What is palm oil made of?
Posted on 5th May 2020 at 20:09
What is palm oil made of?
In this article we will cover a few topics including:
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the elaeis guineenisis tree, more commonly known as the African oil palm. It is known as the African oil palm due to it originating in the tropical regions of West Africa.
Palm oil actually comes from the fruit (drupe) of the tree.
Quick fact: Although it is called a fruit the palm oil fruit is actually a drupe. Other drupes include: coconuts, dates, olives, apricots, peaches, plums, cherries and mango’s. But for the purpose of this article, let’s call it a fruit.
What it's made of?
Palm oil is made from the fruit of the palm oil tree. Both the fleshy fruit and the kernel (seed) are used to make palm oil.
To release the oil from the fruit, the red fleshy interior needs to be squeezed and compressed to release the oil from the flesh. This oil is a vivid red colour naturally.
The other palm oil, which is called palm kernel oil comes from the kernel, which is the seed. The process is a little different, and similar to the process of releasing oil from other seeds such as almonds and avocado seeds.
The process involves heating up the kernel and crushing it into a paste. Once the paste is formed, it is then subjected to more pressure to squeeze the oils from the paste. That is how palm kernel oil is made.
The final stage of the palm oil process is refining the raw produce. The process involves using phosporic acid to separate the ‘gum’ from the oil, followed by bleaching which using activated clay, removes the pigment from the oil. After this stage the oil is sent to a filtration stage to remove the earth and clay used to take the red pigment out.
Following that stage the oil is deodorised by boiling the oil and removing the vapour which contains the scent of the natural palm. The vapour can now be used for biodiesel and oleochemical production.
Finally the oil goes through the fractionation process where it will gradually be cooled and passed through more filters.
After this process, some of the oil will crystallise, becoming solid. The solid product will go on to be in products such as margarines, low fat spreads and soaps. The liquid oil will go on to become cooking fats.
How palm oil is used in the cosmetic industry
Palm oil is used in 70% of all cosmetics, either in raw form or in a derivative of the oil which has been turned into an oleochemical.
The oil can be used in the raw form, to make soaps, creams and lotions. If you were to look at the back of your soap bar on the ingredients you would probably see the ingredient sodium palmate or sodium kernel palmate.
This is where palm oil has been reacted with sodium hydroxide to form a fatty acid salt (commonly known as soap to you and me) and glycerin, a wonderful ingredient, highly valued and used in many moisturisers.
Most large soap makers separate the glycerin from the soap and either sell it on or put it in their own moisturisers. This means you end up buying a very drying bar of soap and then have to buy the same companies moisturiser as well!
Anyway, back to palm oil! The derivatives of palm oil you will commonly see in your cosmetics include Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate. These two ingredients fall under the oleochemical category.
These ingredients are in the majority of liquid soaps, including hand wash, shower gel, shampoo’s and even in laundry detergent. The majority of these chemicals are palm based. You can make the same ingredients using coconut oil, but with coconut oil being so much more expensive, it makes clear sense for large companies’ balance sheets to use palm oil.
The sulphates I have mentioned above are used in the solid and liquid soaps as cleansers, emulsifiers and foaming agents! 3 job’s for one ingredient. The cleansing properties of these derivatives are amazing... if you’re a greasy pan about to be washed up.
The cleansing properties of these ingredients strip all of the natural grease your skin produces from your skin. This can cause the skin to become dry and irritated, exacerbating dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
These ingredients are most commonly used in liquid soaps as they are emulsifiers. As you may know water and oil do not mix. But when you add these emulsifiers to the mix, it allows the oil to bond to the water molecules, hence the high usage in liquid soaps, shampoos and washing up liquid.
Finally the last property which is highly sought after is the property of foaming agent. People normally associate bubbles with cleanliness. Which is another reason this ingredient is used, a foaming agent does exactly what it says on the tin: it creates foam.
Unfortunately air trapped in pockets (the bubbles) do not actually clean. The real cleaning power is from the soap molecules that are within the water. So although this ingredient is added to make more bubbles, they have no real purpose other than to satisfy a psychological need for the association of bubbles and cleanliness.
What is the environmental impact of palm oil?
Palm oil itself is an incredibly efficient crop. It produces more oil per hectare of land than every other major oil produced today. It produces around 4 tonnes of oil per hectare compared to its closest rival coconut oil which produces 2 tonnes per hectare. That means it is twice as efficient as the next producer.
The only place on the earth this crop can be grown commercially is within the tropics.
Which is where the problem occurs; demand for this crop is high and ever increasing.
Increased demand is bad because when they clear land for new plantations of palm oil, the most common method is to burn the trees that are there to create space for the plantation. This method causes huge amounts of air pollution, which has been reported especially around South East Asia.
In 2013 children in the city state of Singapore were told to stay inside as the air quality was so low, it was a hazard to health. The burning of tropical rainforest to clear land for palm oil plantations was largely to blame.
It’s not just air quality, it is also a loss of habitat. I know the orang-utan is the face of the fight against palm oil, but it’s the complete ecosystem attached to the orang-utan which is losing its habitat. A huge loss in biodiversity and we may have already eliminated species of animals and plants that have never been discovered.
Pollution and soil erosion are another reason we need to reduce our use of palm oil. For every tonne of palm oil produced, 2.5 tonnes of liquid discharge is released back into the surrounding ecosystem, containing chemicals and contaminants used in the refining process.
When palm oil trees are planted on steep slopes, which usually housed a wide array of flora and fauna, the rain washes away the soil into the river system. Soil erosion causes an increased chance of natural disasters such as landslides as well as increased silt deposits in rivers and ports.
The loss of this peat rich soil which is the most effective carbon sink in the world, is also contributing to climate change.
To sum it up, palm oil is not really the best ingredient to use in cosmetics, due to its incredibly drying properties. Its derivatives also contribute to the suffering of people with dry skin conditions and it’s terrible for the environment.
If you love your planet and want to make a change, switch to palm oil free cosmetics. We need to reduce our reliance on this environmental fiend!
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I hope you have enjoyed this article, and we have plenty more on our blog if you want to read more about why natural soap is so great.
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