Sustainable Palm Oil for the Cosmetics Industry

Share this Blog Post

Of all the ingredients that are commonly used in consumer products, few are more divisive than palm oil, a type of vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the palm tree. There is an enormous demand for this ingredient, which is used in everything from food to cosmetics to household products, but it is also highly controversial due to its associated with deforestation, environmental destruction, and unethical labor practices. 

In today’s blog, we will look closely at the uses of palm oil in the cosmetics industry, its environmental and ethical implications, and how it can be sustainably sourced and used. 

What is palm oil, and how is it used in cosmetics?

Palm oil is the most common source of fatty acids used in cosmetic products (before the rise of palm oil, coconut oil was typically the fatty acid of choice). These natural building blocks are raw materials that can be subjected to various types of chemical reactions to create the properties required for the finished product. 

Palm oil and its derivatives are a common ingredient in many skincare and haircare products due to its ability to moisturize and nourish the skin and hair and to create a skin-friendly sensory profile. It acts as a natural emulsifier, has no smell, and functions as a binding agent in formulations, helping to hold ingredients together and create a smooth, consistent texture.

The vast majority of palm oil is grown and harvested in southeast Asia, with around 85% of the world’s supply coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. It is also important to note that while the cosmetics industry uses a huge amount of palm oil each year, it is dwarfed by the food industry (which uses around 72% of all palm oil globally, according to Ethical Consumer). 

What are the ethical and environmental implications of palm oil? 

There has historically been very little transparency around the types of farming practices used in palm oil production. The two main issues with palm oil primarily can be placed into two categories: workers’ rights and environmental concerns. 

Evidence has emerged of some palm oil plantations using child labor and slave labor and subjecting their workers to brutal conditions. According to human rights organizations, millions of palm oil laborers—many of them located in some of the world’s poorest areas—suffer under various forms of violence and exploitation, from forced labor and human trafficking to sexual assault. 

From an environmental perspective, the demand for palm oil has led to deforestation to make room to grow more palm trees, endangering wildlife and increasing the amount of harmful carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. 

Why is sustainability important for palm oil?

Consumers have become more and more selective about the cosmetics products they use, and demand for sustainably and ethically sourced ingredients is growing at an astonishing rate. This means that manufacturers who want to continue to thrive in this competitive market must be able to show that their products and ingredients are ethically sourced and produced. 

It is extremely difficult to eliminate palm oil entirely, as alternatives will significantly raise the cost of the end product for the consumer. Some alternatives, such as coconut oil, are also not inherently any more sustainable than palm oil.

Therefore, it is vital to ensure that palm oil is produced in as sustainable and responsible a way as possible. This means that the environmental impact of palm oil production, biodiversity, conservation of natural resources, social responsibility, and respect for human rights must all be taken into consideration. 

How can palm oil be sustainably and ethically produced?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 with the goal of creating greater transparency and accountability throughout the palm oil supply chain globally. According to Palm Done Right, only 19% of the world’s palm oil is currently certified as sustainable by this organization.

If your organization supplies or utilizes any ingredients derived from palm, it is absolutely vital to be RSPO certified to keep up with consumer demand and industry best practice. Any organizations supplying palm that is certified and sold through RSPO channels must meet a certain standard of conduct, including the banning of child labor, more ethical working conditions, and environmentally sustainable farming practices. 

The creation of the RSPO, now considered the de facto certification body for palm oil, has brought about significant positive changes. There has also been substantial international support from world governments to ensure that palm oil products being imported and exported are ethically and sustainably produced. 

In 2020, for example, United States Customs banned imports of palm oil products from Malaysia’s Sime Darby Plantation and its subsidiaries due to evidence of forced and slave labor. This ban was only recently lifted in the wake of proof that these practices had ended. 

Are there sustainable alternatives to palm oil?

Fatty acids used in cosmetics function in broadly the same way no matter how they are derived. However, there is currently no sustainable alternative for palm oil that is as cost-effective. Even coconut, the next most popular choice, can be two to three times the price of palm. 

Enforcing compliance with ethical and environmental standards through organizations such as RSPO is overall less costly than research into alternative options, and similar certification standards do not exist for many other types of natural oils that are currently available. More research is required that looks into sustainable and economically viable alternatives to palm oil for manufacturers. 

Some organizations are also pioneering scientific research in synthetic fatty acids that could eventually serve as alternatives to palm oil. However, production of such synthetic ingredients can present its own environmental and sustainability issues. In addition, even when breakthroughs are made, it can be challenging or impossible for these organizations to scale production sufficiently to meet current demand at an affordable price. Shifting away from naturally derived palm oil derivatives could also negatively impact livelihoods in the global south, as many synthetics are being pioneered by the global north. 

Is your palm oil sustainable? 

We strongly encourage all manufacturers who utilize palm oil in any way to become members of the RSPO, as this is one of the best ways to contribute to ensuring the sustainability of the production and use of palm oil. 

If you would like to learn more about anything we have discussed in this post, or about the sustainability credentials of any of our products, please contact us to speak to a member of the team.

This website requires javascript. Please enable it or visit to find a modern browser.