Palm Oil in Cosmetics: Environmental Impact and Sustainability Concerns

Pile of oil palm fruits, many cut in half

slpu9945 / Getty Images

Palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil that's ubiquitous in cosmetics and personal care products as well as packaged foods, cleaning products, and even biofuel. Making up a third of the global oil market, the ingredient is present in more than half of all packaged products sold in the U.S. and 70% of cosmetics. It's beloved by the beauty industry for its high vitamin E content, texture-boosting fatty acids, and natural alcohols, which give it desirable emollient properties.

Palm oil is cheap and comes from a highly efficient oil palm crop that produces generous yields, year-round, with relatively little land. Yet, it can be horribly unsustainable. Demand for the product drives deforestation and destroys wildlife habitats in the diverse tropics. The farming practices associated with the crop are notorious for their considerable carbon footprints and have been known to involve child labor.

Here's a breakdown of concerns surrounding the omnipresent ingredient and the efforts being made to make it sustainable.

Products That Contain Palm Oil

Known as a versatile, hydrating, and virtually tasteless ingredient, palm oil is common in the following products:

  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Makeup such as mascara, foundation, concealer, lipstick, pressed eyeshadows, and eye pencils
  • Skin care
  • Perfume
  • Sunscreen
  • Facial wipes
  • Toothpaste
  • Soap and laundry detergent
  • Foods such as potato chips, candy, margarine, chocolate, bread, peanut butter, baby formula, ice cream, and vegan cheese
  • Biofuel

Other names for palm oil on beauty ingredients lists include ethyl palmitate, glyceryl stearate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, palmitate (and any variation of palmitate), sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, and stearic acid.

How Is Palm Oil Made?

Palm oil comes from oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis) that occur in a limited range within only 10 degrees of the equator. They originally grew just in Africa but were introduced in Asia as ornamental plants.

Since discovering their many uses, about 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, and South America have established lucrative palm oil plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia are the leading producers, responsible for 58% and 26% of world production, respectively.

There are two types of palm oil: crude palm oil and palm kernel oil. The former comes from squeezing the flesh of the fruit and the latter from crushing the kernel.

Crude palm oil is much lower in saturated fat (50% versus 80%) and is therefore used more in edible goods. Palm kernel oil, on the contrary, is used more for cosmetics, detergents, and soaps because its high fat content makes it more solid.

Pile of harvested palm oil fruits with trees in background

Afriadi Hikmal / Getty Images

Oil palms live for up to 30 years. Typically, the seeds grow in a nursery for a year before being transplanted to plantations. At 30 months old, they reach maturity and bare bunches of bright-red fruit that is harvested weekly.

To make the oil, ripe fruits are taken to mills, steamed, separated, and the flesh is pressed for crude palm oil. That oil is screened, clarified, and transferred to refineries that process it for either food, detergents, fuel, or soap and cosmetics.

To make palm kernel oil, the seed is crushed and the resulting oil is refined before it can be used in food, cosmetics, and cleaners.

Byproducts from the palm oil-making process are often put back into the growing cycle or recycled into other products. For example, Asian Agri, one of Asia's largest palm oil producers, claims to use empty fruit bunches as fertilizer and the leftover mesocarp fiber for biofuel to power the mill's boilers. The stalks, it says, are made into filling for cushions and mattresses.

Environmental Impact

Oil palm plantation and clear-cut patch at edge of rainforest

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Palm oil's environmental impact starts with the clearing of land before the seedling is even planted. A 2018 Greenpeace study found that the top palm oil suppliers had cleared 500 square miles of Southeast Asian rainforest just between 2015 and 2018. 

Deforestation—sometimes by means of extra-polluting forest fires—releases the carbon trees sequester back into the atmosphere. As a result, Indonesia—a country just slightly bigger than Alaska—has become the world's eighth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

To make matters worse, oil palm plantations are often planted on peatlands, which store more carbon (30%) than any other ecosystem. To make room for estates, these peatlands are dug up, drained, and burned, which alone releases more than 2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

Of course, palm oil production is also largely associated with the decline of vital fauna. The Orangutan Foundation calls palm oil the leading cause of orangutan extinction, killing between 1,000 and 5,000 of the primates every year.

The nonprofit Rainforest Rescue says orangutans are especially vulnerable to deforestation because they rely on large swaths of forest for food. When they do wander into oil palm plantations searching for sustenance, they are often killed by farmers. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that the palm oil industry affects 193 threatened species and that expansion of it could affect 54% of all threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds globally. Species already threatened, besides the orangutan, include the Sumatran elephant, Bornean pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, and Sumatran tiger—all either endangered or critically endangered.

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

Orangutan with baby on its head walking in forest

Cavan Images / Getty Images

Palm oil is technically vegan. The product itself is plant-based and doesn't contain any animal products. In fact, it's even common in certified vegan foods like some vegetable oil spreads (aka butter alternatives), nut butters, cheeses, ice creams, and cookies—not to mention cosmetics and cleaning products. This is a problem for many who maintain a vegan diet for environmental or animal welfare reasons.

