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How Many Products with Palm Oil Do I Use in a Day?

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I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it. In fact, I’ve even written it, “While most U.S. consumers have never gone to the supermarket and purchased a bottle of palm oil directly, as they would, say, canola or olive oil, chances are good that they use a product containing palm oil every day.”

This is, of course, a line from our recent scorecard rating top brands on their commitments to using palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation or peatland destruction. But even though I know that palm oil is ubiquitous in everyday products, I’ve never assessed its role in my life. That was, until yesterday.

What I found was astonishing, even to me: I use palm oil and its derivatives every single day. Multiple times a day.

A quick note: there are many chemicals and compounds that are frequently derived from palm oil but can also be made from other sources as well. Without contacting each company individually, I cannot confirm that these companies actually use palm-oil derived ingredients. These ingredients are noted with an asterisk.

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Morning palm oil might be found in toothpaste, cereal, or conditioner. Photos: Lael Goodman

Palm oil in the morning

I wake up and pour a bowl of [1] Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Limited Edition Cereal: Chocolatey Almond. While not my usual breakfast, I couldn’t resist buying a box when I saw it on the shelf, since I worked for more than two years at a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory when I was in high school!

In the bathroom I basically discover that I am showering in palm oil. I know from the recent Greenpeace campaign that [2] Head and Shoulders shampoo definitely contains palm oil. Also in my bathroom is [3] Garnier Fructis conditioner and [4] Dove’s white beauty bar soap, which I’ve used ever since I was a kid.

I check my [5] Vaseline body lotion and a quick scan shows that it is filled with possible palm oil derivatives. I consider eating lunch outside (first sunny and relatively warm day in quite a long time!) and so put on my [6] Cetaphil moisturizer with sunscreen, chosen carefully based on the very helpful suggestions of the Environmental Working Group guide.

I brush my teeth with [7] Colgate toothpaste and already exhausted by my label checking and a little late for work, I go with my only makeup necessity: [8] Almay mascara.

Palm oil in the afternoon

When I arrive at work I take my [9] daily vitamins. On a whim, I turn around the bottles and check the ingredients. Bingo! After a little online research, I find two ingredients commonly found in vitamins and pills are sometimes made with palm oil.

My homemade leftovers for lunch are free of palm oil and sadly eaten indoors, but my afternoon snack of a banana with [10] Jif natural peanut butter (which I keep in my office in case of hunger emergencies) contains my first sighting of plain old palm oil.

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Palm oil can be in everything from lotion to vitamins to peanut butter! Photos: Lael Goodman

Palm oil at night

After working out and commuting home in the colder evening air, my lips feel chapped.  I pull out my trusty [11] Chapstick lip balm for relief. Before bed I use some [12] Ponds cold cream to remove my mascara and again use my soap and toothpaste before setting my alarm and turning out the lights.

One day, twelve products

In just one day, I used at least twelve products that contain or might contain palm oil:

[1] Kellogg’s Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Limited Edition Cereal: Chocolatey Almond: hydrogenated palm kernel oil, palm kernel oil
[2] P&G’s Head and Shoulders shampoo: sodium lauryl sulfate*, sodium laureth sulfate*
[3] L’Oréal’s Garnier Fructis conditioner: cetyl alcohol*
[4] Unilever’s Dove white beauty bar soap: stearic acid*, sodium palmitate*
[5] Unilever’s Vaseline body lotion: stearic acid*, cetyl alcohol*, glyceryl stearate*, glycerin*
[6] Galderma’s Cetaphil moisturizer with sunscreen: glyceryl stearate*
[7] Colgate-Palmolive’s Colgate toothpaste: sodium lauryl sulfate*
[8] Revlon’s Almay mascara: stearic acid*
[9] Daily vitamins: vegetable magnesium stearate*, vegetable stearic acid*
[10] J.M. Smucker’s Jif natural peanut butter: palm oil
[11] Pfizer’s Chapstick lip balm: cetyl alcohol*, tocopheryl linoleate*
[12] Unilever’s Pond’s cold cream: cetyl alcohol*

It’s easy to think that because I don’t regularly frequent McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts that my palm oil use is limited. But I can see now that palm oil is pervasive in both my professional and my personal life.

Luckily, a lot of companies whose brands I use have already begun stepping up to the challenge by making commitments to ensure that the palm oil they use is free of deforestation and peatland destruction. I know my Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste,  L’Oréal conditioner, Kellogg’s cereal, and Unilever soap, lotion, and cream are made by companies who have made this public commitment, making my daily routine a little more sustainable.

Click here to send an email to other companies urging them to make a deforestation and peat-free palm oil commitment.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming, Tropical Forests Tags: , ,

About the author: Lael Goodman is an analyst with the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at UCS. She conducts research and analysis to support reducing tropical deforestation as a way to mitigate climate change. Specifically, Ms. Goodman focuses on deforestation caused by the palm oil industry and protecting tropical peatlands. See Lael's full bio.

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  • amartya

    Great article, and an eye opener as to just how pervasive the use of palm poil is. One way, as ted suggests, is to use less. In most of the world, an average person would use just 2 or 3 of your list — food, soap and toothpaste…

  • Margaret Hornick

    Thanks, Lael – this is eye-opening. While I don’t eat fast food or junk food,and read food labels before I buy, I had no idea that palm oil and its derivatives were so pervasive in common toiletries and cosmetics.

  • Ted Lafiotte

    Why don’t you start by consuming less of everything?

    • Lael Goodman

      Thanks for your comment, Ted. While reducing consumption is always a good idea, as the cheapest oil on the market, palm oil is here to stay. So it is important to not only be aware of how pervasive it is in our lives, but to make sure we advocate for palm oil that is deforestation and peat-free.

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