The truth is that most people have no clue what goes into the products that they use daily. The ugly truth is that if they knew, they would probably never want to use them again. In the beauty and skincare industry, one such pariah is Palm Oil. The devastation caused by this one ingredient to people, wildlife, and the planet, is so complicated and far-reaching that it deserves our immediate attention.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is a type of vegetable oil that is derived from oil palms. Oil palms are an ancient staple crop in West Africa and the tree bears giant bunches of red fruit beneath its fronds. For millennia, humans have harvested the fruit, boiled, and pounded it to extract cooking oil, burned the kernel shells for heat, and used woven palm fronds to make rooves and baskets.
Palm Oil fruit (Elaeis guineensis).
Why is Palm Oil so Popular?
Owing to its versatility and the efficiency with which it can be produced (requiring only half as much land as other crops, such as soybeans, to generate a given amount of oil), The use of Palm Oil within the past few decades has skyrocketed. In fact, palm oil is the most efficient oilseed crop in the world. A hectare of palm oil plantation can produce almost ten times the amount of oil than the next closest type of oilseed such as rapeseed.
Palm Oil has been successfully transplanted to other tropical regions and it is now mainly supplied by Indonesia and Malaysia. It is now the most popular vegetable oil in the world, accounting for one-third of global consumption, and it is almost unavoidable, being found in many consumer and industrial products, such as food and beverages, personal care and beauty products, bioenergy and fuel, animal feed, pharmaceuticals, industrial activities, and the food service industry. Biscuits, spreads, chocolate, bread, personal care products, detergents, soap, lipstick… these are just a few of the multitude of items containing Palm Oil that you are more than likely have in your home right now.
Palm oil is used extensively in the cosmetic and food industries and the global demand for it continues to rise with consumption exceeding 70 million metric tonnes annually.
With its use in so many everyday applications, it begs the question, how can this ‘tree of plenty’ be so bad? What is the real issue with palm oil?
The Dark Side of Palm Oil
The real issue with Palm Oil is its unsustainable production rather than the product itself. There is little regulation in the destruction of rainforest areas, and it is currently very difficult to trace whether the palm oil in products was really produced sustainably.
Unsustainable palm oil has a most devastating effect on the environment. Palm oil has been, and continues to be, a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, causing mass destruction to the habitats of already endangered species, and contributing to climate change by releasing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The aggressive burning and clearing of forests in Indonesia alone contribute to 12% of all global carbon emissions.
Aerial drone view of rainforest being burnt and cleared to make way for palm plantations in Indonesia.
The haze from Indonesian forest fires, many deliberately set to clear land for oil palms, caused at least 12,000 premature deaths in 2015 alone.
According to Greenpeace, land equivalent to the size of a football field is lost every 25 seconds in Indonesia alone. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that worldwide, around 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour to make way for palm oil plantations.
Landcover, forest clearance and plantation development in PT Megakarya Jaya Raya (PT MJR) palm oil concession. Source: Greenpeace.
In Borneo, the island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, since 1973, almost 42,000 square kilometers of rain forest has been burned and bulldozed to create space for oil palms. Since 2000, oil palms have accounted for 47% of the world’s total deforestation. All this deforestation has wreaked havoc on local wildlife. Nearly 150,000 endangered Bornean orangutans have perished from 1999-2015. According to a report from the World Wildlife Fund, elephants, Sumatran tigers, and rhinos are also on the brink of extinction.
Orangutans in Borneo where rainforest has been cleared for palm oil plantations. ULET IFANSASTI/GETTY IMAGES
Human rights abuses in and around these plantations run rampant. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, palm oil companies have bulldozed entire villages of indigenous peoples, leaving their residents homeless and reliant on government aid.
In 2020, the Associated Press conducted a comprehensive investigation that focused on the brutal treatment of women employed on these plantations. The report highlighted the hidden scourge of sexual abuse (with many reporting repeatedly being raped by their employers), threats and verbal harassment along with human trafficking, child labour (as young as 5 years old), and what can only be considered as modern-day slavery. Women are burdened with some of the most dangerous jobs in the industry, forced to spend hours carrying such heavy loads that can cause their wombs to collapse. Chemically contaminated water can add to the burden by causing terrible sickness. Most workers are hired as subcontractors, without any benefits, and sometimes making only $2 per day.