Although the ingredient does not generally align with what's considered to be a cruelty free, environmentally friendly lifestyle, the choice to consume it is entirely personal.

Is Palm Oil Cruelty Free?

The vast majority of palm oil is not cruelty free because its production puts vulnerable species at risk and pushes them toward extinction. In addition to the indirect harm the palm oil industry inflicts upon critically endangered orangutans, some workers have been known to club the great apes to death when they wander into plantations. Clubbing was, in fact, the cause of death for more than 1,500 orangutans in 2006 alone.

A major problem with this is that there is no legal regulation or definition for the term "cruelty free," and so it remains quite ambiguous. The most basic interpretation of the label is that the final product wasn't tested on animals. The ingredients might have been, though, or they could have been sourced using cruel practices. A good rule to follow with palm oil is this: If it's untraceable, it's most likely not ethical.  

Can Palm Oil Be Ethically Sourced?

In addition to its environmental pitfalls, the palm oil industry has long been rooted in exploitation, trafficking, and child labor. There are countless reasons to make the trade more ethical all-around, and great strides are being made to do so. For instance, WWF has developed a Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard that is updated every year and currently includes more than 200 brands. It scores companies on their commitments, purchasing, accountability, sustainability, and on-the-ground action. 

How Do Popular Companies Rank on WWF's Scorecard?
Company Score (out of 24)
The Estee Lauder Companies Inc. 19.61
Unilever 19.13
L'Oréal 18.71
Johnson & Johnson 16.84
Procter & Gamble 15.01
The Body Shop 13.84
Walgreens Boots Alliance 11.33

There's also the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry watchdog with some 4,000 members from every sector of the global palm oil industry. The RSPO is the authority over Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, a label designed to ensure compliant products are transparent, environmentally responsible, ethical, sustainable, and committed to improvement.

However, despite the RSPO's CSPO seal being the supreme standard of palm oil, the scheme has been criticized by such prominent organizations as the Rainforest Action Network, which has called it a greenwashing tool.

Criticism stems from the RSPO's allowance of palm oil suppliers to clear cut rainforest when other options—like Indonesian grasslands—are available. Still, the WWF promotes the RSPO and encourages companies that produce or use palm oil to strive for the CSPO label.

What's more, companies associated with palm oil production have in recent years adopted "no deforestation, no peat development, and no exploitation" policies—abbreviated to NDPE. Through these, major growers like Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar International, Cargill, and Asian Agri have vowed to stop using fire as a method of deforestation, to assess the land's carbon stock and conservation value before clearing it, and to ask for permission from local communities before building plantations using a process called "Free, Prior and Informed Consent."

The Problem With Palm Oil as Biofuel

Close-up of oil palm biofuel in transparent tubes


A large portion of the world's palm oil is used for biofuel. Although biofuel has in the past been positioned as the golden ticket to moving away from fossil fuels, it has actually had the opposite effect: Demand for palm oil has increased, resulting in more deforestation and greater emissions. In fact, emissions from biofuel—including those from land use change—are believed to be greater than what fossil fuels produce.

Despite the International Council on Clean Transportation's warning that "if nothing is done to change course, the palm oil problem is going to make it increasingly hard to meet any kind of climate target," more of the problematic product is used for biofuel than for food or cosmetics. In 2018, 65% of all palm oil imported into the European Union was for biofuel for vehicles and electricity generation.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is palm oil sustainable?

    The global market for palm oil is expected to grow by another 5% from 2020 to 2026. As the demand increases, producers are driven to expand their plantations at the expense of vital tropical forests. Palm oil could be a sustainable crop, but not on this scale or under current practices.

  • Why not switch to alternative oils?

    Boycotting palm oil entirely would have devastating socio-economic repercussions. Plus, palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil crop. Although it makes up a third of the world's oil, it does so on just 6% of oil cropland.

    Switching to soy, coconut, sunflower, or rapeseed oil—at least on the scale needed for current demand—would require 10 times more land to be deforested while also potentially exacerbating forced labor issues.

  • What is the beauty industry doing to switch to sustainable palm oil?

    The Body Shop was the first major global beauty brand to commit to sustainable palm oil in 2007. The brand has been a leader on the RSPO since its formation in the early '00s.

    Today, other large beauty corporations such as L'Oréal, Esteé Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble have also joined the RSPO and published their own sustainable palm oil pledges. L'Oréal even created a Sustainable Palm Index to assess suppliers based on their supply chains, sourcing practices, and compliance with the brand's Zero Deforestation policy. Still, only 21% of the palm oil produced globally is RSPO-certified.

  • What can you do to help?
    • Don't boycott palm oil. Purchase products made with Certified Sustainable Palm Oil instead.
    • Check a company's rating on the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard before buying.
    • Encourage brands to use sustainable palm oil and be more transparent about their supply chains.
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