Physico-chemical characterization of African traditional cosmetics produced by the Ovahimba tribes of Northern Namibia

Molefe, Ontibile
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Ovahimba people from Kunene region, northern Namibia, are known for covering their bodies with red ochre mixed with clarified butterfat, traditionally known as otjize to give them a distinct red appearance. Ochre refers to a clay-like earth pigment which contains some form of iron-containing mineral. A mixture of traditional herbs with clarified butterfat, otjizumba, is also applied around the necks as a perfume. This study was prompted by ethnographic interviews amongst the Ovahimba people which revealed functional uses of the traditional cosmetics, specifically the red ochre-derived cosmetic, as a mosquito repellent. Several analytical techniques were used to determine the presence of mosquito repellent compounds in the red ochre- derived cosmetic and the aromatic plant derived-cosmetic. GC-MS was used to identify the presence of compounds which have previously been found to have mosquito repellent capabilities. GC-MS analysis identified mostly oxygenated compounds which include ketones (2-dodecanone, 2-nanonone, 2-undecanone and 2-tridecanone), aldehydes (heptanal and nonanal) and carboxylic acids (hexanoic acid and heptanoic acid) in dichloromethane extracts of otjize and mostly hydrocarbons (o-cymene, α-pinene, limonene, and squalene) and less oxygenated compounds (terpinen-4-ol and α-campholenal) in plant derived cosmetic extracts. The chemical composition of the cosmetics was also analyzed using FTIR. FTIR analysis for organics in both cosmetics showed presence of vibrational motions including O-H, C=O, C-H, C=C and C-C which affirmed the presence of organic functional groups including aldehydes, ketones, esters, alkenes and alkanes. Peak patterns observed using GC-FID showed that the mixture of red ochre and clarified butterfat released higher quantities of volatiles than when individual samples were analyzed. Mineralogical composition of red ochre was determined by PXRD, supported by FTIR which revealed as significant amount of hematite (Fe2O3), the primary mineral responsible for the red hue of the ochre. Other major minerals including quartz (SiO2), kaolinite (Al2(Si2O5)(OH)4, calcites (CaCO3) and chalconatronite(Na2Cu(CO3)2.3H2O) were found to be present in the ochre powder. Elemental analysis of the ochre determined using EDXRF and ICP-OES supported mineralogical composition as iii Ovahimba red ochre exhibited high content of iron (Fe) and silicon (Si) and a significant amount of aluminum (Al), calcium (Ca) and copper (Cu). Based on % weight, presence of transition metals in red ochre powder identified using ICP-OES was observed in the descending order; Fe> V> Cu> Au> Ti> Zr. Based on the analysis carried out in this study, it is suggested that red ochre provides catalytic role, due to its diverse metal content especially the presence of transition metals including Fe and Cu, which might be influencing the production of secondary products during autoxidation of fatty acids present in otjize, specifically ketones and aldehydes. It was also concluded that the composition of clarified butterfat could be attributed to the release of mosquito repellent compounds in the red ochre derived cosmetic because when animal fat (kudufat) was used as an organic binder, the mixture did not release any of the identified possible mosquito repellent compounds. Keywords: Aldehydes, autoxidation, clarified butterfat, fatty acids, ketones, mosquito repellents, and red ochre
A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfilment of requirements for the degree of Master of Science. Johannesburg, 2015.
Aldehydes., Autoxidation., Clarified butterfat., Fatty acids., Ketones., Mosquito repellents., Red ochre.