When Shara Ticku landed in Singapore 10 years ago, she was shocked by the air quality. It was 2013, and the island was in the midst of a haze crisis brought on by intentional fires on palm oil plantations to prepare the land for use. “The air quality index was over 400—and anything over 300 is heavily toxic,” says Ticku. The experience led her down a palm-oil rabbit hole. She learned that it’s in 50 percent of products on supermarket shelves despite its known contribution to pollution and deforestation
“Today palm oil is produced through industrial agriculture, so it’s natural, but it’s this highly extractive industrial agriculture system,” says Ticku. “The tree can only grow in a spot of land that’s about five or 10 degrees around the equator. So as there’s been demand, we’ve seen the slashing and burning of rainforests.” A report from Greenpeace found that palm oil suppliers to the world’s largest brands cleared more than 500 square miles of rainforest between 2015 and 2018. “When my co-founder and I found out about this we were just outraged. We were shocked to hear that we’re just destroying rainforests to make a vegetable oil. And we thought there has to be a better way of doing this and that could we use the power of biology to solve this problem.”
The solution they arrived at uses biotechnology to produce a palm oil alternative—named Torula Oil—in a lab.
“We found a yeast which was naturally oil producing,” says Ticku. “We’ve got the yeast’s sequenced genome and we were able to get it in-house and understand how it grows. We’ve optimized its conditions for growth to make it better at producing oil, more efficient, more productive, and making the right profile. Then we’re able to extract that oil. Mother Nature did a lot of the work. We’re just helping to harness it and elevate it.”
Ticku’s company, C16 Biosciences, created Torula Oil for brands to use as a palm oil alternative when formulating products. And to raise awareness around the issue, they just launched a limited-edition consumer-facing product, Save the F*cking Rainforest ($45). It’s a skin and hair oil that blends Torula with a host of other skin-loving ingredients.
“It’s got this sort of aggressive name, right? It’s modeled like a protest poster,” says Ticku. “We’re here with a mission, we’re here with a purpose, and this is our call to action to the industry.”
To address the palm oil problem, the simplest option would be for us all to pivot to palm-free beauty. But that’s nearly impossible to do right now because it’s in so many products.
“If you look on the ingredient list it could be one of like hundreds of names,” says Ticku. “It’s not necessarily that people are trying to hide it,” it’s just that it comes in many different forms like surfactants, emollients, and emulsifiers and they all have different names. “Palm oil is really common because it’s really good at what it does. So you find it in everything from soaps and shampoos—it’s the reason that your shampoo lathers and cleanses. It’s found in color cosmetics, so anything like lipstick or eyeliner, because it’s really good at retaining color.”
Given how ubiquitous palm oil is in beauty and personal care, trying to replace it with another vegetable oil, like soybean, would take up even more land. And while coconut oil has arisen as a popular alternative, it may not be any better for the environment, explains Jen Novakovich, cosmetic chemist and founder of beauty consulting agency The Eco Well.
“Coconut has been historically the easy switch for palm-free, but it seems that this may end up being a regrettable substitution due to a lack of information about coconut,” says Novakovich. “What we do know—it’s less efficient, it’s also derived from sensitive spaces, and there are also social problems. By making quick switches, we’re really just shifting the problem in a way that likely will become more destructive. A few studies over the last couple of years highlighted this. In a 2020 study in Current Biology, coconut sourcing had a five times greater threat to biodiversity” than palm oil.
Torula oil harness the power of nature without disrupting nature, explains Ticku. “Chanel No. 5 has come under a lot of criticism for the amount of rose petals that it uses and just how extractive that is,” she says. “We reimagine our relationship with nature as one that is symbiotic rather than extractive.”
It creates a solve for a problem the industry has spent a decade trying to address. “All the major companies have commitments on their website to their consumers, to their shareholders talking about what they’re going to do about palm oil,” says Ticku. “And they’ve done nothing over the last 10 years.”
As we manage the palm oil problem, Novakovich warns against the blanket vilification of palm oil.
“Millions of individuals, especially smallholder farmers, depend on this crop for their livelihoods,” says Novakovih. “Without it, income and food insecurity would likely become a big issue for them. Have there, and do there continue to be, unethical/environmentally damaging sourcing? Absolutely. The fact that we’re sourcing from richly biodiverse regions is also challenging. Inherently bad? I don’t think so. Note, there are NGOs such as the RSPO working to do things better.”
Smaller brands like Alaffia, for example, have found ways to use sustainably sourced palm oil. “Our natural West African palm oil is grown and harvested by small-scale farmers in the Maritime region of Togo…the oil is extracted by our Fair Trade cooperative in Sokodé using traditional methods,” reads the brand’s website. And larger brands like Unilever and Johnson&Johnson have made commitments to responsible sourcing. With Torula oil, C16 presents another solution to this extremely complex and nuanced issue.
Torula oil is the first product that falls under C16’s Palmless portfolio, explains Ticku, to be purchased by brands to manufacture palm oil-free products.
“It’s really hydrating and blends really well in a lot of formulations,” she says. “It can be used in liquid formulations like oils, but also solid formulations. We’ve used it in like soaps. We’ve put it in sunscreens to deliver actives and things like this.” Expect to see the first wave of brands using launching their products with Torla oil in the coming months. “Then the next set of products that will come after Torula Oil will be the categories of surfactants, emollients, and emulsifiers that are palm-derived today.”
The beauty industry is evolving, and Torula Oil is a way for us to use the ingredients nature has given us without harming ecosystems. “It showcases sort of the power of biotechnology to make new powerful ingredients,” says Ticku.