What is wrong with Palm Oil?

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Dr John – the Chemist


There has been a lot of discussion around the use of palm oil in personal care products. The manufacturing industry in general is sensitive to the needs of consumers and tries to give the customer what they want. There is some research that has determined that the reduction of rainforests by palm oil farmers has put Malaysia’s Orangutan population under threat. The obvious extension of this is that Orangutans and not the only species affected by decreasing rainforest.

Is palm oil actually added to personal care products?

The public and those that would be activists are genuinely concerned and promote “palm oil free” personal care products and decry those that use palm derived products. Not many personal care products use palm oil in its whole form but many use palm oil derivatives. Therefore, almost all products could claim “palm oil free” but that is not the point. Like most things internet there is much inaccurate information, the problem is not palm oil as such, there are many sources of legitimately farmed oil palms that have not impacted upon rain forest habitats. It would make much more sense if we had a certifying body that could attest to the farming status rather than the product.

So, what are palm derived ingredients?

Palm oil like all vegetable and animal oils are essentially a mixture of triglycerides. The triglyceride molecules vary in carbon chain length and the ratio of each different length is what gives a particular oil its chemical properties. Some oils have a large proportion of long chains which manifest themselves as a waxy solid at room temperature, a typical example is coconut oil. These long chain oils are used to manufacture waxy starting materials which may be re-purposed for downstream manufacture of fine chemicals.

How can we trace palm oil derivatives?

The audit trail for tracing a source can be highly convoluted. For example, a German manufacturer of cetyl pyridinium chloride, which is an antiseptic used in mouthwashes, buys his cetyl alcohol starting material on the spot market from a Swiss trader. The trader obtains 50% from a South American source and 50% from a Philippine trader. The South American obtains his supplies from local palm oil that is legally and sustainably farmed (they don’t have Orangutans). The Phillipine trader normally obtains his from the local coconut oil industry and his documentation states this, but because of a spate of local storms decides to supplement his cetyl alcohol supplies from Indonesia without telling his Swiss customer. The Indonesian dealer doesn’t have any stock but sees an opportunity and gets a hot price from a neighbouring Malaysian farmer who declares that it is environmentally farmed. What the Malaysian farmer doesn’t know is that before his birth, his father and grandfather happened to mow down a rain forest to plant oil palms long before anyone had raised the sustainability issue. The result of all this is that your bottle of Mouthwash is 0.01% rain forest palm oil derivative but who knew?. You can see how difficult it is to maintain an audit trail that can be relied on.

Why can’t I have a certified product?

Some consumers become animated over the lack of certification, in a lot cases the product is compliant but can’t be proven because of the paucity of evidence. These things will change over time, but the market is very much driven by demand. The megalithic companies that make most of the world’s personal care raw materials couldn’t care less about palm oil sourcing or use, and they never will while there is no market pressure to do otherwise. Simply put, a strong audit trail will only appear if there is a sufficient market shift.

What does the future of palm derivatives look like?

At Wild Child we are constantly researching ways and means of creating safe and effective products that are environmentally responsible. Wherever possible we specify non palm oil derived raw materials. As previously mentioned most triglyceride derivatives can be obtained from almost any vegetable oil source. The problem is that some vegetable oils are not as rich in certain derivatives which makes them more expensive to produce.