I Tried To Cut Palm Oil From My Home And Beauty Routine - Here's What Happened

There's been a huge amount of discussion around palm oil in recent weeks following Iceland's powerful Christmas advert.

The provocative ad, which was banned from airing on TV but was uploaded online, highlighted the devastation the oil is wreaking on the environment - to date 50,000 orangutans, plus a number of other endangered rain forest species, have died in its path.

Sumatran tigers and rhinos as well as Bornean Pygmy and Asian elephants are also at threat of extinction because of palm oil production.

Orangutans aren't the only victim of palm oil. Credit: PA Images
Orangutans aren't the only victim of palm oil. Credit: PA Images

Before we dive in, it's important to understand what palm oil is and why it's so widely used. The edible vegetable oil is derived from the palm oil tree and and lots of corporations turn to the substance as it is much cheaper than animal fats or other oils.

Palm oil is one of the world's most versatile and universal raw materials, which means it can be processed and blended in place of more expensive ones for use in both food and cosmetic products, explaining why its so prevalent.

While some might argue that it isn't the oil itself which is massively dangerous to the environment, the way that it is harvested undeniably is, as multi-national companies tear down rain forests for palm oil to include in their products, taking with it the homes of so many animals that's painfully horrible to even think about - but we should be.

Natural rain forest are destructed for palm oil plantations. Credit: PA Images
Natural rain forest are destructed for palm oil plantations. Credit: PA Images

There's around 17 million hectares of palm oil plantations around the world - most of which are built on former rain forests, and this figure is growing day by day to keep up with our demand.

Indonesia, one of the biggest palm oil producers, is losing one million hectares of rain forest a year alone.

Iceland's powerful advert made me, and many friends, think long and hard about what my casual beauty and food purchases were doing to the environment and the wildlife who need it.

How can something that is so discussed be causing so much devastation and why are so few corporations addressing it?

A brief online search will show you that the oil is used in around half of of packaged products in your local supermarket in all of the aisles.

The oil isn't easily identifiable as it has a number of different names making it all the more difficult to identify on ingredients lists. Palm fat, organic palm kernel oil and palmitate are just a handful of the names used to describe it though there are many far more obscure ones.

And to make things even harder for anyone trying to reduce their palm oil print, it might even be listed as just 'vegetable oil'.

As for its derivatives? Well, there's about 200 of them. I'd happily put money on at least one of them being included in almost every single one of your favourite beauty, food and household products.

So, after some soul searching and a discussion with my Pretty52 colleagues who were all equally moved by the story of Rang-tan, I decided to attempt to go totally palm oil (plus its 200 derivatives)-free and to see how hard it really is to banish it from my home completely.

I hope my experience will prove a handy guide for others wishing to do the same and, while the experience wasn't straightforward, I found some excellent products I'll be switching over to and am hoping to continue to reduce my usage as much as possible from now on.

Palm oil is in almost every household product. Credit: Pexels
Palm oil is in almost every household product. Credit: Pexels

Food:

To be a vegetarian and not palm oil-free feels slightly conflicting now I've started taking notice, as the latter causes so many animals to die needlessly.

To date, Iceland is the only major UK supermarket to stop using palm oil entirely, meaning you can do your weekly food shop knowing own-brand products you pick up won't have it included. But of course, one can't live off Iceland own-brand alone!

Research told me to look out for the oil in sliced bread, chocolate spreads, margarine, peanut butter and more as I headed round the aisles of Aldi, but it still reared its ugly head where I wasn't expecting it, like in my favourite fruity cereal bars, curry sauces, stock cubes and oven-ready pizzas.

Despite this, I managed to walk away with a relatively full basket of food. Sliced bread was replaced with fresh ciabatta loaves and peanut butter with Aldi's palm oil-free one. But a number of my guilty pleasures like crisps, chocolates and biscuits were gone with no alternatives. I can't really complain if it made me healthier, but I did let out a sigh of relief to see my usual Diet Coke and cups of tea were palm oil-free.

Supermarket products are often riddled with palm oil. Credit: Pexels
Supermarket products are often riddled with palm oil. Credit: Pexels

Asking what was palm oil-free on the menu while out for dinner with my friend at my local pub was soul destroying and felt reminiscent of the clichéd vegan requesting dairy-free meals five years ago (only no one seems to know what palm oil even is). The pub landlord begrudgingly got me the ingredients list to triple check but I managed to keep my embarrassment at bay long enough for him to tell me the dish was safe for me to eat.

If, like me, you constantly forget your pre-made salads and sandwiches for work then you'll probably be a meal deal enthusiast. But the packaging of meal deal offerings was swamped with palm oil and some supermarkets had zero sandwiches or wraps without it listed. I found Boots had a couple of sliced sandwiches with no palm oil on their ingredients lists, like the new Christmas parsnip fritter option, as well as some flatbreads.

