You might not have heard of palm oil until around November last year when Iceland brought it to the forefront with its Christmas TV advert. Despite public outcry, the ad was deemed too political and pulled from our screens and the debate continued on social media.
Fast-forward to 10 months to August 2019 and palm oil is back in the headlines because of the catastrophic fires in the Amazon. For years the palm oil industry has been stripping away sections of rainforests across the world to harvest the ingredient – it’s thought that over eight per cent of rainforests were cleared between 1990 and 2008. As a result, palm oil has been linked to rising greenhouse emissions and destroying natural habitats of animals, including the orangutans that Iceland’s advert highlighted.
But what does this have to do with your beauty products? Well, it’s thought that around 70% of cosmetic products contain palm oil. Simply boycotting these brands and products might not be the best option though. Here’s what you need to know…
What is palm oil?
Palm Oil found in spiky, orange-hued fruit that grows naturally in rainforests across the world. Crude palm oil is squeezed out of the fleshy bit, while kernel palm oil is sourced from the stone in the middle.
It is arguably the least expensive and most versatile vegetable oil on the planet. From doughnuts and pizzas to shampoos, lipsticks and washing detergents, it’s likely that a lot of the products you use on a daily basis contain palm oil.
Why is it used in beauty products?
Palm oil is odourless and colourless and works as a good emulsifier and surfactant. It is also thought to be a relatively good antioxidant and helps provide some protection from free radicals that can encourage premature ageing. It’s likely that some of your cleansers, shampoos, soaps, serums and make-up items contain palm oil.
That’s not to say palm oil is imperative to beauty products. Brands including PHB Ethical Beauty and Garden of Wisdom don’t use it in their formulas and are good options for those wanting to avoid palm oil.
So, should you avoid palm oil?
While it might be tempting to boycott anything that contains palm oil, some environmentalists argue that the issue is much more complex as many livelihoods are reliant on the industry. Plus, it is a very efficient plant. “Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land,” WWF states. “To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between four and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species.”
Instead, it is worth doing some research and seeking out brands that are supporting sustainable sources of palm oil. For example, Dr Bronner’s uses trade organic palm oil from Ecuador and Sierra Leone where the plants are grown without chemicals on degraded land and harvested with irrigated rainwater.
You can also support efforts to clean up the palm oil industry by joining WWF’s Save the Rainforest campaign and lobby the British government to source all of its palm oil from sustainable sources rather than just 65% per cent.