Since I carried out conservation work in the rain forest some years ago, I've made it a priority to ensure that my company offers personal care products are ethically produced and that means creating them completely 100% palm oil free.
All our products have been created 100% palm oil-free just for you - so make sure you check them out here!
In this article, I will highlight some of the ‘problems’ associated with palm oil use in your everyday products, what products contain palm oil and why, how to check for them and how you too can go palm oil-free!
First, though it's Quiz Time, try and hazard a guess at how many products you have in your house right now that contain palm oil and write down that figure - then, after you have read this blog, do a quick rough check again and see how close your first guess figure was - you could be in for a big surprise.
2. A Few Palm Oil Facts To Start With.
Not only is palm found in about 50% of common food products, but it is also in 70% of cosmetic products. It is a tropical oil, so only grows in regions with tropical rainforests. Produced primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia (though also in Thailand, Papa New Guinea and several Latin American countries), it is an excellent oil for heating and for cooking.
It is odourless, it is versatile; it makes soap bars hard and it is very efficient in that it produces far more per hectare than rapeseed, soy or sunflower crops, requiring ten times less land than any of these crops. Additionally, the palm oil fruit also produces Palm kernel expeller (used in the energy and animal feed sector) and palm kernel oil (used extensively in cosmetics).
So, it has been a difficult achievement to retain the same standard in our products whilst finding sustainable alternatives but we’ve managed it. Whilst it’s quite easy to find alternatives for body soap, it becomes much more difficult with hair care products, where there are limited suppliers for palm oil-free ingredients. To use top-quality primary ingredients in both our best UK shampoo bars and natural conditioner bars, we have had to track down and persuade specific manufacturers to source and work with palm oil alternatives for us.
If you’re one of a growing number of people boycotting palm-oil products, you’ll know it’s not an easy feat. Palm is the most consumed vegetable oil on the planet.
In fact, over 50 percent of products on the supermarket shelves contain it, from margarine, chocolate and cereal to toothpaste, cosmetics and cleaning products.
Palm oil is used as a raw material in hair care base ingredients such as emulsifiers, emollients, solubilisers and many powdered and liquid surfactants (surface cleaning agents). It is also present in many shower gels, soap bars, skin lotions and creams, all cosmetics (mascara, lipsticks, eyeliner, eye shadow, blush, foundations) as well as toothpaste and mouthwash.
The problem is that the demand has been so great that industrial palm oil production has become disastrous for the world’s rainforests.
Haircare is a lesser-known place where palm oil pops up and where brands are behind the curve when it comes to going palm-oil free.
So, if you’re trying to reduce the amount of palm oil you’re buying but still want to get the best from your haircare products read the ingredients carefully.
3. Why Is Palm Oil Used In Hair And Body Care Products?
The chances are your favourite shampoo, conditioner, lotion or soap contains palm oil of some form. It’s used widely as a raw material in haircare ingredients such as emulsifiers, emollients, solubilizers and surfactants (surface cleaning agents).
Brands love the stuff because it’s cheap (much cheaper than other natural oils like olive, almond, apricot and coconut), it’s odourless and colourless, it foams well and it’s also hydrating. Its semi-solid texture at room temperature also helps bar-style soap and shampoo products hold their shape.
As a crop, it is efficient to grow in terms of space but with 18m hectares of land used for industrial palm oil and 5 football pitches of deforestation carried out every minute, we need to look at alternatives.
It is cheap, it foams well and is also hydrating (though there are other suitable alternatives on the market).
Palm oil (made from the outer part; the flesh/pulp) is used in cooking and is high in palmitic fatty acid (also useful for foaming in shampoos and body washes as well as hardness for soaps, shampoos).
Palm kernel oil (from the inner palm fruit) is high in lauric and other fatty acids (good for high heat cooking), and is also good for foaming in soaps and treating skin inflammation.
Even the 'sustainable', as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), palm oil is cheaper than many carrier oils commonly found in hair and body care products, including Grapeseed, Olive, Apricot, Almond, apricot, Coconut.
