“Palm oil is derived from the reddish pulp of the fruit and palm kernel oil from the seed,” says cosmetic chemist David Petrillo. “Although both oils come from the same fruit, they are chemically different and have their own unique properties,” he adds.

Palm oil is inexpensive, and touted for its multipurpose uses. “In cosmetics, palm oil helps to smooth out a formulation, has moisturizing properties, and can be used as a stock for foaming agents in shampoo,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “Palm oil is great for making lipstick as it holds color well and doesn’t melt at high temperatures,” she adds. 

As an antioxidant, palm oil also gives products a longer shelf life. “It delivers a potent dose of tocotrienols found in vitamin E, carotenoids, and phytosterols, which have been shown to help fight free radicals and prevent cell damage,” notes Petrillo. By contrast, palm kernel oil is semi-solid at room temperature and has a higher fat content, says King, so it’s better suited for making soaps

Despite its popularity, the use of palm oil in the beauty industry, compared to that of the food
industry, is modest. According to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) only about 2 percent of the world’s palm oil and palm kernel oil production goes into cosmetics, and 3 percent for personal care products. That still means tons of the stuff is used, though. In 2021, L’Oréal alone consumed around 310 tons of palm oil and 90,000 tons of palm oil derivatives. (Editor’s note: Allure reached out to the brands mentioned in this story and did not receive comment at the time of publication.)

Should we be using palm oil?

The question of whether we should actually be using palm oil at all is still debated among politicians, scientists, and environmentalists. In one corner are those that point to human rights violations and the felling of large areas of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations, which has resulted in huge emissions from slash-and-burn practices and the destruction of habitats for endangered Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. 

For these reasons, King doesn’t directly formulate with palm oil in products she creates, preferring to use coconut oil instead. In the event of a material being derived from palm, King says she insists that it be mass balanced and RSPO-certified to ensure that it has been sustainably produced at every stage in the supply chain.

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