What do old McDonald’s french fries and my skincare routine have in common? They both use tallow! While I don’t eat or recommend fast food fries, tallow is a nourishing age-old remedy for healthier skin. Here’s how to use tallow for skin and its many benefits.
What is Tallow?
Tallow has seen a resurgence in popularity in the last several years, but this healthy fat is nothing new. In the 1800s (and before) it was a popular salve ingredient for different skin ailments. Cultures have cooked with animal fats (including tallow) for thousands of years.
Usually, when people talk about tallow they’re referring to beef tallow. Tallow comes not only from beef fat but mutton (sheep) or deer fat. Up until 1990 McDonald’s used beef tallow for their french fries, as did other fast food places. It’s since been replaced with “heart-healthy” GMO and glyphosate-sprayed vegetable oils (insert sarcasm).
While tallow is frowned upon by many dermatologists and health agencies, you can find deer tallow in German lotions for sore muscles called hirschtalg. And although you likely won’t find tallow at your average big-box grocery store, many of us have kept the tradition of rendering tallow alive.
Benefits of Tallow
Healthy animal fats have a lot of benefits when we eat them, but they can also be good for skincare. Our skin makes sebum to help keep skin moisturized and protected from harmful microbes. As an animal fat, tallow is very similar to the sebum found on human skin. In fact, the word sebum in Latin translates to tallow.
Tallow helps provide an emollient skin barrier that’s beneficial for all skin types. It won’t clog pores so it’s helpful for those with acne-prone skin, oily skin, and breakouts. Tallow is gentle enough to use on babies and it’s a favorite to help with rashes. Those with eczema, psoriasis, sensitive skin, and dry skin also see improvement with tallow.
I love how tallow makes my skin feel so silky and it worked wonders on my son’s eczema scars!
What Makes Tallow so Great for Skin?
Beef tallow is made up of 50% saturated fat, 42% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated fat. It also has vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and K for skin health. Some of the skin benefits from these fat-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin A – helps stimulate collagen production to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Improves skin elasticity and promotes skin cell turnover for smoother, less blemished skin.
- Vitamin D – Decreases skin inflammation, an antioxidant that protects skin from damage, and helps prevent the buildup of dead skin cells. It also plays an important part in preventing infections.
- Vitamin E – This antioxidant helps prevent free radical damage, promotes wound healing, and improves damaged skin.
- Vitamin K – Can improve skin elasticity to improve stretch marks, may reduce dark spots, and promote wound healing for healthy skin.
You’ll also find conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in grass-fed tallow and meat. CLA has a ton of health benefits as part of a healthy diet, but it also has some skin benefits. This family of polyunsaturated fatty acids has anti-inflammatory properties and helps support the immune system. There’s some evidence that CLA and vitamin E together help rheumatoid arthritis and tallow has both.
More research shows CLA has cancer-fighting benefits and may protect against heart disease. A 2006 study found that beef tallow boosted CLA’s ability to fight breast cancer cells in mice. The combination helped better prevent the tumors from metastasizing and spreading. It’s important to note this is an animal study, but the outcome is promising.
Other essential fatty acids in tallow include oleic acid and stearic acid.
- Oleic Acid – Helps our skin stay soft and flexible by creating a protective film of fatty acids on the skin. It’s also anti-inflammatory and helps regenerate skin cells.
- Stearic acid – Helps protect our skin barrier (our sebum is about 11% stearic acid). It’s emollient to soften skin and helps it feel smooth and silky. Reduces flaking and itching (especially from psoriasis).
Mutton Tallow vs. Beef Tallow
Most tallow comes from beef, but don’t rule out mutton tallow. It has a slightly different fatty acid profile and a different feel on the skin. Mutton tallow is a little higher in the antioxidant vitamin E. It also has less palmitic acid than beef tallow, but more oleic and stearic acid. They’re similar and both great for the skin.
Mutton tallow from grass-fed sheep can be harder to source but it’s worth trying for skincare. You can find grass-fed lamb tallow and beef tallow already rendered here at US Wellness Meats. They also have lamb suet and beef suet if you want to render the tallow yourself.
