Palm Oil and Cosmetics

Why is palm oil such a popular ingredient in toiletries and cosmetics, and what are companies doing about it? Ruth Strange gets to the heart of palm oil and personal care.

Why is palm oil in almost everything?

Part of the reason palm oil is used so widely is that it’s relatively cheap. The whole of the large palm fruit is used, both the flesh and the kernel, to make oil, so it’s about 10 times as productive as a soya bean or rapeseed.

Palm oil and its derivatives can be hidden behind over 200 different names in ingredients lists. As of 2014, in the EU, food ingredient lists must include which type of vegetable oil they contain, but this law does not apply to non-food products like those in our latest guides: shampoo, soap, shower gel, and sunscreen.

These numerous palm oil derivatives bring many properties to bodycare products, from increasing thickness or viscosity, or helping skin to retain moisture, to providing a foaming agent to help remove dirt and increasing shelf life.

What are the problems?

All palm oil’s plus points have led to a huge demand globally, which has had devastating consequences. Forests are destroyed to be turned into plantations, displacing people and wildlife and releasing greenhouse gases. When peatlands are drained to grow palm, they become flammable and serious fires can result, causing even more carbon emissions, as well as health problems for people breathing in the smoke.

According to Greenpeace, more than 900,000 people in Indonesia have suffered acute respiratory infections due to the smoke from fires in 2019, and nearly 10 million children are at risk of lifelong physical and cognitive damages due to air pollution.

In the first 10 months of 2019, these fires released an amount of CO2 close to the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

What are companies doing?

Company approaches to the issue vary hugely, from some providing no information at all about palm oil sourcing, while listing palm oil derivatives in ingredients lists, to others going to great lengths to reformulate products to avoid using it at all.

We spoke to one skincare company, Queenie Organics, which had done extensive research into emulsifiers and how they’re made. It turns out that even ingredients which technically contain no palm, may be made from a process that uses palm as a feeder material. Queenie Organics’ founder, JC, told us that non-palm oil-based emulsifiers tend to be fairly expensive in comparison, around 4-10 times the price.

Manufacturers of these products do clearly state if they are indeed 'palm oil free', as it is an exception to the rule and used as part of their eco-friendly credentials. Apparently, Cetearyl Alcohol is the most widely used emulsifier in skincare, and also found as a blend within other emulsifiers. Manufacturers of Cetearyl Alcohol often state that it is made from coconut oil and MAY use palm oil, but JC has not found a palm-free Cetearyl Alcohol yet.

Almost palm-free

Other companies are also trying to deal with this problem. PHB Ethical Beauty for example are reducing the use of palm-based ingredients like stearic acid and working with suppliers to produce completely palm-free versions. They also push suppliers for ingredients like Glycerine and Cetyl Alcohol to be derived from coconut or soy instead.

Odylique have sought assurance from their suppliers that if they are at certain times obliged to use palm oil as a feeder material, it is from a certified sustainable (RSPO) source. Lush said it was moving towards a bigger picture solution to shape the whole industry and wanted the collaboration of other companies and investment in order to provide a range of palm-free synthetics.

Our palm oil rating

Companies received a best rating if they were palm-oil free, or if they had an RSPO-certified supply chain for all palm ingredients used by the whole company group, AND had two other positive initiatives such as declaring suppliers or volumes used, or mapping their supply chain right back to the mill, OR were using organic palm only.

The featured image (top of article) shows a concession owned by PT Multi Persada Gatramegah (PT MPG), a subsidiary of Musim Mas company, a palm oil supplier to Procter & Gamble in Muara Teweh, North Barito, Central Kalimantan. Greenpeace is calling P & G to stop destroying Indonesian rainforests and to commit to a zero deforestation policy. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.

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