admin: Is palm oil good or bad? The authors of this article take a look at issues surrounding palm oil and encourage personal care industry to source certified sustainable palm oil.

The reputation of palm oil is pretty bad. Although only a small part of global production actually flows into cosmetics, manufacturers are trying to do without this raw material. A better image could be created through more sustainability.

No palm oil in our creams and lotions, that is the reaction one hears increasingly from formulators of cosmetic products, either because they have come to believe some of the rumours about palm oil being “unhealthy”, or because of pressure from the marketing department which wants to claim “palm oil free”.

Experts in the field agree, however, that substituting palm oil by other oils does not solve the problem of extensive land use, deforestation and animal habitat.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is produced from the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), a species that grows particularly well in equatorial climates around the world. By now, approximately 90% of the world’s production of palm oil originates from South East Asia with Malaysia and Indonesia being the largest growers and exporters. The world production is estimated at 75 million tons/year.

Palm oil is a highly versatile vegetable oil, with a high content of unsaturated fat. It has found many uses in food as a substitute for undesirable trans fats, also as a source for automotive fuel (“bio-fuel”), and in oleochemical applications where the oil is used as a base material from which hundreds of different chemicals are manufactured by synthetic derivation.

Oil palm production is split between palm oil and palm kernel oil, the two being produced from the flesh and kernel respectively. Palm oil and palm kernel oil have different fatty acid distributions and have different applications as a result.

Ingredients for cosmetic uses originate mostly from palm kernel oil (PKO) which contains ≈50% lauric acid and so it figures prominently in surfactant use. It is important to realise that the cosmetic industry uses little crude or refined palm oil as such, but incorporates many palm oil derivatives into its products, using less than 1% of the total annual production of palm oil (about 700.000 tons per year).

The problem with palm oil

Palm Oleochemicals
Figure 1: Many different chemicals are manufactured by synthetic derivations of palm oil. Photo: Dr Karl Lintner,Dr Zafarizal Aldrin Azizul Hasan

Figure 1 shows the array of oleochemical derivatives that can be generated from palm oil, most of which  have uses in cosmetic products. 

These ingredients form the essential basic chassis of creams, lotions, shampoos, conditioners, lipsticks, gels and foams. So, why do suppliers of these commodities hear the simplistic kneejerk reaction at the first sentence of this article? And what needs to be done to counter it, to reverse the unjustified trend of “palm oil free” claims?

The exponential growth in the cultivation of oil palm has helped feed the world’s growing demand for food, feed, fuel and fibre. The industry is estimated to support more than seven million workers and their families worldwide; it contributes significantly to the economies of the countries in which it is grown.

The palm oil industry, with the huge monoculture plantations, has grown particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Historically justifiable or not, detractors were and still are linking palm oil production with deforestation of tropical rainforests, conversion of peat land to make way for oil palm planting, with climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat for animals thus endangering wildlife, illegal seizure of indigenous lands, employment of forced and child labour and alleged adverse impacts on health. It is not surprising that the media, alerted to these swift and radical developments over the last 20 years, created a public reaction.

The cosmetic industry is particularly sensitive to any and all negative associations with its products and was one of the first to receive pressure to stop the use of palm oil. As a result, one of the most challenging issues confronting the palm oil industry is proving its commitment towards sustainable development.

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)

In response to public outcry against the specific issues mentioned above, the chemical industry established in 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) where all the major users of this material are represented as voluntary members1.

The key word in this initiative is sustainability.

RSPO has written rules designed to prevent and progressively eliminate uncontrolled deforestation, peat burning and illegal land use by individual smallholders. The RSPO rules encourage users to buy only certified CSPO, thus exerting pressure on the producers to employ sustainable practices. Adhesion to RSPO rules is voluntary, and the commercial pressure comes from the buyers.

The Malaysian government instigated the MSPO framework (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certificate) which has become obligatory for Malaysian producers.

Three levels of certification

The Mass Balance Procedure is at present the most widely used scheme, sometimes to the chagrin of palm oil producers (small holders) and NGOs.