Comparing Beef Tallow to Plant-Based Oils
So how does tallow compare to oils and butters like coconut oil, olive oil, and shea butter? Each natural oil and butter has a unique fatty acid profile and some are better for certain things. GLA is shown to help with psoriasis, while linoleic acid helps maintain the skin barrier.
Since tallow is animal-based it works a little differently than many plant-based oils. You only need a little for it to work and it soaks into the skin nicely (as long as you don’t use too much). Some oils, like coconut oil, take much longer to absorb and can leave skin feeling greasy. Others, like castor oil, can feel thick and sticky when used alone.
Rendering Tallow for Skin
So does this mean you should save the beef drippings from supper to rub on your skin? While you can get fat off of animal meat, tallow specifically comes from suet. Suet refers to the fat around the animal’s organs and some people say kidney suet is the best. It’s also called leaf fat.
Rendering tallow involves melting down the suet and straining out any impurities. Some people repeat this process several times to ensure there’s no meat or other animal parts in their tallow. Pure, refined tallow can last about a year when stored at room temperature. If it hasn’t been thoroughly strained or it’s kept in a warm place it can go rancid much faster. You can learn how to render your own tallow here.
Properly rendered tallow should not smell bad! If the cooled tallow smells rancid or like ground beef then it hasn’t been purified enough. It’s probably fine if you’re using it for cooking, but I don’t really want my skin smelling like a cheeseburger.
Grass-Fed vs. Factory Farmed
I know you’ve heard me say this before, but grass-fed and pasture-raised animals are the healthier option. This is also true when it comes to tallow. If you’re making your own tallow or buying it from someone make sure you’re getting high-quality grass-fed tallow. Grass-fed cows and sheep have a healthier fatty acid profile while conventionally raised grain-fed animals have more inflammatory fats.
Grass-fed beef has up to 5 times more anti-inflammatory omega 2 fatty acids than grain-fed cows. You’ll also find twice as much CLA and more vitamin A, vitamin E, and other nutrients. Sheep also contain CLA so you’ll find more CLA in grass-fed mutton tallow too.
Tallow Skincare Products
Tallow balm makes for a great moisturizer or lotion. Since tallow is hard and waxy on its own, you’ll often find it blended with other butters and oils. Some beef tallow skincare products have essential oils, while others are unscented. Tallow can also be used to make lip balm, hand cream, and tallow soap.
Since tallow is very thick and ultra-moisturizing, you only need a little bit for it to work well. If you use too much pure tallow on your skin it feels really greasy for a while until it absorbs. Tallow is so similar to our skin’s sebum though that it absorbs deep into the skin for nourishing protection.
Precautions and Side Effects
In theory, if you’re allergic to beef you might have an allergy to tallow too. A very small portion of the population has alpha-gal syndrome which makes them allergic to red meat and products made from these animals. It’s unclear if the animal fat will also cause a reaction though.
According to the FDA, there’s also a risk of BSE (mad cow disease) from contaminated cattle products. This has led many beauty experts to call tallow dangerous and recommend against it. The FDA does allow tallow in skincare if it has no more than 0.15% insoluble impurities. Basically, it needs to be pure tallow.
The FDA also frowns on raw, grass-fed milk from healthy cows but considers artificial yellow food dye (illegal in Europe) to be perfectly okay. So I take their recommendations with a grain of salt. If you’re using tallow from healthy, grass-fed cows that’s been properly rendered BSE won’t be an issue.
Another concern in mainstream beauty circles is the fact that tallow hasn’t been extensively tested as a skincare ingredient. There are however thousands of studies that use tallow for other purposes. Plus tallow has an extensive and safe history of use in skincare throughout the centuries.
How I Use Tallow for Skin
I wasn’t too sure about using tallow on my skin at first, but I really like how my skin feels with it. It’s also a great alternative for people with coconut oil allergies or really sensitive skin. I’ve used these homemade tallow lotion bars on my son’s eczema scars and to heal minor skin issues.
If you don’t want to make your own the products at Toups & Co are some of my favorites. They have tallow balm, tallow lip balm, and a nourishing tallow stick.
Have you ever used tallow before? What are your favorite ways to use it? Leave a comment and share below!