Does Australia have any genuinely palm oil-free shampoo or conditioner? I asked myself this recently when trying to find something palm oil free to wash and condition my hair. Like many people, I am concerned at the massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia that is due to the enormous demand for palm oil worldwide. Demand for palm oil has escalated in recent years because it is cheap to produce, and is stable compared to unsaturated vegetable oils, which are prone to oxidation (going rancid). Palm oil is now the most commonly used vegetable oil in food, is used in almost all toiletries and detergents, and is an ingredient in many industrial chemicals. Ironically, it is also in demand as a biofuel – fragile and dwindling rainforests are being destroyed in order to produce a more ‘eco-friendly’ fuel.
The rush to meet demand for palm oil has resulted in the imminent extinction in the wild of the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros, as well as many other rare plant and animal species. Indigenous people are being displaced, and even jailed for trying to defend their own land from illegal clearing by palm producing companies – see The Sustainability Lie , a documentary on this issue. Watching this might very well make you think twice about ‘sustainable’ palm oil claims as well. Rainforests are being cleared at an alarming rate to produce palm oil, and the slash and burn clearing techniques of palm oil companies are causing a pollution catastrophe in south-east Asia and rapidly accelerating greenhouse gas emissions.
Clearly there is a good case to stop using palm oil in our homes, or at least drastically reduce our consumption. Because Australia’s lax labelling laws allow palm oil to be listed as ‘vegetable oil’, we can’t always distinguish foods containing palm oil by reading the label. Luckily, there are some helpful websites you can go to in order to find out including this one
Now, back to hair care… because the ingredient lists on most shampoos and conditioners consist predominantly of chemical names, it’s extremely difficult to work out whether these are derived from palm oil since a chemical name does not tell us the origin of the product. At Mokosh we are often asked to make shampoo and conditioner, and we recently decided to look into the origin of these chemicals more closely. We would love to be able to make a palm oil free shampoo and conditioner. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
The chemical maze
Where an ingredient is present in its natural form, it is stated as such – e.g. coconut oil, or Cocos nucifera - its botanical name. For shampoos and conditioners, synthetic ingredients are needed to perform the cleaning and defrizzing, coating and detangling that we have now come to expect from hair care products, though their origins may be stated e.g. ‘from coconut oil’. The most important of these are known as surfactants, and these are made using the hydrocarbon chain backbone of either a vegetable oil or a petrochemical oil. Where vegetable oil is used these chemicals could be derived from a number of different vegetable oils, but because palm is cheaper, it is the most commonly used. It is almost certain that a chemical containing one of the following word roots is derived from palm oil:
- ‘stear’, e.g. glyceryl stearate, stearic acid
- ‘cet’, e.g. cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl olivate, cetrimonium chloride
- ‘laur’, e.g. sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium lauroyl sucroate
- ‘cap’, e.g. capric triglyceride, caprylic acid
- ‘palm’, e.g. sodium palmitate, palmitic acid, palm kernelate
- ‘glyc’, e.g. glycerine, glyceryl oleate
Every shampoo and conditioner we have looked at from supermarkets, pharmacies and other mainstream stores are made using these palm oil-containing ingredients. Our next step was to look at the ingredients used by manufacturers claiming to be palm oil free. To our surprise, some of the above ingredients are found in brands claiming to be palm oil free. These brands containing the above ingredients, most likely palm oil derived, are also listed on shopping guides for palm oil free sites.
Despite this disturbing discrepancy, we carried on in our quest to make palm oil free shampoo and conditioner. After all, it should be possible using chemicals derived from the other most commonly-used vegetable oil – coconut oil…or so we thought.
A search showed that there are a number of surfactants claimed by their manufacturers to be derived from coconut. The presence of ‘coco’ in the chemical name suggests that the ingredient may be from coconut, as when the chemical was first named it was derived from coconut. However, as we now know, the hydrocarbon chain for an ingredient may be supplied by palm just as easily from coconut – yet its chemical name will be unchanged. Therefore, the presence of ‘coco’ in a chemical name does not necessarily mean it was made from coconut.
Let’s look at some ingredients in shampoos and conditioners that we expected to be from coconut oil:
Coco glucoside –most commonly derived from palm oil. The Australian supplier we found made no claim that this is derived from coconut oil.
Cocobetaine– available in a few different forms, the safest form to use has the chemical name‘coco dimethyl betaine’, and this one is widely used in organic and ‘palm free’ shampoos. We got excited about this as the brand available in Australia states that it is derived from coconut, as does every source we found on the internet. When I asked the sales representative to give me a written statement that no palm is used to manufacture this ingredient, he was as surprised as we were to find that both coconut and palm oils are used in its manufacture. It is possible that there is a form of cocobetaine that is sourced solely from coconut oil, but we were unable to find one.
Decyl glucoside –the Australian supplier we found stated that this was made from coconut or palm oil. Once again, there was no way to guarantee this is from coconut oil only.
