Although the term Triticum vulgare is commonly used by makers of skin care products to describe wheat and products derived from wheat (particularly wheat germ oil), it is not a name used by botanists and scientific taxonomists. The species name "vulgare" means "common," but botanists recognize five species of wheat. Two of these species Triticum aestivum, or common bread wheat, and T. durum, durum, from which most pasta is made) are most commonly commercially cultivated worldwide. Wheat has a long history of human cultivation. Apparently bred from some form of wild grain-bearing grass, wheat originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago. An archaeological site in Jordan shows evidence of true wheat being grown as long ago as 9,600 BC. It is now grown throughout the world and is one of the largest and most important crops, along with rice and corn (maize), cultivated today.
A grain of wheat is covered by a hull (also called a husk), which is a dry, scaly, inedible protective casing surround the wheat kernel. This kernel, which is sometimes eaten whole as wheatberry, is itself comprised of three layers: the bran (the outer layer, with high fiber content), the endosperm (which makes up most of the kernel and is where the starch is stored) and the germ (the innermost portion, which contains the majority of the nutritious constituents and the fatty acids). The germ can be separated from the rest of the kernel and pressed to produce wheat germ oil. This oil is a wonderfully effective ingredient in skin care products and provides many benefits for skin health and beauty.
Wheat germ oil is rich in a material called lecithin, generic term for a combination of phosphoric acid, fatty acids and lipids. Specifically, the oil contains 62% linoleic acid (both omega-6 and omega-3 types), 16% palmitic acid and 14% oleic acid. The balance of the contents is taken up with proteins, vitamins and minerals. Each of these types of constituents provides very real and important benefits for skin care.
The fatty acids are vital emollients, providing moisturizing benefits for dry, distressed or damaged skin and well as improving normal skin. These emollients add moisture to skin cells, plumping them up and creating a smooth, glowing appearance to the skin. For distressed skin, the fatty acids can help treat and heal damaged tissues, which is why wheat germ oil is often recommended for people with such conditions as eczema and psoriasis.
The oil also contains an excellent suite of vitamins, including A, B1, B2, B3, B6, D and F, but it is the level of vitamin E that is particularly valuable. Wheat germ oil has the highest natural level of vitamin E of any known food product (measuring 415 International Units per 100 grams). Vitamin E is not only a powerful antioxidant, but helps improve skin cell function. The second benefit means, in practical terms, that vitamin E can help improve the skin barrier function (allowing skin cells to accept and retain moisture), fight inflammation and help cell growth (which is why vitamin E is credited with being able to help reduce the appearance of scars and stretch marks).
Wheat germ oil also contains high levels of minerals, specifically magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. These elements are necessary for the healthy functioning of skin tissues and, because they are bioavailable through topical application, can be readily absorbed through the skin. Of particular interest is the high level of selenium: This element is a cofactor essential to the activity of antioxidants, such as glutathione peroxidase, which is included in several human proteins. In other words, the selenium in wheat germ oil helps "switch on" the natural antioxidant function of the body.
Unfortunately, some individuals may not tolerate the use of wheat germ oil. The protein gliadin is included in the oil, which may trigger a reaction in people with gluten sensitivity. The most common cause for a negative reaction is celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that is found most commonly among people with ancestors from northern Europe, South Asia and, in particular, among Native Americans. Anyone who has been diagnosed as "gluten intolerant" or with celiac disease should contact their physician before using wheat germ oil.