Neem oil is exactly what you probably picture when you think of natural remedies, with its strong smell and impressive range of uses. The nutrient-rich oil, made from the seeds of the neem tree, has been used since ancient times as a medicinal treatment, and, in modern times, it’s used as a treatment for a variety of skin conditions, from dry skin and wrinkles to psoriasis and eczema. If you’re considering neem oil as a potential skin treatment (or as a treatment for anything else, for that matter), here’s what you need to know.
What is neem oil?
Neem oil is created from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree, a tree that’s native to India but also grows in other tropical areas. The neem tree, known formally as azadirachta indica, is a member of the mahogany family and grows naturally in India and Sri Lanka. If you find it in other parts of the world, know that it was transplanted there—which it has been, successfully, in places like West Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. Neem distribution can be traced to the beginning of the century, when Indian emigrants took it with them to places they settled. The neem tree now grows in at least 30 countries thanks to those efforts.
The history of neem oil
The neem tree also seems naturally designed to spread and thrive. The tree grows very quickly—as much as 20 feet in just three years—and can grow in areas with scant rainfall (as little as 18 inches per year) and extreme heat (up to 120 degrees). What’s more, the tree can live and be productive for 150 to 200 years, with a single tree providing benefits for several generations.
The neem tree produces small white flowers and a yellow-green fruit, and literally every part of the tree has been used for medicine and therapeutic treatments. The neem tree has so many medicinal uses (it contains more than 100 pharmacologically active substances), in fact, that in India, it’s been called “the village pharmacy.” It’s no surprise, then, that neem oil has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Indian medicine and ayurveda.
Even within traditional Indian medicine, the neem tree and its by-products hold a special place. Siddha medicine is one of the oldest medical systems in the world, with origins dating back as far as 10,000 B.C., and the first medicinal plant mentioned in ancient Siddha records is—you guessed it—neem. In these times, neem was used as a kind of vaccine against smallpox and other infectious diseases (although it was also used to ward off evil spirits, so it’s not shocking that early medical practitioners hadn’t fully figured out the best use for neem oil).
According to a 350-year-old Palm leaf manuscript (one of the oldest forms of writing in India) known as Agathiyar Gunavagadam, the neem flower was used to treat bile disorders, while the leaf was used to prevent and treat ulcers. The bark of the tree was used to treat central nervous system disorders, paralysis, and even psychiatric disorders.