Sodium cocoyl glutamate – once again, every reference put out by the manufacturer stated that this was derived from coconut. After asking for a palm oil free statement from the major Australian supplier, it was discovered once again that both palm and coconut oils are used to derive the ‘cocoyl’ component.
Sodium cocoyl glycinate – the same Australian supplier as that supplying ‘sodium cocoyl glutamate’ stated that this is made from both coconut and palm oils.
Conditioners commonly contain ‘cetearyl alcohol’ and ‘cetrimonium chloride’ as well as ‘glycerine’, which, as we already know, are almost certainly palm-derived. But there are a few others to look at.
Behentrimonium methosulphate – this product is derived from colza oil or canola oil, but is blended with palm oil-derived chemicals such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol.
Sorbitan olivate and cetearyl olivate – an emulsifier comprising two chemicals, commonly used in organic brands of conditioners and skin creams. These two compounds are combined in what is sometimes termed ‘olive wax’, as the major components are from olive oil, albeit hydrogenated olive oil. As you may have guessed by the presence of ‘cet’, the cetearyl component is from palm oil. Some manufacturers believed that this was purely olive derived - it’s not.
Steartrimonium chloride - as its name suggests, this product is palm-derived.
To our surprise and dismay, the claim by a supplier that an ingredient is from coconut often means that it sometimes comes from coconut, and sometimes comes from palm – but we do not know the proportions of each. What we do know is it is absolutely not an indication that the product is palm oil free.
For these synthetic ingredients, the supply chain is long, the factories are far away, and manufacturers are not concerned about whether the starting point is palm oil, coconut oil, or some other oil – the end product is the same and that is all that matters to them. We now know that it is not possible to guarantee that a synthetic chemical is definitely not palm derived, unless you receive a written statement from the supplying company, which has traced the origin back to the starting point of each component of each ingredient. The bottom line is, don’t believe what is stated in the advertising literature – where it is stated that a product is derived from coconut, it may also be derived from palm oil.
It seems that manufacturers of shampoo and conditioners claiming palm oil free status believe superficial claims by suppliers – and it seems that ‘palm oil free’ shopping sites are doing the same. It is only when we start to dig deeper that it is clear that palm oil is in almost everything we use in the bathroom. Yes, it’s not just shampoo and conditioners that contain palm derived chemicals, it’s the glycerine and emulsifiers in water-based creams and lotions too – but that’s a story for another time.
This means just about all of us are unknowingly washing our hair in palm oil and slathering it on our bodies – and contributing to one of the most environmentally damaging practices on the planet. A lot of people are being misled, and the forests are burning faster than ever. This is not going to get better while people believe false claims about palm oil free status. Palm oil will continue to be used to manufacture cocobetaine, coco glucoside and cetearyl olivate – and many people will carry on using it.
So is there a palm oil free shampoo?
We believe that currently the only palm oil-free shampoos are actually palm oil-free soaps, such as the bar soaps made by Mokosh. Other than these soap shampoos, we have not yet seen a shampoo or conditioner that does not contain one or more of the palm oil-derived ingredients listed above. Soap shampoos are made by saponifying oils with either potassium hydroxide to make liquid soap, or sodium hydroxide to make bar soap. These are what our grandparents or great-grandparents washed their hair with. Below are some brands we know of that sell these products as shampoo.
- Maclyn Grove
- Alex’s Handcrafted Soaps
(- Dr Bronner’s) *Editor's Note: June 2023 - A reader pointed out that Dr Bronner's Castille Soap does include palm kernel oil. Dr Bronner's Soaps are not palm oil free.
If you know of a brand that is not a soap, that does not contain any of the above palm-derived chemicals, please let us know. We would love to hear about it.
So – what should I wash and condition my hair with?
This is the question I asked myself when I realised I had been unwittingly using palm oil-containing hair products. Here are some alternatives:
1) Baking soda (also known as ‘bi-carb soda’ or ‘sodium bicarbonate’) followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse - there are many converts to this, who state their hair has never looked better. Take a look at this site .
2) Natural bar soap or natural liquid soap followed by a vinegar rinse -
3) Mud shampoo
4) No shampoo – see a blog here
Don’t be confused
It is clear that when looking at synthetic ingredients derived from a natural source, we have no indication which plant species was used to make them. Where a vegetable oil is needed to make a synthetic ingredient, it seems that palm oil is almost always first choice, because of price. The only way to be certain that an ingredient is not of palm oil origin is to obtain a written statement from the supplier, traced back to the manufacturer, that it is palm oil free.
We have not yet discovered a shampoo or conditioner, other than palm-free soap shampoos, that are free of palm oil derivatives. It seems that claims of ‘coconut’ origin for synthetic shampoo and conditioner ingredients cannot be believed, as it is very straightforward to substitute palm oil, without detriment or change to the final product.
It has been stated that palm-oil is driving an ecological disaster so, arguably, manufacturers who use palm oil-derived ingredients are party to this. The manufacturers who use palm oil-derived ingredients, yet claim their products are palm oil free, are perhaps even harder to defend.