Female worker carrying a heavy load at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara).
It seems painfully ironic that palm oil, harvested in such ugly and inhumane ways, is used in products to make one ‘beautiful’.
Palm Oil and the Beauty Industry
The derivatives of palm oil (glycerol, fatty acids, or fatty alcohols) are used in many products because of their emollient or foaming properties.
The two main types of oil from the oil palm are palm oil and palm kernel oil. To make palm oil, the fruit is pressed to extract crude palm oil [CPO] which is refined to become edible. The CPO is then processed to become refined, bleached, and deodorized (RBD) palm oil. Alternatively, the oil can be extracted straight from the kernel as palm kernel oil. Palm kernel oil is what is used in the manufacture of foods and cosmetics because it can maintain its structure under high temperatures, it is creamy and smooth in texture, and it is odourless.
Although the beauty industry reportedly only accounts for 2% of global palm oil production, it can be found in as many as 70% of all beauty products. The fact that it is cheap and versatile makes it an attractive addition. In lipsticks, the addition of palm oil allows them to remain tasteless, prevents them from melting, and allows their colours to last much longer.
The problem with palm oil is ultimately one of production greed. Efficiency and low-cost equals good profit for companies that use palm oil in their products. This relentless drive for short term profit and growth always comes at the expense of something or someone. Sadly, this case is no different.
What has been done so far to manage sustainable Palm Oil?
In response to the urgent and pressing global call for sustainably produced palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. RSPO-certified palm growers are audited by an independent, accredited certification body that supposedly ensures that strict social and environmental guidelines are followed during production.
Although this represents progress, unfortunately the certifications are far from perfect and there are many loopholes. According to two separate reports from campaigning groups WWF and Rainforest Action Network, some of the world’s biggest brands are failing in their commitments to banish deforestation from their supply chains through their use of palm oil, despite making public claims to environmental sustainability.
Landcover, forest clearance and plantation development in PT Megakarya Jaya Raya (PT MJR) palm oil concession. Source: Greenpeace.
Is Palm Oil sustainable at present?
In the short term, NO. In the long term – truly sustainable palm oil, YES.
In September 2018, a comprehensive investigation by Greenpeace exposed how the world’s biggest brands are still linked to rainforest destruction in Indonesia. Palm oil suppliers to the world’s largest brands, including Unilever, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and Mondelez, have destroyed an area of rainforest almost twice the size of Singapore in less than three years, according to the report.
The report highlighted how some of the largest members of the RSPO, who supposedly produce and sell ‘sustainable’ palm oil, routinely flout the laws and rules which they are supposed to abide by. The outcome of the report was that large companies who claim to only use sustainable palm oil in their products are in fact selling the public a lie and that production of sustainable palm oil under the RSPO is fiction.
There is now a realisation that RSPO-certification is currently “inadequate” as a guarantee that the palm oil in use is not leading to deforestation. In other words, just because a company or product is RSPO-certified there is NO guarantee that the palm oil they have used has not caused deforestation.
As a result of these collective failures, brands and traders who still source palm oil from non-sustainable producer groups are not just complicit in rainforest destruction and exploitation, but – through their palm oil purchases – actively funding those responsible for it. These factors represent the greatest known threats to Indonesia’s rainforests and local communities.
Read the Palm Oil Investigation by Greenpeace here
What can you do to support the sustainable production of palm oil?
It has been proven that palm oil production is NOT sustainable at present, and that deforestation, and devastation to human life, wildlife, and the environment continues because of it.
Palm oil’s reach is not going away anytime soon. it is found in just about everything — from cookies, chips, and bread, to wide a range of personal care products. Palm oil is part of our lives, but rainforest destruction and the cascading human health effects from the burning and clearing of forests shouldn’t be. Nor should the welfare of workers and neighboring communities who are violated at the cost of producing this vegetable oil.
In our opinion, and many others, the best option to support the sustainable production of palm oil is to AVOID purchasing beauty products (or any products) containing palm oil, or palm oil derivatives, wherever possible until truly sustainable palm oil can be absolutely guaranteed.
