Palm Oil In Cosmetics, Part 1 of 3

Palm oil derives from the fruit of the oil palm that is grown in the humid tropics.
Palm oil derives from the fruit of the oil palm that is grown in the humid tropics.

Palm oil is an invisible part of our lives as a functional ingredient in many of the food, personal care and household products that we use on a daily basis. There is palm oil in your cosmetic products, as well, because it mixes easily with other ingredients, makes your products creamy, and improves product stability and shelf life.

And, looking at the current price for palm oil-based ingredients, it is obviously an inexpensive option. Yet, the price does not take into consideration the damage palm oil production causes. The true cost of palm oil is much higher if we monetize the environmental destruction that has been taking place to produce it.

Report: Shopper Data for Sustainable Beauty Ingredients

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a superior ingredient for making good quality balms, creams, salves, lipsticks and many other cosmetic products. It has no scent or taste, produces a creamy texture, keeps products moist, binds ingredients together and extends shelf life.

Palm oil derives from the fruit of the oil palm that is grown in the humid tropics. Currently, 85% of all palm oil produced globally comes from plantations and smallholders in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Farmers and workers harvest fresh fruit bunches throughout the year and bring their fruit to an extractor where the palm fruit is processed into crude palm oil. The palm kernel is processed into palm kernel oil. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are further processed into derivatives, including ingredients for the cosmetic market. 

Because the crude oil is used as an essential building block for ingredients found in your cosmetic products, you will not see palm oil listed as an ingredient on your product label.

Impact of Palm Oil

Oil palm is a very efficient oil crop with a high yield per hectare compared to, for example, coconut, olive, sunflower or soy oil crops that are also used to make cosmetic products. In its essence, palm oil is a sustainable crop. However, fast development of the sector, growing global demand and poor policy have led to large-scale deforestation, animal habitat loss and exploitation, thereby rendering conventional palm oil unsustainable.

Over the last 30 years, monoculture palm cultivation replaced natural diversity in many oil palm growing landscapes, with a direct negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystem health. The realization that things needed to change in order to protect people and nature led to new ways of thinking and kickstarted a collaboration to transition the sector to sustainable oil palm cultivation. 

Approximately 20% of global palm oil is now produced sustainably, according to the standard of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Though it takes time to make the switch, some producers are leading the way, using organic, sustainable and ethical practices in their palm oil production. We can expect more companies to change to good practices when the demand for sustainable and regenerative organic ingredients increases.

Sustainability at a Cost

There is a difference between non-sustainable, sustainable and organic palm oil, and this difference comes at a cost. Due to organic practices used, more intensive cultivation work and lower average yields due to the eradication of chemical use, organic palm oil is more expensive than conventional palm oil. If we want our ingredients to be more environmentally and community-friendly, we must be prepared to pay more.

You can choose to avoid buying products made with non-sustainable, conflict palm oil. Yet, with more than 180 different names for palm-oil-based ingredients, it is difficult to know what to look for in your ingredient list, let alone, find out whether it comes from sustainable sources. You could contact your brand manufacturer but even they might not know the answer. Often, they do not know the source of the ingredients they buy.

Organic Cultivation

Eradicating chemical dependency in agriculture and growing crops in unison with nature is crucial to protect biodiversity and ecosystem health. To date, the amount of organic palm oil-based ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products is still low. Yet, demand is growing. 

Palm Done Right is one of several campaigns designed to change the conversation around palm oil and to raise awareness of the importance of switching to organic, sustainable and ethical palm oil. Dr. Bronner’s, Moon Valley Organics, Tonic, Uviña Skin and  au NATURALE are among the brands using organic palm oil in their products, according to The Palm Done Right website.

Beauty giant Estee Lauder has similarly built a platform highlighting its efforts around ethical, sustainable palm oil for beauty. Elsewhere, Credo Beauty has taken a public stance on a range of ingredients sold in products it retails, including palm oil. And some brands, including Axiology, Chantecaille and Earth Tru Face, have even cut the cord entirely by foregoing palm oil altogether.

Many cosmetic manufacturers are slow in changing the way they source their palm oil-based ingredients. Many of them are members of the RSPO, yet, in my opinion, they do not seem to be making big steps forward. The intention to source sustainably is clearly there, but buying sustainably certified palm oil derivatives from known sources is still difficult.

Not knowing the production origins of brands’ ingredients makes it hard to ensure their products are deforestation- and exploitation-free. There are good developments though, with joint initiatives set up to overcome the current challenges in the supply chain.


Disclosure statement: Monique van Wijnbergen is director of sustainability and corporate communications at Natural Habitats, a supplier of organic and fair-trade palm oil. She is also a spokesperson for Palm Done Right.

About the Palm Oil in Cosmetics Series:

Part 1: Palm Oil in Cosmetics—its role and impact. 

Part 2: The Future of Palm Oil—What initiatives are in play to make palm oil derivatives in the personal care and cosmetics industry. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes to raise the bar on cosmetics and sustainability. What can consumers do and how can brands educate them to make responsible choices? (Coming soon.)

Part 3: Working with/Sourcing Palm Oil—We interview Gay Timmons, a distributor for palm oil in the cosmetics space and talk to brand owners to gain a market perspective on palm oil and the benefits not only of the functionality of products, but the advantages of supply chain transparency, consumer education and brand advocacy.  (Coming soon.)

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