6 Sustainable Alternatives to Palm Oil in Personal Care

Published: 11-Jun-2024

Palm oil has become a controversial ingredient in personal care products due to its negative environmental impact. The extensive cultivation of palm trees has led to deforestation, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity. As consumers become more conscious of these issues, the demand for sustainable alternatives to palm oil is on the rise. In this blog article, we will delve into the impact of palm oil on the environment, the need for sustainable alternatives, and explore six viable options that can be used in place of palm oil in personal care products

Understanding the impact of palm oil on the environment

The role of palm oil in personal care products

Palm oil is widely used in personal care products due to its versatility and low cost. Its high saturated fat content makes it an effective emollient, providing moisturising properties to lotions, creams, and soaps. Additionally, palm oil derivatives are frequently used as surfactants and stabilisers in various cosmetic formulations. An estimated 70% of cosmetics and skincare products are believed to contain a palm oil derivative, making it an ingredient that’s difficult to avoid. Moreover, the use of palm oil in personal care products extends beyond its functional benefits. The global demand for palm oil has led to economic opportunities for many communities in palm oil-producing regions, providing employment and supporting livelihoods. However, the rapid expansion of palm plantations has raised concerns about sustainable practices and ethical sourcing within the industry.

Environmental consequences of palm oil production

The production of palm oil has devastating environmental consequences. Large-scale palm plantations contribute to deforestation, primarily in Southeast Asia, where vast areas of rainforest have been cleared for oil palm cultivation. This deforestation not only affects endangered species like orangutans and tigers, but also contributes to climate change by releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tropical deforestation accounts for roughly 10% of total global warming emissions. Furthermore, the draining of peatlands for palm oil cultivation leads to their degradation and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, palm oil production has been linked to other environmental issues such as soil erosion, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The intensive use of agrochemicals and pesticides in palm plantations can contaminate nearby water sources, affecting aquatic ecosystems and local communities that rely on them. The monoculture nature of palm oil cultivation also reduces habitat diversity, impacting the survival of various plant and animal species that are crucial for ecosystem balance.

In 2012, the production of palm oil was around 50 million metric tons per year, which is double the volume that was recorded in 2000. This growth in palm oil production is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because of its high yield and relatively low labor costs, palm oil is the most inexpensive vegetable oil today.

The need for sustainable alternatives

The importance of sustainability in personal care

As consumers seek to make more environmentally conscious choices, the personal care industry must adapt and provide sustainable alternatives to palm oil. Promoting sustainable sourcing and production methods is crucial to reduce the negative impact on ecosystems and local communities.

One key aspect of sustainability in personal care is the concept of circular economy, where products are designed to be reused, recycled, or upcycled to minimise waste generation. This approach not only reduces environmental footprint but also fosters innovation in product development and manufacturing processes.

Challenges in finding palm oil substitutes

Finding suitable substitutes for palm oil in personal care products poses several challenges. Alternatives must meet specific criteria such as stability, sensory
attributes, and affordability to be viable options for manufacturers. Additionally, they should offer similar benefits and functionalities in formulations without compromising product performance.

Exploring novel ingredients derived from sustainable sources can offer promising solutions to replace palm oil in personal care formulations. These alternatives not only provide environmental benefits but also contribute to the diversification of raw material supply chains, reducing dependency on a single crop.

Alternative 1: Shea Butter

The sustainability of shea butter

Shea butter is derived from the nuts of the shea tree, which grows in the African savannah. Its production is more sustainable than palm oil as it does not require large-scale deforestation. Shea trees are often grown in agroforestry systems, promoting biodiversity and contributing to the preservation of natural habitats. Furthermore, the process of extracting shea butter involves traditional methods that have been passed down through generations in many African communities. This not only helps in preserving cultural practices but also provides employment opportunities for local people, especially women who are often involved in the harvesting and processing of shea nuts.

Benefits of shea butter in personal care

Shea butter is rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and fatty acids, making it an excellent moisturiser. It has nourishing and soothing properties, making it suitable for dry and sensitive skin. Additionally, shea butter can improve the texture and appearance of hair, making it a versatile ingredient for various personal care products.

Moreover, shea butter is known for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties, which can help in treating conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Its natural emollient properties lock in moisture without clogging pores, making it a popular choice for those with acne-prone skin. The versatility of shea butter extends beyond skincare, as it is also used in lip balms, body lotions, and even in some makeup products for its nourishing benefits.

Did you know? Shea butter is the most searched ingredient on Covalo out of all the alternatives listed below.

Alternative 2: Coconut Oil

The sustainability of coconut oil

Coconut oil is extracted from the kernels of mature coconuts. It is considered a more sustainable alternative to palm oil due to several factors. Firstly, coconut trees thrive in diverse agroforestry systems, requiring minimal chemical inputs. Secondly, coconut oil production does not contribute to deforestation as coconut trees can grow in harmony with other crops.

Coconut palms are also known for their high yield per hectare, making them an efficient source of oil. The versatility of coconut trees extends beyond oil production; various parts of the tree, such as the husk and shell, can be utilised for products like activated charcoal and coir (coconut fiber), reducing waste and
maximising resource use.