4. What Harm Does Palm Oil Production Cause The Environment?
Why palm oil-free then? Why should we care whether palm oil is in our products?
As a crop, the palm is incredibly efficient and quick to grow. But, to make way for palm plantations, huge areas of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests are being cleared, putting native species at risk of extinction.
Currently, it’s estimated that 18 million hectares of land are being used for industrial palm oil production and 5 football pitches of deforestation occur every minute. Soon, if left uncontrolled, we could witness the loss of rainforests altogether.
5. How To Tell If Your Haircare Products Contain Palm Oil.
From the scale of the problem it can seem like your everyday choices won’t make a difference. But this isn’t true. Only when brands start to lose customers (and profit) will they remove palm oil from their products.
At this point you're probably asking, how can I go palm oil free? How to buy products without palm oil? How to live palm oil free?
So, here’s how you can spot whether your bathroom products contain palm oil and some extra things you can do to support the palm oil-free movement:
Always check the product’s label and ingredients list before you buy. Palm oil can turn up in all sorts of ingredients. To get clued up, here’s a helpful list of alternative names for palm oil.
You can’t always tell if some ingredients (like SLS and Cetyl/Cetearyl alcohol) are palm-oil based or use an alternative source like coconut. If it’s unclear, check the product page on the brand’s website before contacting them directly via email or on social media
Choose manufacturers using alternatives to palm. Coconut oil has a lower environmental impact as it’s harvested by hand and doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. So too does jojoba oil which grows in the desert with very little water. But if you want to keep things local, UK-grown rapeseed oil is a great sustainable alternative with no air miles.
Don’t discount a palm oil-free product if it doesn’t have a Palm-Oil Free Certification. It’s expensive for companies, especially smaller ones, to obtain so you won’t always find it on the packaging. Contact the brand directly.
When you find a palm oil-free product that works, shout about it! Share your find with your friends and family to support the movement against palm oil.
Check product names and alternative names for palm oil (just too many to list-see a couple of links below); there are many lists online available. However, it is still best to check directly with the retailer as it is possible they could have specifically sourced some raw materials without palm oil.
However, also check if the retailer has asked the supplier/manufacturer the question directly and has confirmation in writing or has received certification from the company that their particular ingredient is palm oil free.
For example, Behentrimonium methosulate (BTMS) commonly found in Shampoos and Conditioners is often listed as palm oil free. With limited global suppliers, it is almost always made with both Rapeseed oil and Palm oil (it is the Cetyl/Cetearyl alcohol which is made of palm oil and makes up 50-75% of BTMS).
Palm Oil Free Certification is limited and expensive for many companies, particularly small businesses, to obtain so you won’t always find these on packaging to help you in your choices.
What shampoo is palm oil free? Once you start to 'dig deeper' into what and how the 'majors' (and a lot of the minors too) work around this issue and in many cases are far from honest about what they actually use in their products you will find that the answer to this question is very few.
All of our products are 100% palm oil-free; we wouldn't even consider using sustainable palm oil as that is as bad as you will read in the next section.
Many other companies (not all) use 'green washing', the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information through heavy marketing policies aimed at consumers about how a company's products are more environmentally sound when in fact they are not. In many cases a small fortune is spent on advertising - millions of pounds each year - to convince the general public that they are ‘green’, ‘socially aware’, ‘transparently ethical’ and ‘morally responsible’ when their actions quite clearly say otherwise.
6. Is It Really Any Better For The Environment To Use “Sustainable” Palm Oil?
Simply put, no. You may see some products stamped with the “RPSO” sustainable palm oil certification but it’s as much use as a chocolate teapot.
One large international high street and online hair and beauty product company recently stated they don't believe there is any sustainable palm oil on the market and that all palm oil is unsustainable; on this, at least, we 100% agree!
However, despite this multinational claiming they have been trying to remove palm oil from their supply chain since 2008, they still confirm using 16 ingredients that contain palm oil.
From close scrutiny of their product listing and ingredients, it is quite clear that they could switch away from palm oil tomorrow as there are suitable alternatives available. The question is why haven’t they? It can only be because they consider profit over sustainability - there can't be any other feasible explanation.
