Identifying Palm-Oil Derivatives 101

Most of palm-oil’s allure to companies is undeniably its extreme versatility. It can be transformed into over 200 different ingredients, all with various functions and benefits. In fact, in today's market 'about 60% of palm-oil consumed globally is in the form of derivatives.' In our experience, these ingredients are the main source of frustration for those who want to avoid conflict palm. We encounter a lot of disbelief from consumers who read ingredients lists and feel duped by glycerin or sodium lauryl sulfate. We also get messages of total exasperation: "I have to cross-reference this list every time I shop?" 

We believe that consuming palm-oil should be a personal choice and the oppressive nature of its prevalence in the market shouldn’t be what holds you back. That’s just unfair. 

Sadly, there is no 'one rule' to deciphering derivatives every time. I could suggest common foods and products to scrutinize, like mascara or frozen meals, but I’ve found palm-oil in the strangest of places. Really, anything processed is fair game for some form of palm. Don't let this discourage you though -- the ultimate trick to being able to spot palm-oil derivatives in most things lies in recognizing the building blocks that palm can become. This takes time and a little chemistry know-how but it is how we can spot them at the store 99% of the time. 

Before we delve into the science behind it all, today we’d first like to give you a little trick that will cover well over half of the complex compound derivatives of which you have to be mindful.  If you're still struggling with identifying conflict palm-oil in your products, all you have to do to start is memorize these four root words:

Identifying Palm-Oil Derivatives 101 | Selva Beat

These four bases represent some of the fatty acid building blocks that palm-oil can be turned into. For example, palm-oil can be made into glycerin or glycol, which can then be bound to an ethylhexyl group and become ethylhexylglycerin, an alkal glyceryl ether. Now, that may seem very confusing but just knowing that this ingredient has a glycol or glycerin base gives you a lot of insight into its potential make-up.  Below we'll provide you with two examples and explore the pros and cons of adopting this method in your daily life:

Identifying Palm-Oil Derivatives the Easy Way | Selva Beat

Above we have a popular foundation, or beauty balm, produced by L'Oreal Paris. This is the kind of list that usually makes people throw their hands in the air. Checking each of these ingredients against your list of possible derivatives is tedious and if you're always low on time, will probably not become a habit for very long. Quickly scanning the list and identifying palm-oil building blocks like glycols, stearates, and lauric acid, however, is much faster and gives you the impression right away that this product likely has conflict palm-oil. Immediately, you see eight ingredients that you would want to inquire about with L'Oreal's customer service team. 

Are they all derived from palm-oil? Not exactly. Two of the ingredients we found, butylene glycol and disteardimonium hectorite, are likely manufactured without the help of palm. 

Above is a baby shampoo and body wash by Yes To Carrots, a company we've explored here before. Glancing at these ingredients and using the four identifiers, we see two red flags and possible derivatives - retinyl palmitate and glycerin. The caveat? With this method we do miss decyl glucoside, a mild glucose-based surfactant that contains traces of palm-oil. 

There are certainly dozens of derivatives that don’t fall into these four categories. There is polysorbate-40 and triacetin, myristic acid and stearalkonium hectorite - all possible names for palm-oil. The good news is that this trick will cover the more common ingredients in the market and 60% of the master list. Also, even just one possible palm-oil derivative should be enough to raise an eyebrow and incite some inquiry into a company's sustainability practices.

Once you get into the habit of recognizing these four blocks, you can move on to memorizing some of the other important outliers and their bases, as well as, some of the science behind palm-oils versatility. Honestly, given the complexity of the subject, this is a great place to start!