Benefits of coconut oil in personal care

Coconut oil has exceptional moisturising properties, effectively hydrating the skin and preventing moisture loss. It contains lauric acid, known for its antimicrobial
properties, making it suitable for combating skin conditions such as acne. Additionally, coconut oil can enhance the lathering and cleansing properties of soaps and shampoos.

In addition, coconut oil is rich in antioxidants like vitamin E, which can help protect the skin from free radical damage and premature aging. Its natural emollient
properties make it a popular choice for hair care products, providing nourishment and promoting hair strength and growth.

Alternative 3: Olive Oil

The sustainability of olive oil

Olive oil is derived from the fruits of olive trees, which predominantly grow in Mediterranean countries. Olive tree cultivation often employs sustainable practices such as organic farming and limited irrigation. The long lifespan of olive trees also contributes to their sustainability, as they can continue producing olives for several decades.

The production of olive oil promotes biodiversity in the regions where olive trees are grown. These trees provide habitats for various species of birds and insects, contributing to the overall ecosystem health. Additionally, olive oil production can help prevent soil erosion and desertification, as the trees' roots help stabilise the soil.

Benefits of olive oil in personal care

Olive oil is a natural emollient, deeply moisturising and nourishing the skin. It contains antioxidants such as vitamin E, which help protect the skin from environmental damage. Olive oil's high content of oleic acid can strengthen the hair, making it a valuable ingredient in hair care products.

Moreover, olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe and calm irritated skin. It is gentle enough for sensitive skin and can be used to alleviate conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The moisturising effects of olive oil can also aid in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, promoting a more youthful complexion.

Alternative 4: Babassu Oil

The sustainability of babassu oil

Babassu oil is a sustainable alternative to palm oil. It’s a vegetable oil extracted from the seeds of the babassu palm tree, native to the Amazon rainforest regions of South America, particularly Brazil. The babassu palm tree is a renewable resource that can be harvested sustainably without causing significant harm to the environment. Unlike palm oil production, which often involves large-scale deforestation and habitat destruction, babassu oil extraction typically occurs in existing agroforestry systems or forested areas without clear-cutting. This helps to preserve biodiversity and maintain the ecosystem.

Benefits of babassu oil in personal care

Babassu oil is high in fatty acids (particularly lauric acid), and has an emollient factor similar to coconut oil (mentioned above), forming a protective barrier on the skin and hair that helps lock in moisture. This oil has gained popularity in personal care products due to its nourishing and moisturising properties, making it a valuable ingredient in skincare and haircare formulations. Babassu oil also contains anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial compounds that can soothe irritated skin and combat bacteria - keeping skin free from impurities.

Alternative 5: Biotechnology-based PalmlessTM Torula oil

Rather than purely considering alternatives from other nuts and vegetables, it’s important to open our minds to new innovations. C16 biosciences is an example of an ingredient manufacturing company that leverages biotechnology to brew sustainable, conflict-free palm oil to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. They have been on a “Palmless” mission, looking to fungi to work with natural yeast and growing it using fermentation. They have launched a new super ingredient, known as Torula oil. Torula Oil is a bio-designed oil that leverages natural innovation, while also prioritising moisturising performance. It’s rich in carotenoids and sterols from its unique fungal origins.

This ingredient is still quite new, but it’s important to highlight the biotechnology trend gaining traction due to its groundbreaking performance, while significantly reducing climate change impact. We predict that there may be many more biotechnology-based alternatives to palm oil in the future.

Alternative 6: Biosurfactant by Kaneka Belgium

Another innovation from the biotechnology trend is an ingredient called Biosurfactant, manufactured by Kaneka Belgium. It helps with skin conditioning, moisture & hydration, anti-microbial, anti-irritation, and can be used in various formats, from pomades, butters and balms, to cleansers and foams. This Biosurfactant is a cyclic, lipopeptide-based biosurfactant produced by a harmless microbial, bacillus subtillis, during fermentation. This lipopeptide structure consists of 7 amino acids, which contribute to its unique properties. It can create a D-phase emulsion, a low-energy process that involves mixing a surfactant with a polyol and a small amount of water. Oil is then added and a gel is typically formed (oil in polyol-water emulsion). This D phase makes it ideal for formulating cleansing oil gel and small particular emulsions, among many other skincare and cosmetics products.

In terms of sustainability, this ingredient is bio-degradable, plant-based, renewable, eco-friendly, bio, clean, safe, palm-oil-free, natural, vegan, cruelty-free, sustainable, and green. Check it out on Covalo here.


Exploring sustainable alternatives to palm oil in personal care products is crucial in reducing the environmental impact of our everyday choices. Shea butter, coconut oil, olive oil, babassu oil, and torula oil, are just a few of the viable options available. By embracing these alternatives, consumers and manufacturers alike can contribute to a more sustainable future for both our planet and the personal care industry.

It’s also important to note that there have been recent developments in procuring palm oil in a sustainable way. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards that align with sustainable, long-term values and minimise environmental impact. RSPO Certification assures manufacturers and consumers that the certified entity or product has committed to and complied with the defined sustainability requirements. If finding an alternative to palm oil proves to be difficult, be sure to at least look out for RSPO-certified ingredients and companies.

Make responsible choices by either:

  1. Finding palm-oil-free ingredients on Covalo.
  2. Considering ingredients that are RSPO-certified — using palm oil that is certified to be sustainable and not environmentally damaging.

Relevant companies

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