Periodically a newly recognized botanical ingredient comes to market, which offers significant health benefits for topical use. Oil of tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) is such an ingredient. Since the 1930s tamanu oil has been studied in hospitals and by researchers in Asia, Europe and the Pacific islands. The results of this research are impressive.
Specifically, tamanu oil possesses a unique capacity to promote the formation of new tissue, thereby accelerating wound healing and the growth of healthy skin. This process of forming new tissue is known as cicatrization. Oil of tamanu appears to be one of the most effective known cicatrizing agents in nature. For this reason it is a widely used traditional topical aid. In Pacific island folk medicine, tamanu oil is applied liberally to cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites and stings, abrasions, acne and acne scars, psoriasis, diabetic sores, anal fissures, sunburn, dry or scaly skin, blisters, eczema, herpes sores and to reduce foot and body odor. Tamanu oil is applied to the neck to relieve sore throat and is massaged into the skin to relieve neuralgia, rheumatism and sciatica. Tamanu oil is employed by Polynesian women for promoting healthy, clear, blemish-free skin and is also used on babies to prevent diaper rash and skin eruptions.
Harvested by native people and cold processed in the pristine environment of the South Pacific Republic of Vanuatu, oil of tamanu is a valuable topical and cosmetic ingredient which can provide significant benefits to consumers and companies.
Tamanu and its dispersal
The name Calophyllum inophyllum means beautiful leaf, from the Greek 'kalos'=beautiful and 'phullon''=leaf. The tree is indigenous to Southeast Asia but is profuse in Polynesia where it is traditionally known as Ati. Tamanu grows up to 25 or even 30 meters in height, with long, spreading limbs. The tree trunk is typically thick with dark, cracked bark. The tamanu branches are covered with shiny, dark green oval leaves and small white flowers with yellow centers. The blossoms give off a delightful, sweet perfume. The fruit of the tree, about the size of an apricot, has a thin flesh and a large nut hull inside.
Though the tree can be successfully planted inland, tamanu naturally grows profusely along coastal areas. Tamanu is dispersed throughout Pacific islands when the nut-containing fruits drop from trees and float on the seas to other coastal areas where they sprout and root. Tamanu is unusual in that unlike most other trees, it favors salty, sandy soil.
Polynesian natives claim that coastal tamanu is more beneficial for topical and cosmetic uses than inland tamanu. Oil of tamanu is processed exclusively from coastal tamanu trees, where the nuts are hand-gathered by indigenous native islanders.
Oil from an oil-free nut
Tamanu is a botanical oddity. When the fruits of the tree are collected and cracked open, the blond nut kernel inside contains no apparent oil. But when the kernel dries on a rack for a month or so, it turns a deep, chocolate brown and becomes sticky with a rich oil. Using only a screw press, the oil is squeezed from the dark kernels. The resulting oil of tamanu is rich, dark green, and luxurious.
Unusual penetrating power
While oil of tamanu is thick and rich, once it is applied to skin it is readily and completely absorbed. Skin feels smooth and plump, with no oily residue.
Anti-neuralgic and skin healing activity
Traditionally oil of tamanu has enjoyed topical use for relieving the pain of sciatica, shingles, neuralgia, rheumatism and leprous neuritis, for which it is effective. In 1918 researchers associated with the French pharmacopoeia began research into tamanu for topical and subcutaneous use. In the late 1920s the oil of tamanu was employed in Fiji to relieve painful neuritis associated with leprosy. Sister Marie-Suzanne, a nun in the Society of Mary, administered tamanu oil (called dolno, which means "no pain") topically to leprosy victims for the relief of neuritis, with good results.
As a result of its effective use in Fiji, oil of tamanu was further investigated by French researchers in the 1930s for its anti-neuralgic effects. But they quickly became more interested in tamanu's cicatrizing properties, which subsequently received the most attention. In the French medical literature on tamanu oil, several instances of its successful use in cases of severe skin conditions have been reported, with photographs showing before and after use. In one of the most remarkable instances, a woman was admitted to the St. Louis Hospital in Paris with a large, gangrenous ulcer on her leg, which would not heal. Though doctors were sure that amputation was inevitable, she was given regular dressings of tamanu oil. The wound eventually healed completely, leaving a smooth, flat scar. In other cases, tamanu oil has been employed successfully to heal severe burns caused by boiling water, chemicals and x-rays.
