Modern-day research confirms the traditional wisdom of our ancestors in using tallow for skin care. From biology, we know that the cell membrane is made up primarily of fatty acids, a double layer, to be exact. Saturated fats constitute at least 50 percent of the cell membrane. Since saturated fats tend to be more solid than unsaturated fats at a given temperature, they help give the cell membrane its necessary stiffness and integrity for proper function (23). The monounsaturated fats, while not as "solid" as the saturated fats, are more so than the polyunsaturated fats which are also present in the cell membrane in their own proper proportion, although the modern diet leads to a disproportionate amount of the polyunsaturates. Healthy, "toned" skin cells with sufficient saturated and monounsaturated fats would undoubtedly make for healthy, toned skin. Interestingly, tallow fat is typically 50 to 55 percent saturated, just like our cell membranes, with almost all of the rest being monounsaturated (24), so it makes sense that it would be helpful for skin health and compatible with our cell biology.
Another strong indication of tallow's compatibility with our skin biology is its similarity to sebum, the oily, waxy matter that lubricates and waterproofs our skin. Indeed, the word "sebum" actually means "tallow" in Latin and began to be used in this biological sense around the year 1700. The sebaceous glands, which secrete sebum, are found in greatest abundance on the face and scalp, but they are distributed over all of our skin except on the palms and soles. (25) Sebum is made up of about 57 percent fatty acids (fats, or lipids) (26), of which about 44 percent are saturated (27) and of which 41 percent are in the form of triglycerides (28). The lipids of tallow are principally in the form of triglycerides, which is how fatty acids are usually configured in nature.
In regard to this compatibility of tallow with the biology of our skin, we should note that we are animals rather than plants, so the modern taboo against animal products in skin care products would seem unfounded and even illogical. In addition to containing very little saturated fats, plant products do not have the same levels of other nutrients needed for healthy skin. Tallow contains the abundant natural fat-soluble activators, vitamins A, D, and K, as well as vitamin E, which are found only in animal fats and which are all necessary for general health and for skin health.
Tallow also contains fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has anti-cancer (29) and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as palmitoleic acid, which has natural antimicrobial properties (30). Dr. Mary Enig cites a 2006 study on fats showing that CLA, which is found in high concentrations in tallow, has significant anti-cancer effects, and that supplying tallow increased those effects due its palmitic acid, another fatty acid. (31)
Read on: Stearic Acid and Stearates
23. Fallon, Sally, Enig, Mary G., PhD (2001). Nourishing Traditions. NewTrends Publishing, Inc., Washington: 11.
24. Fallon: 18.
25. James, William D.; Berger, Timothy; Elston, Dirk M. (2006). Andrews' Diseases of the Skin: Clinical Dermatology. Saunders Elsevier: 7.
26. Thody, A. J.; Shuster, S. (1989). "Control and Function of Sebaceous Glands". Physiological Reviews. 69 (2): 383–416.
27. Barbara Boughton, Ph.D., Victor R. Wheatley, Ph.D. (August 1959). "The Fatty Acid Composition of the Skin Surface Fat ('Sebum') of Normal Human Subjects", Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Volume 33, Issue 2
28. Cheng JB, Russell DW (September 2004). "Mammalian Wax Biosynthesis: II. Expression Cloning of Wax Synthase cDNAs Encoding a Member of the Acyltransferase Enzyme Family"
29. Ip, C, J.A. Scimeca, et al. (1994). "Conjugated linoleic acid. A powerful anti-carcinogen from animal fat sources." Cancer 74(3 suppl):1050-4.
30. Fallon: 19.
31. Enig, Mary G., PhD (Winter 2007). Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts. "Some Recent Studies on Fats".