As the week went on, I found that palm oil is mainly in processed and pre-packaged food so if you're making your own food from scratch, you can ensure it's palm oil-free with relative ease. But obviously this might not always be practical for when you're stretched for time or battling fussy eaters.

Beauty:

My preconception that food would be the hardest part of this challenge was flipped on its head as soon as I began sourcing palm oil-free beauty products.

Looking through the items in my make-up bag was especially depressing: I have a relatively low maintenance eight-step make-up routine, which was stripped back to just three products - Body Shop Fresh Nude foundation, Maybelline gel liner and L'Oreal Brow Artist pomade - after a quick (read: couple of hour-long) crosscheck. Derivatives are your worst enemy here, and cross-checking an average of 20 ingredients on each product against a list of 200 is painstaking.

My mascara, concealer, every single lipstick and gloss, bronzers, blushers, eyeshadows and primers contained at least one palm oil-based ingredient. Look out for the main culprits - sodium laureth/lauryl sulfates, glycerin, glycerol, stearyl alcohol, magnesium stearate, which I saw cropping up time and time again on packaging labels.

You'll start to see patterns which make it a tad easier, although some brands use other safe oils to create these ingredients, so you'll need to check their policies if you're serious about being palm oil-free.

Venturing out for replacements left me disappointed, as so many products don't even list their ingredients, and some of the staff couldn't help me in stores.

I did find great alternatives elsewhere though: Neek lipsticks promise to be completely palm oil-free and their formulation was gorgeous.

The P'URE Papaya lip balm is absolutely mega and I couldn't get enough of the stuff as both a gloss and a balm.

The organic brand's body lotion for scars and stretchmarks and the ointment, which I used as a facial moisturiser, are just as good - all of which will be replacing my usual choices from now on.

When it came to showering, normal soaps, lotions and potions were thrown out the window (not literally, don't worry) and replaced with Body Shop's Ginger shampoo and conditioner and Lush's palm oil-based soaps. I had to do without a face wash as all of mine contained glycerin. And let me tell you, carrying around a bar of cling-film wrapped soap so you can wash your hands in public is a total palaver.

Frustrated by the lack of palm oil-free toothpastes, I used a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and coconut oil, rinsed away with Lush's mouthwash tabs - an expert assured me in-store the glycerin was derived from rapeseed oil in these. I switched to a natural powder deodorant for the week, as yep, you guessed it, mine contained a palm oil-derivative. Fake tan and even my eyebrow dye contain palm oil-based ingredients, so it's fair to say I wasn't looking my finest this week.

Miscellaneous:

Cleaning has pretty much ground to a halt in my house. Washing detergents, bleaches, anti-bacterial sprays and washing-up liquid all contain palm oil-derivative surfactants - except Zoflora, which I'm guessing plenty of Hinchers will be happy to hear.

And if you didn't believe me when I said palm oil is in everything, then this might surprise you. A number of lubes contain glycerin - so unless you can ensure it's derived from rapeseed oil, then these plus condoms coated in it are out. (Please, please practice safe sex though!).

So, what did I learn?

Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Unsurprisingly, not only is sourcing and checking for palm massively overwhelming and time consuming, for some products on the high street it's actually impossible to find an alternative, which isn't ideal if you care about the environment and wildlife but like to have plenty of choice.

In my eyes, brands should be making a conscious effort to make it much easier for us limit our palm oil consumption, yet there's little to no information available to us to do - especially in the beauty industry. An app that lets us products check seems like the obvious solution.

Obviously going palm oil-free - and pretty much beauty product free - for an entire week isn't feasible time, money or choice-wise for most of us, although cutting down little by little can only be a good thing. The meat-free movement is gaining huge momentum at the moment, with many ditching it from their diets completely or massively cutting down. If we all held the same approach to palm oil, we can make a difference - no matter how small.

Hopefully, other brands will start following in Iceland's footsteps so that going palm oil-free doesn't have to be so much of a challenge for the environment conscious among us. There wasn't a big blow-out moment at the end of this week, just a sense of disappointment it would be too hard to keep up. Whether you can reduce your palm oil print fully or just by a little, it can only be a good thing.

My favourite finds:

The stand-out, hero products. Credit: Pretty52
The stand-out, hero products. Credit: Pretty52

P'URE Papaya lip balm - £5.99

Body Shop Camomile eye make-up remover - £7.50

NEEK lipstick in Pash - £15.99

Iceland quadruple chocolate cookies - £1.29

Lush Outback Mate soap - £5.10/120g

By no means do I claim to be a palm oil expert, but everything listed I have reason to believe it is palm oil-free.

Featured Image Credit: Pexels

Rachel Andrews

Rachel Andrews is an NCTJ trained Journalist at PRETTY52. She specialises in Fashion Journalism, and has experience at a range of online and print publications. She is a Journalism and English language graduate of Kingston University, London, and joined the team in 2017. Contact her - rachel.andrews@pretty52.com

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