There is a very interesting article in a national broadsheet entitled “…No such thing as sustainable palm oil..” with the sub-title stating that “…'certified' can destroy even more wildlife, say scientists. Exclusive: Study reveals 'trick' behind endorsement schemes linked to 'greenwashing’…”.
“Our research shows quite unequivocally that, unfortunately, there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and that the claims by corporations, certification schemes and non-government organisations are simply ‘greenwashing’, useful to continue business as usual,” Professor Gatti said. “No shortcuts: if you use palm oil, certified or not, you are definitely destroying tropical forests.”
According to the study, which was published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, there is a trick to “certification”. First, an old-growth tropical forest is cut or slashed and burned for paper and pulp or valuable tropical timber trades. Then a traditional, non-certified palm oil plantation is started; after a certain time, the traditional plantation is seemingly miraculously “transformed” into a certified one and wins a sustainability label.
“The trick is that they make leverage on the absence of historical records on land use change, hiding the reality that even a certified concession was, in the recent past, a highly biodiverse tropical forest” Prof Gatti added.
An Australian study in 2018 carried out by the University of Queensland and ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) concluded that ‘no significant difference was found between certified and non-certified plantations for any sustainability metrics’ (including measuring biodiversity, new planting development, community considerations, social impact) with populations of orangutans declining in both certified and non-certified concessions as well as both showing areas of extensive deforestation. The only positive impact being in ‘higher yields and share prices for certified companies.
7. Some Other Significant Factors To Consider In The Palm Oil Discussion.
Associated high deforestation rates impact directly on biodiversity.
The practice of using clearing the ground by fire prior to palm oil development kills many native species, reducing their diversity and abundance of them.
Whilst this statistic is often used to play down or diminish the impact of palm oil production, the key factor here is that the other three crops are not grown in crucial biodiverse areas and do not involve deforestation as they are cultivated in primarily in the USA, Canada, Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, China and India.
But the productivity of palm oil per hectare of land is 8 to 10 times higher than other vegetable oils; so you can see clearly see the main driver behind palm oil production - money!
Only one-fifth is RSPO ‘sustainable’ palm oil, so it’s considered a ‘niche’ market as it’s more expensive.
In Asia (China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia) palm oil is the primary oil used for cooking and as a food ingredient; RSPO is not a consideration.
The RSPO has been openly criticised for various issues which have raised doubts over it's true commitment to sustainability, these have included the destruction of tropical forests and human rights abuses.
85% of global palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
In Malaysia, palm oil development accounted for 47% of deforestation from 1972-2015. This was less so in Indonesia, but only because the land had already been deforested, cleared and burnt for timber.
Over the last 40 yrs. species have moved towards extinction twice as fast in Indonesia as in any other country; this of great concern as Indonesia has the second highest level of biodiversity in the world.
8. What are The Alternatives To Using Palm Oil?
Where possible buy organic carrier oils (non-GMO). Sustainability and the environmental impact of any large-grown crop is a tricky subject with grey areas.
Coconut oil has low environmental as it’s harvested by hand and doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. UK-grown rapeseed oil is easy to buy (we get ours from a neighbouring farm here in Oxfordshire), and jojoba oil which grows in the desert and requires very little water. Rice bran oil (from which our candle's vegan wax is derived) is said to have a low environmental impact.
9. Conclusion – Palm Oil Free Is Best!
Palm oil is everywhere. It is used in everything from cooking to running cars and is also found in almost all of our everyday food and household products. It is a large reason why 300 football pitches of forest and important conservation areas are being destroyed every hour!
It seems impossible to obtain palm oil that isn’t from deforestation, even if it is labelled as ‘sustainable’. Until these changes come about, the only option is to use palm oil-free alternatives. This is entirely possible for companies to do so if the bottom line isn’t solely cost.
So the question we pose is - if as a small business with a strong underlying ethical policy, we manage to be 100% palm oil free why can't the multi-nationals?
We all urgently need to become less reliant on palm oil to help save the wonderful and beneficial bio-diversity of our planet.