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The truth about palm oil—and why you should care


soap palm oil
Photo: Unsplash/Kristina Balic
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What do a pint of ice cream, lipstick, chocolate, and soap have in common? Other than the fact that you can’t live without ’em, the four products often share a common ingredient: palm oil.

You may not have it in your kitchen alongside bottles of olive and coconut oil, but the ingredient is used more than any other vegetable oil on the planet. In fact, it’s estimated that palm oil is in roughly half the packaged products sold in US grocery stores. And though it isn’t really problematic for your health (read: none of the dangerous fats), producing it can take a major toll on both the earth as well as the people who supply it.

While conservation groups have been jumping up and down and waving their collective arms about the issue for decades, it has seeped into mainstream pop culture as of late, too—so even if you’re not reading Rainforest Action Network on the treadmill, you might have heard of it. Netflix’s new-ish series Grace & Frankie took a shot at it recently, when au-natural Frankie can’t handle the fact that palm oil would be used in her, ahem, yam lube. (For the record, I’d have pretty much the same reaction.)

Here’s what you really need to know about palm oil to be a good global citizen (who loves a fresh fall lipstick as much as the next girl).

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Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

What’s the big deal with palm oil?

Much of the expansion [of palm oil production] in Southeast Asia had occurred at the expense of carbon dense and wildlife rich ecosystems like rainforests and peatlands,” explains Rhett Butler, founder of environmental news and information site Mongabay, and president of its sister non-profit.

In other words, rainforests and other lands are being burned down to make way for more palm-oil farmland, which leaves already-endangered orangutans and elephants homeless. Deforestation also affects water quality in a big way, making drinking water less readily available, while simultaneously raising already high climate temperatures. After hearing all that, it’s probably no surprise that the use of palm oil is causing some serious controversy. And while the heartbreaking future for effected orangutans is what has most up in arms, even Nutella found its way into the spotlight. (A Nutella ban? Gasp!)

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Photo: StockSnap/Lotte Lohr
Photo: StockSnap/Lotte Lohr

Why is palm oil in such high demand?

So if palm oil has such a negative impact, why is it in so many of the products that line shelves and cabinets? Namely, it’s cheap. It has a yield that is higher than any other vegetable oil cropand production is less expensive. Those low prices don’t come without a cost, though (no pun intended). “Palm oil has also been associated with land grabbing, social conflict, and poor labor practices, including debt-bondage schemes and child labor,” stresses Butler.

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Osmia soap
Photo: Osmia

Is there such a thing as “good palm oil”?

Short answer: yes. Natural beauty guru and founder of Osmia Organics, Sarah Villafranco, goes to great lengths to ensure that the oil her company uses is conflict-free. “From the beginning, we have used palm oil from countries that do not have significant orangutan populations,” she explains, adding that they currently source the ingredient from Ecuador, which is fair trade and certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO.

And while she sells some items without palm oil for those who are against its use in any form, Villafranco says it’s a great addition to many of her products. “We love that it helps our soaps last much longer than most [others],” she says. “[Palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil] provide nourishment for the epidermis and help strengthen the skin’s lipid barrier.” If you are going to use it, think of it like chocolate—make sure you’re getting the good stuff.

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The problem with palm oil
Photo: Rainforest Action Network

How do I do the right thing?

And while some companies, like Osmia, are truly devoted to responsible sourcing, it’s hard to tell from simply glancing at a product, even when organizations like RSPO exist to try to provide consumers with clarity. “A few brands might list RSPO certification on their labels, but many activists assert that RSPO alone doesn’t go far enough to address concerns around palm oil,” Butler explains, suggesting that instead, consumers should check brands’ websites for a zero-deforestation policy before purchasing their items, or look to reliable NGOs who track companies’ commitments.

Ready for next steps? Check out all the names palm oil goes by, then do a deep dive into the “Fries, Face Wash, Forest” Scorecard (yes, it’s really called that) to see how grocers and big-name food and beauty corps stack up. Looking for a sparkling clean conscience? Go DIY when it comes to your beauty products and your pantry.

Curious for more truth behind natural products? Here’s an expert take on four big beauty myths. And if you’re interested in other companies sourcing fair ingredients, check out the amazing women creating a shea butter revolution.