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 ancient elixir of the Pacific that’s new in the West

Monoi is a natural product of the coconut, the iconic tree of the tropical Pacific Ocean.   The coconut palm grows in all the islands of the region and is central to the diet as well as the spiritual and material life of the people.   

Ancient origins

The steeping or maceration of gardenia flowers in coconut oil is an ancient tradition of the Pacific that pre-dates any European contact.    The earliest European knowledge of monoi had to wait until the 18th century when Captain James Cook first observed and recorded it during his visit to Tahiti in 1769. 

In his log he describes the islanders as “very cleanly people both in their persons and diet, always washing before and after meals and bathing in fresh water three times a day;  and they anoint themselves with monoi, as they call it, this is made of coconut oil in which some sweet herbs or flowers are infused”.

The best known source of monoi today is still that produced in Tahiti, French Polynesia.

Cocos nucifera    

Monoi is 97% pure coconut oil, and as such represents a significant usage of the fruit of the palm in the South Pacific.   The tree grows prolifically all over the islands and is the most utilised Polynesian island tree, covering 150,000 acres of land.   The palm will develop its first fruits in its sixth year and will produce up to sixty coconuts a year for seventy years.   However, in spite of the increasing use of coconuts for their oil, it is estimated that 90% of coconuts in the Pacific go to waste, a statistic that should encourage us to make greater use of this natural resource. 

When they are fully mature, the nuts fall from the tree and are then gathered and split.   The halves are left to dry for several hours in the sun, when the kernel is removed and air dried on special racks until it has lost nearly all of its moisture.   The dried kernel known as copra is taken to the mill, crushed and pressed, and later filtered. 

Gardenia tahitensis  

Once the filtration process is completed the coconut oil is stabilised with vitamin E and stored in special tanks until it is purchased by the small number of monoi manufacturers who will proceed individually to the maceration process in their respective factories. 


The essential ingredient at this stage is the Tahitian gardenia, which provides perfume, oils and antiseptic properties to the finished product.   The gardenia tahitensis is a small white flower of the family Rubiaceae with six to eight petals, which is soaked or macerated in the oil at the rate of not less than ten blooms per litre of oil for two weeks.   This specification is laid down in the French government’s official stamp of Appellation d’Origine, a guarantee of authenticity and quality which has raised monoi to the status of wine.   (Indeed it has been argued that, like wine, monoi will develop a particularly fine mellowness when stored in glass bottles over many years.)  

The gardenia’s name in Tahitian is tiaré and its special properties have been well researched by the Monoi Institute in Tahiti and other independent laboratories.   

Proven benefits of monoi oil

 In a world in which many wild claims are made for products and ingredients and their supposed benefits, it is reassuring to see the careful analysis that monoi has been subjected to by various laboratories.   In particular the Monoi Institute in Tahiti has published the results of its analyses which are freely available on its web site www.monoi-institute.org, while other French laboratories have published detailed analyses of the oil and the Tahitian gardenia flower. 

 As a natural product, monoi embodies many different substances working synergetically together: a complex of benzoates, salicylates, oils and waxes which are present in the final product because of the gentle extraction process and long maceration.   The result is a product rich in active ingredients which will nourish the skin over many hours.  

Traditional medicine

 In the traditional Tahitian pharmacopoeia, te ra’au Tahiti, monoi was the most common remedy which the islanders used to soothe a variety of ailments.   Its healing properties were well appreciated by the people, and it remains today the basis of traditional herbal medicine. 

Massage oil

 The Polynesians used it also in the refined art of therapeutic massage, to which they attributed great healing powers.

 Monoi is still used as massage oil, both for therapy and to relax the muscles prior to the islanders’ demanding traditional canoe races and athletic contests.   It is excellent for the purpose, leaving the skin feeling pleasingly soft and supple without greasiness.   In fact the oil, while being quickly absorbed by the skin, will confer proven hydrating and emollient qualities to it for several hours after treatment.   A big plus for the client is the flowery aroma of the oil which emanates from the skin for the rest of the day.

Hair care

 Monoi is used as a hair conditioner and has a reparative effect on dry and damaged hair.   

 The use of monoi for care of the hair in Polynesia has a long tradition and was documented by Herman Melville in his well known work Typee, an account of his time in the Marquesas islands published in 1846.   In it he writes: 

The Typee girls devote much of their time to the dressing of their beautiful and abundant hair.   After bathing, as they sometimes do five or six times every day, the hair is carefully dried, and if they have been in the sea, invariably washed in fresh water, and anointed with a highly scented oil extracted from the meat of the coconut.   Its merits as a preparation for the hair are undeniable – it imparts to it a superb gloss and a silky fineness.

 Women in Tahiti use monoi as a beauty oil for both the skin and the hair, and the claim is commonly made, with some justification, that “monoi is their beauty secret”.

Other flowers and essences

 In addition to the pure oil scented with gardenia, other flowers and essences are commonly used to aromatise the monoi, which mostly have traditional associations with particular groups of islands.   Frangipani (tipanié), jasmine (pitaté) and ylang-ylang are the most popular flowers, while essence of sandalwood is used as a fragrance for men.  The vanilla bean, a crop for which Tahiti is famous, is also used to give its soft and warm fragrance to the oil.  

Monoi producers

 The monoi producers of Tahiti have established a professional body to provide information to the public and maintain standards.   This is the GIMT (Groupement Inter-professionel du Monoi de Tahiti).   Apart from providing full information, laboratory test results and publications, the GIMT also organises a competition for new formulas for cosmetics which incorporate monoi.

The Parfumerie Tiki

 A small number of businesses in Tahiti produce monoi as a finished article ready for use.   One of the best known is the Parfumerie Tiki, a long established family business, whose policy is to keep to traditional ingredients and methods of manufacture.   Even the packaging has not changed from its characteristic upright glass bottle and old fashioned label first introduced in 1942.   Each bottle contains a gardenia flower, a delightful touch. 

Parfumerie Tiki was the first company in Tahiti to attempt the commercial production of monoi.   While its oils provide an export product for the islands’ economy, the greater part of the monoi produced by the factory is sold to the home market, with 80% of Tiki monoi being used on a daily basis by the inhabitants of Tahiti and her islands.

 Of all the elements of ancient Polynesian culture to have survived into the modern world, monoi is surely one of the most beautiful.