciengist

I attended a cosmetic party, against my will, and despite considering myself to be an intelligent woman, I found myself handing over a large sum for a tiny jar of apricot kernel oil.

I really have no idea what the sweet smelling balm is intended for, and in all honesty, when I apply it liberally to my face, I have hideous zit out-breaks.

But the sales pitch I endured from the middle-aged Barbie doll peddling the oil, involved a detailed story about the native people inhabiting the valley of Shangri-La, who prize apricot kernels so highly, they use them as currency.

The Shangri-La natives allegedly eat the kernels, and extract the oil from the kernels and smear it all over their bodies…as a result, they are immune to illness and disease (and apparently even pimples), they live to be 200 years old, and never, ever, physically age.

I think the aging part was roughly the moment in the spiel I found myself unconsciously handing over a blank check to ‘Barbie’.


Artistic portrayal of the valley of Shangri-la (Image: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow)

Artistic portrayal of the valley of Shangri-La (Image: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow)


When I returned home with my precious little vessel of wonder-balm and an empty wallet, I found myself standing in the clear light of day. Barbie is good at her job. And I am a sucker for a good story.


Shangri-La is a fictional location described in a 1930s novel (Lost Horizon) written by James Hilton. It has since featured in many movies and stories, and is now used in similar context to ‘The Holy Grail’ or ‘The Garden of Eden’.

In other words, something perfect, elusive or highly sought after…and often mythical or unobtainable.

A little like the ‘Fountain of Youth’. Or a wonder-balm. Like the little pot of sweet, golden, zit-promoting oil I invested in.

The apricot kernel resides inside the hard apricot seed (Image: Shutterstock)

The apricot kernel resides inside the hard apricot seed (Image: Shutterstock)

So I was gullible but I will not go down without a fight! I am not prepared to let Barbie (or my husband) have the last laugh.

I will find some merit in Barbie's somewhat confused and misleading sales pitch. Here goes...

Is Apricot kernel oil truly a wonder-balm or is its perfection unobtainable?

The apricot kernel is the soft, inner section of the hard seed inside the common apricot fruit (Prunus armeniaca L.).

Apricots are important to the people of the Hunza Valley who are known for their good health and longevity

In my defence (and Barbie's), there is a region in Pakistan, near the border of Russia and China, which is called the Hunza Valley. The people of this region have been known to not only consume apricots, fresh and dried, but also cook with the oil extracted from the kernels.

The Hunza people are also known for their good health and longevity, some say their apricot-rich diet can be thanked for this.

So at this point I would like to think that perhaps Barbie was just a little confused and meant to say Hunza Valley, not Shangri-La. Maybe I wasn't so gullible after all.

Apricot kernel extracts may help fight bacterial and yeast infections

Research has shown that apricot kernel extracts:

  • show significant antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium responsible for some food poisoning, common skin infections and respiratory (lung) diseases;
  • are quite powerful against the Escherichia coli bacteria. This is a bacterium which is commonly found in our gut but certain strains are responsible for food poisoning;
  • can fight yeast infections.

I am still uncertain how a topical apricot kernel oil preparation could benefit my face…

Apricot kernels contain a substance which has been synthetically produced as an anti-cancer drug

Apricot kernels also contain a substance called amygdalin which has been synthetically produced as an anti-cancer drug called Laetrile, even though there is no scientific evidence that it works. In fact, when Laetrile comes into contact with our stomach enzymes (specifically glucosidases), it can actually be converted to cyanide, which, in small quantities, is actually quite harmless, if not beneficial. However, in large, concentrated does, for say, cancer treatment, it can be dangerous. Dangerous to the cancer cells (good news) but also toxic to human life (bad news). Needless to say, the hype over Laetrile diminished quicker than it began.

If you were to consume a single apricot kernel here or there, however, you would be fine.

I am not planning on eating my pricey facial oil though so this is a non-issue

Apricot kernels contain some important fatty acids but in cosmetics: is it really just an over-priced carrier oil?

Further studies on the nutritional content of apricot kernels have revealed they contain three interesting fatty acids (important fuel for our bodies). The kernel fatty acids are oleic, linoleic and palmitic acids.

Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat which can help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and potentially increase good cholesterol (HDL). Oleic acid is also thought to be effective in reducing blood pressure.

Linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated fat, and essential in our diet for proper health. A deficiency in lineoleic acid can cause mild skin flaking, hair loss and potentially poor wound healing.

Okay, we might be getting somewhere now.

Consumption of palmitic acid on the other hand, could potentially increase your risk of developing heart disease.

That’s okay. Despite the balm smelling good enough to eat, I had not planned on consuming it.

Lineolic and palmitic acids are, however, known to be highly effective “carrier” oils which are readily absorbed by our skin, literally carrying with them the other vitamins and active ingredients in sunscreens, cosmetic products and skin barrier creams.

Apricot kernel oil is an excellent carrier oil in itself but as it also contains lineolic and palmitic acids, it is exceptionally effective at getting the job done.

That's good news. But what is it carrying with it to make it a wonder-balm?

Apricot kernel extracts carry some interesting nutrients but can our bodies access them?

Lycopene is a carotenoid found in apricots. It is the chemical that gives apricots their colour. It is useful in reducing cholesterol and heart disease risks. It does not convert to Vitamin A or retinol in the body but may have cancer-fighting properties.

I didn't buy the "wonder-balm" to fight cancer though.

Vitamin A is essential for many functions of the body and is produced in the body from certain carotenoids such as beta-carotene which is also found in apricots.

Good to know, but are they found in the kernel? We don't know.

Apricots also contain retinol which is a form of Vitamin A and thanks to Oprah, the world knows how amazing retinol is at fighting wrinkles! But whether or not retinol is present in the apricot kernel, and whether or not our bodies can actually access the wrinkle-fighting properties of the retinol in the topical application of apricot kernel oil, remains to be confirmed.

Oh dear, so the delivery of amazing skin rejuvenating nutrients is at this point, only assumed. Not guaranteed.

An expensive gamble but apricot kernel oil has the potential to be a wonder-balm

Other than a good sales pitch, I am not sure why ‘Barbie’ lead me to believe apricot kernel oil is the Shangri-La of cosmetology. Either she was confused about the actual properties of the oil and its capabilities or she was mocking me with her unobtainable promises.

I must say, when I apply the apricot kernel oil to my nose after a long bout of the common head-cold, it does soothe and heal my chaffed nostrils.

Perhaps that is the lineolic acid working its magic?

I must still apply the balm in moderation so as not to break the fine line between healing and zit-promoting!

I think the bottom line here is, as always, the fine print:

Apricots and their kernels are nutrient-rich.

Apricot kernel oil is a wonderful carrier oil which may aid in skin healing and infection fighting, and may deliver some other beneficial nutrients to the skin.

Apricot kernel oil does smell and feel nice on the skin.

Apricot kernel oil does cost a bomb.

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