The mechanism implies that a buyer of certified palm oil makes a purchase of a given amount (for example 100 tonnes) of CSPO (third party independently audited oil) which enters the complex circuit of collection and distribution of palm oil and will be mixed with non-CSPO material; the buyer receives oil, which may contain unspecified amounts of CSPO and non-CSPO. All that is guaranteed is that 100 tons have been produced under CSPO rules and enter the common stream. 

A more precise but more complex and costlier mechanism provides for the segregation and combination of CSPO produced oil from various sources; IP (Identity Preserved) CSPO is the highest level of certification and guarantees that he or she receives the certified oil from the specific source she specified.

All stakeholders agree that only through creating a truly universal sustainable palm oil industry can the future of the environment be secured, along with the livelihoods of the people who depend on palm oil.

Why Palm oil?

If palm oil is as detrimental to the environment as alleged by the media, why not simply substitute it with other plant-based oils?

The answer is simple: the oil palm tree is actually the most efficient producer of vegetable oil per unit area of land, with yields of 6000 litres per hectare being quite common.

This efficiency has led to a quadrupling in palm oil production since 1990, making it the most produced vegetable oil in the world, supplying 30% of global demand.

The second most produced vegetable oil, soy oil, supplies 29% of global demand but is ten times less efficient than palm. Coconut oil has the second- best yield but a much less attractive composition, more than 80% saturated fats. It also needs twice as much land in tropical climates to produce the same amount of oil as CSPO. Rapeseed oil needs five times, and sunflower oil seven times as much land as palm oil.

Which means that, to substitute other types of vegetable oil for palm oil would require far greater amounts of land. The fact that most other oils are dramatically different in composition compared to palm oil also does not help to make them attractive as substitute.

Even though the cosmetic industry uses, indirectly via the palm oil derivatives, less than one percent of palm oil produced, it is not at all clear why the cosmetic industry has little choice. The cosmetic industry should, however, make sure that all its products contain only Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

Often the pressure from the cosmetic industry is shifted to the chemical industries, suppliers of the palm oil derivatives. As the RSPO annual reports and the third-party audited certificates show, cosmetic ingredients made from palm oil and supplied to the formulators of consumer products receive the highest guarantee to be CSPO based. The cosmetic industry and its ingredient suppliers are strongly committed to this policy as their regular communications clearly show4-7.

The best way to encourage producers to grow palm oil sustainably is by creating the demand for it by purchasing only CSPO. Mass Balance as a first step will drive the producers towards true sustainability. Certified Sustainable Palm Oil based ingredients provide the mechanism for the Personal Care industry to meet consumer expectations and develop the path to full traceability2.

Malaysia at the forefront

Aware of the huge importance palm oil represents in its economy, the Malysian government has taken measures to credibly and efficiently address all aspects of sustainability of palm oil. In 2008, Malaysia was the first to produce and export Sustainable Palm Oil.

The present effort, spearheaded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board MPOB and the MPOCC (Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council), aims to have 100% of Malaysia’s palm oil production (≈ 20 million metric tons) will be certified sustainable by 2020.

The board has defined its own reference for sustainability, which goes further than the international RSPO concept. MSPO is based on regulatory rather than voluntary measures, such as suspending licenses of growers and mills who do not respect and implement the MSPO procedures7.

In 2018, 1.91 million MT of Malaysian palm oil were exported to the EU, all of it CSPO and ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification – certification for biofuel) audited.

Palm oil is a necessary ingredient and offers many advantages over other vegetable oils — including some environmental advantages. Moving to 100% RSPO certified production to be an important step forward for the cosmetics industry and also for the consumer. 


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  5. focus-on-satellite-and-supplierengagement
Dr Karl Lintner,
founder and CEO,
Kal’Idées Paris, France 
Dr Zafarizal Aldrin Azizul Hasan,
head of consumer product development unit, advanced oleochemical technology division,
Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Kuala
Lumpur, Malaysia

Article Source : COSSMA

Disclaimer : The statements in the above article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.