November 3, 2021
Science & Sustainability

Inside the Bottle: Formulating with Sustainable Palm Oil

Yashi Shrestha

We previously covered the basic components of a cosmetic formulation. Building on that knowledge, we'll delve a little deeper and discuss a popular source of raw materials: palm oil. While palm oil is naturally derived and safe for consumers to use, brands do need to be aware of the increasing pressure to consider its overall impact in formulations.

Retailers have recently established guidelines for products containing palm oil. For example, Sephora requires all palm-based ingredients to be RSPO-certified. However, some brand owners may not even be aware that their products contain palm. Education is paramount to sourcing the right ingredients, so it’s important to understand where palm-based ingredients are sourced, as well as what purpose they serve.

Where does palm oil come from?

Palm oil comes from palm trees— yes, the tropical trees with feathery leaves, that bring to mind serenity on a beach!

The evergreen plant has traveled far from its tropical origins, straight into our diets and skincare routines. With its number of awesome benefits, palm oil’s popularity can’t be denied. In fact, the demand for palm oil is so high that it has been labeled the world's most consumed vegetable oil! Palm oil is extracted from the entire fruit (both the flesh and the kernel), making it significantly more productive than other plant oils. Its high yields per unit area, coupled with its low cost, further solidify its value as a raw material.

Palm oil in cosmetics

It's easy to assume that if the exact words "palm oil" are not listed on a product information sheet or ingredient label, then it doesn't contain palm. Quite the contrary: palm oil derivatives can be listed as over 200 different INCIs (or ingredients). Even ingredients that are not directly derived from palm oil can have some exposure to it as a feeder material through the manufacturing process. The most common palm-derived INCI categories are:

  • Fatty Acids: stearic acid, caprylic acid, oleic acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and lauric acid
  • Fatty Alcohols: cetyl alcohol, lauryl alcohol; stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and oleyl alcohol
  • Esters: glyceryl stearate, isopropyl palmitate, and isopropyl myristate

In more general terms, any raw material produced from vegetable oil could possibly be sourced from palm oil.

Functional properties of Palm Oil

Palm ingredients are extremely versatile. In cosmetics, palm oil derivatives can serve several purposes such as:

  • Thickener: Its smooth and creamy texture can help increase the viscosity of a formulation.
  • Stabilizer: Its resistance to oxidation can help extend the shelf life of products (compared to other oils), and its fatty properties prevent separation.
  • Substitute for animal fats in balms/salves: With a neutral scent and no taste, palm derivatives are frequently used in vegan products as a substitute to animal-based fats.
  • Moisturizing agent: the dual-function properties both prevent moisture loss from the product and also add moisture to the skin.
  • Surfactant: From gentle face cleansers to industrial detergents, palm-based surfactants are efficient cleansing staples.

Sustainable Palm Oil

It's clear why palm oil is popular across many industries. However, high demand for any raw material leads to concerns of supply and sustainability. Extensive overconsumption of palm oil has depleted sources, negatively impacting the surrounding environments and displacing local communities. While it is tempting to declare a boycott of palm oil, it would be unrealistic to do so. A boycott of palm oil would simply transfer the demand to other plant oils such as coconut, olive, soybean and sunflower.

The key to reaping the benefits of palm while reducing the negative impact of reliance on it is to use sustainably sourced palm oil. Novi has over 36,000 RSPO-certified ingredients available on the marketplace today. We also have non-palm oil alternatives which will allow you to create balance within your product portfolio!

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