Current tamanu popularity
Though tamanu science has been conducted ongoing since the 1920's, only in the last decade has tamanu gained any market visibility for general use. Much of this market activity is confined to Tahiti, where the oil is marketed for first aid and beauty purposes. In Europe market interest in tamanu is new, but companies there are currently formulating products containing this oil.
Some constituents of tamanu oilGeneral lipid composition
The oil of tamanu contains three basic classes of lipids, neutral lipids, glycolipids, and phospholipids, enumerated below. The oil also contains a unique fatty acid called calophyllic acid, and a novel antibiotic lactone and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent called calophyllolide. These and other components of tamanu oil are enumerated below.
- Neutral lipids 92%
- Glycolipids 6.4%
- Phospholipids 1.6%
- Monoacylglycerols 1.8%
- sn -1,3 - Diaglycerides 2.4%
- sn -1,2 (2,3) - Diaglycerides 2.6%
- Free fatty acids 7.4%
- Triacylglycerols 82.3%
- Sterols, sterolesters and hydrocarbons 3.5%
- Monogalactosyldiacylglycerol 11.4%
- Acylated sterolglucoside 13.1
- Monogalactosylmonoacylglycerol 22.2%
- Acylmonogalactosyldiacylglycerol 53.3%
- Phosphatidylethanolamine 46.3%
- Phosphatidylcholine 33.8%
- Phosphatidic acid 8.1%
- Phosphatidylserine 6.1%
- Lysophosphatidylcholine 5.7%
- Calophyllic acid—a novel fatty acid found only in tamanu oil.
- Calophyllolide—a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory 4-phenyl coumarin.
- 6-desoxyjacareubin—an antibiotic xanthone which inhibits S. aureus, P. aeruginosa, B. subtilis, S. typhimurium and K. pneumoniae.
- Jacareubin—an antibiotic xanthone which inhibits S. aureus, P. aeruginosa, B. subtilis and S. typhimurium.
- Calophyllum B—an antibiotic xanthone which inhibits the growth of P. aeruginosa and B. subtilis.
- Calanolide A—a coumarin which inhibits HIV reverse transcriptase.
- Costatolide—a coumarin which inhibits HIV reverse transcriptase.
- Calaustralin—a 4-phenylcoumarin.
- Calophynic acid—a dihydro coumarin.
Summary comments on constituents
Other constituents of oil of tamanu may yet be discovered. However, based on the known activity of known constituents, it is clear that oil of tamanu possesses antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activities. The unique cicatrizing properties of tamanu oil are not yet explained in existing scientific literature, though this activity is established and accepted. The same is true for tamanu's anti-neuralgic properties. Tamanu oil is well documented for its relief of neuritis but the constituents responsible and their modes of activity are yet to be determined.
Tamanu for topical first aid
Due to its cicatrizing, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activities, oil of tamanu is suitable for use on a broad range of topical conditions. Refer to the folk uses of the oil for first aid purposes, described on page 36. Oil of tamanu can be applied neat to skin. However, the oil is every bit as effective if diluted by 50 percent with either coconut oil or another suitable topical oil. There is no apparent loss of efficacy for first aid purposes when the oil is diluted by half. Thus there is no known significant benefit to using the oil full strength.
Tamanu for cosmetics
Oil of tamanu is a pure, rich, cold-processed oil suitable for general skin and cosmetic purposes. The oil's unusual absorption, its mild and pleasant aroma and its luxurious richness make it ideal for use in lotions, creams, ointments and other cosmetic products. Oil of tamanu absorbs readily, leaving skin feeling smooth, plump and soft. The oil adds a glow to skin, without any residual greasiness or oiliness. Oil of tamanu stands to be a significant ingredient for companies that want to develop unique products and achieve a market advantage.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, author and educator. Chris has conducted medicinal research in over 20 countries including India, China, Siberia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Vanuatu South Pacific, Lebanon, Syria, Ghana, Austria, Germany, Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, Morocco and the United States.