The best way to do this is by reading and understanding ingredient labels! DO NOT buy products with palm oil or palm kernel oil in the ingredient list. It is important to note that when reading labels, ‘Palm Oil’ may not be listed, but one of its 200+ derivatives may be. Orangutan Alliance have compiled a list of alternative names for palm oil which you can read at the end of this article. Familiarizing yourself with some of them may seem a big task but a helpful tip is to avoid ingredients with the root word being ‘palm’ or that have ‘palm’ in it (for e.g., palmitic acid, hydrated palm glycerides, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyle, etc) or other common ‘palm’ derivatives with the words ‘stear’ and ‘laur’ (for e.g., stearate, stearic acid, and sodium lauryl sulfate). In New Zealand it is not a requirement to label a specific oil, ‘vegetable oil’ is acceptable. If an ingredient label states ‘vegetable oil’ then it is more than likely palm oil.
By avoiding products made with palm oil, and supporting companies who choose not to use palm oil, or palm oil derivatives, we are being ‘conscious consumers‘. Conscious consumerism is a vital part of sustainability. It is the awareness of how every purchase that we make has an impact on the environment. By being a ‘conscious consumer’, we can all contribute to a more sustainable world that respects basic human rights, protects the environment and the planet so it will be here for future generations to enjoy. We are also sending a strong message that we won’t accept unsustainable and unethical products, giving the rain forests a bit of respite and a chance to survive.
Palm oil sustainability is a very complex issue with many consequences, but we can make a difference by choosing to buy palm oil free products wherever possible. The more we talk about this issue, share information with each other, and make a collective stand against it, the sooner truly sustainable palm oil will be available without the catastrophic effects linked to it now.
The devastation to human life, wildlife, and the environment is simply too high a price to pay when it comes to buying beauty and skincare products that contain palm oil. We should all do what we can to support basic human rights, protect critically endangered species, and preserve our planet. There are companies out there trying to play their part by avoiding the use of palm oil in their products and we should do our bit by supporting them.
Scenturie is a natural skincare brand based in New Zealand that lives by the ethos “Respect for us, respect for others, respect for nature, and respect for our planet”. All our products are palm oil-free, cruelty-free, vegan, eco-friendly, sustainable, and free from harmful chemicals. We use NO parabens, sulfates, phthalates, glycols, silicones, phenoxyethanol, or mineral oils. Our packaging is all recyclable, reusable, and compostable, and as part of our committment to ongoing sustainability we offer a returnable product packaging service.
Alternative Names for Palm Oil Derivatives
Below are some examples of how palm oil may be referred to on packaging. This doesn’t mean that all these ingredients are definitely palm oil, (for instance E471 may be palm oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil or canola oil), but they could be. This list is from The Orangutan Alliance.
Acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472a/E472a)
Alkyl ether sulfate
Aluminium, calcium, sodium, magnesium salts of fatty acids (470/E470a; E470b)
Ammonium laureth sulphate
Ammonium lauryl sulphate
Ascorbyl palmitate (304)
Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate (vitamin C)
Calcium oleyl lactylate
Calcium stearoyl lactylate
Caprylic / Capric Glycerides
Carboxylic acid soap
Carotene (Sometimes made from palm)
Castile soap (often from palm)
Castor Isostearate Beeswax Succinate
Ceteareth mbsfl laurethulanate
Ceteareth mbhe laurethulanate
Cetearyl and Sorbitan Olivate
Citric and fatty acid esters of glycerol
Cocoa butter equivalent (CBE)
Cocoa butter substitute (CBS)
Diacetyltartaric acid esters of monoglycerides
Diacetyltartaric and fatty acid esters of glycerol
Dicocoylethyl Hydroxyethylmonium Methosulfate
Dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate
Di-ppg-2 myreth-10 adipate?
Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
Disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
Distilled Monoglyceride Palm
Emulsifiers: E304, E422, E430, E431, E432, E433, E434, E435, E436, E470, E470a, E470b, E471, E472, E472a, E472b, E472c, E472e, E472f, E473, E474, E475, E476, E477, E478, E479, E480, E481, E482, E483, E493, E494, E495
Epoxidized palm oil (uv cured coatings)
Esters of Myristic Acid
Ethoxylated Lauryl Alcohol
Ethyl lauroyl arginate (243)
Ethylene glycol diesters
Ethylene glycol monoesters
Ethylene glycol monostearate
Ethyl hexyl Esters-2
Fatty acid methyl esters (FAME)
Fatty alcohol alkoxylate
Fatty alcohol sulphates
FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil
Fractionated Palm Oil
Glycerin or glycerol (442)
Glyceryl stearate SE
Hydrated palm glycerides
Hydrogenated palm glycerides
Hydroxy Stearic Linolenic
Isopropyl titanium triisostearate
Lactic and fatty acid easters of glycerol
Laureth (Laureth-1, Laureth-2, Laureth-3, Laureth-5, Laureth-6, Laureth-7, Laureth-8, Laureth-9, Laureth-10, Laureth-11, Laureth-12, Laureth-13, Laureth-14, Laureth-15, Laureth-16, Laureth-20, Laureth-21, Laureth-25, Laureth-30, Laureth-38, Laureth-40, Laureth-50)
Lauryl Alcohol Ethoxylates
Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen
Lauryl glucoside (from palm)
Lecithin Isopropyl Palm Oil
Metallic salts of lactylic esters of fatty acids
Mixed tartaric, acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol
Mono and di-glycerides of fatty acids
Mono glycerides of fatty acids
Myreth 3 Myrisrate
Myristic Cetrimonium Chloride Acid
Octyldodecyl stearoyl stearate
OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil
Palm fruit oil
Palm kernel amidopropyl amine oixde
Palm kernel amidopropyl betaine?
Palm kernel cake
Palm Kernel Diethanolamide
Palm kernel oil
Palm Kernel Olein
Palm Kernel Stearin
Palm olein oil
Palmitoyl myristyl serinate
Palm oleic acid
Palm Methyl Ester
Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
Pentaerythritol tetra caprai caprylate
PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
PKO – Palm Kernel Oil
PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein
PK oleic acid
Polyaminopropyl biguanide stearate
Polyethylene (40) stearate (431)
Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids
Polyglycerol esters of interesterified ricinoleic acid
Polyglycerol-2 oleyl ether
Polyglyceryl-4 oleyl ether
Polysorbate 60 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate
Polysorbate 65 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan tristearate
Polysorbate 80 or polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monoolate
Potassium Cetyl Phosphate
Propylene Glycol Alginate
Propylene glycol esters of fatty acids
Propylene glycol laurate
Propylene glycol monoester
Propylene Glycol Myristate
Propylene glycol stearate
Saponified elaeis guineensis
Saturated Fatty acid
sodium alkyl sulfate
Sodium cetearyl sulphate
Sodium cocoyl glutamate
sodium cocoyl glycinate
Sodium cocoyl isethionate
Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye
Sodium lactylate; sodium oleyl lactylate; sodium stearoyl lactylate
Sodium laureth sulfate
Sodium laureth sulphate
Sodium laureth – 1 sulphate
Sodium laureth – 2 sulphate
Sodium laureth – 3 sulphate
Sodium laureth-13 carboxylate
Sodium lauroyl lactylate
Sodium lauryl ether sulphate
Sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate
Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
Sodium lauryl sulphate
Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate
Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate
Sodium palm kernelate
Sodium palm kerneloyl isethionate
Sodium stearoyl Fumarate
Sodium stearoyl glutamate
Sodium stearoyl lactylate
Sodium Trideceth sulphate
Sorbitan monostearate (491)
Sorbitan tristearate (492)
Stearic acid or fatty acid (570)
Stearyl Stearoyl Stearate
Stearoyl lactic acid
Sucrose esters of fatty acids
Sucroseesters of fatty acids
Sulphonated Methyl Esters
Tocotrienols (Vitamin E)
Tocopherols (Vitamin E)
Triisostearoyl polyglyceryl-3 dimer dilinoleate
Vitamin A palmitate
Vitamin C Ester
Yeast with 491