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In this newest phase of the beauty world's oil boom, tallow joins coconut, argan, and sweet almond oils in being added to all sorts of products, not to mention the daily routines of devoted fans. Its natural lipids are currently being touted as a vitamin-packed cure-all for everything from dry skin to dull hair.
Derived from the fat of grass-fed cows, mutton, and bison, tallow has traditionally been used for candles, cooking, and industrial lubricants. The inexpensive and readily available substance was probably even the secret ingredient in your grandma's homemade balms and ointments. But with the rise of the industrial revolution, farm-raised animal fat was replaced by more shelf-stable chemical and petroleum-based emollients and detergents.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in a return to natural alternatives.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in a return to natural alternatives that avoid preservatives, phthalates, sulfates, and other man-made bad guys; this is why you've seen an increased interest in the cleansing and moisturizing properties of plant-based materials. But as the paleo diet continues to rise in popularity, a number of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs are finding themselves a lot of animal fat on their soft, supple hands and have begun rediscovering uses for what had previously been trimmed away and discarded for so long. The result? A small (but growing) number of female-owned businesses exploring this particularly old-school ingredient.
Photo: Getty Images
Brittany Hogan, owner of Colorado-based Soulstice Soaps, discovered the possibilities of tallow after a particularly large meat haul: "My family had purchased a quarter-cow from a family-run organic farm, and the wife asked how much suet we wanted. I responded to her with, 'Why in the world would someone want beef fat?' She explained its use in candle and soap-making. I had a few other signs pointing me in the soap-making direction, so I told her to give me 100 pounds."
Hogan melts down and filters the fat in a process known as rendering, and then mixes it with coconut oil and essential oil fragrances to create her soaps. The end product is a bar that's high in lipids and free from the potentially irritating chemicals commonly used in commercially-produced soaps, like sodium lauryl sulfate (a foaming agent), triclosan (an anti-bacterial), and titanium dioxide (a dye). Hogan also believes that the all-grass diet of the pasture-raised cows she gets her tallow from infuses her soaps with vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties.
According to its adherents, this free-range sourcing is key for tallow-based brands. At Primal Care, co-creator Lee Bentley uses buffalo fat she gets from a Native American-owned range in New Mexico to formulate her body balms.
"Why in the world would someone want beef fat?"
"There are quite a few tallows that have traditionally been used for skin products," she explains. "But at this point in time, they are suspect because they are laced with hormones, antibiotics, and adrenaline from the horrors of the slaughterhouse. We found tallow from grass-fed, free-range bison that's uniquely free of all those negative properties."
Bentley and her business partner, Skye Gibbins, also use essential oil blends to scent their compounds. The resulting face and body moisturizers are smooth, quickly absorbed, and, per their claims, similar in chemical composition to the oils found naturally in human skin. While they stand behind the benefits of their balms, Bentley says she's not planning for a huge boom in business any time soon: "The base that we use is just not available in large quantities, so high-volume production will never be our goal."
Besides limited materials, limited appeal is also something to consider. For most consumers, the idea of smoothing animal fat on your skin is something of a hard sell. Carrissa Pfest, who uses a tallow lotion that her friend Kenwyn Dapo whips up in her Manhattan kitchen, admits that when first offered a sample, she "was initially perturbed—it seemed like I would be rubbing the ends of a steak on my face."
Photo: Getty Images
But after trying it for a period of the time, Pfest is a paleo beauty convert. Anouche Mardirossian, who also uses Dapo's homemade balms, was similarly shocked by the results: "They exceeded my expectations. There was no smell, and the balm was light, ultra-absorbent, and completely—I mean, completely—non-greasy. This was the biggest surprise." Mardirossian also likes the idea of using a product that's natural and cuts down on waste.
With all these glowing recommendations, why aren't more skincare brands looking into the miracle of tallow? The answer, according to LA-based dermatologist Karen Stolman, could lie in the fact that we may have already found ingredients that surpass its promised effects. "Tallow has some tough competition, and is not as strongly evidence-based," she explains. "There are a lot of other ingredients that carry more weight as far as efficacy goes."
"There are a lot of other ingredients that carry more weight as far as efficacy goes."
She adds that the moisturizing benefits of the fat in tallow are only one thing to consider when creating an ideal product. Effective moisturizers contain ingredients that inhibit moisture loss (occlusives), hold water in the skin cells (humectants), and replace lost oils (emollients). "Tallow," she says, "is made up of fatty acids, so it would only fit in the emollient category. If I were designing a good moisturizer, I would choose ceramides and cholesterol first, and then if tallow is there too, that would be a bonus." Further, she notes, because of its molecular structure, the antioxidants that exist in tallow sit on the surface of the skin, unable to penetrate to where they can do the most good.
While this means that tallow may not be the singular miracle-in-a-jar treatment consumers continually seek, all hope is not lost when it comes to animal-based ingredients. Stolman does point out that a recent study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science demonstrated that, when combined with walnut oil, mutton tallow did provide very effective moisturization in a small sampling of users.
It's not conclusive by any means, but according to the researchers, the initial data does "indicate the possibility of application of fats [as a] base of emulsions in the cosmetic industries." Could this spur big brands to hop aboard the paleo train? Perhaps. After all, it wasn't so long ago that coconut oil seemed wildly alternative—who's to say a little bison fat couldn't follow suit?