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The Role Of Palm Oil In Cosmetics Products

June 22, 2021

Chemicals that are derived from oils and fats are known as oleochemicals. It is divided into two groups; natural oleochemicals, which often refers to vegetable and animal oils and fats derived oleochemicals, and synthetic oleochemicals which are derived from petroleum. Oils and fats composed of triglycerides formed from one molecule of glycerol and three molecules of fatty acids (Figure 1). Hydrolysis of oils and fats to the corresponding fatty acids and glycerol, forms the basis of the oleochemical industry.

Figure 1. Triglyceride structure

Oils and fats can undergo hydrolysation using water or alcohols to produce fatty acids or esters and glycerol (Figure 2). In the production of fatty alcohols and fatty nitrogens, fatty acids or esters can be used as the starting material which later, can be further modified to produce various types of derivatives (Ismail et al., 2014). Hence, oleochemicals are often divided into two categories, namely, basic oleochemicals and derivatives. Fatty acids, fatty methyl esters, fatty alcohols, fatty amines and glycerol are examples of most common basic oleochemicals. On the other hand, oleochemical derivatives refer to products derived from basic oleochemicals via several chemical processes such as epoxidation, ethoxylation, sulfation and sulfonation. Thousands of products of different properties can be derived through these chemical reactions, so that they can be used in different applications such as cosmetics and personal care products, detergents, textiles, plastics and pharmaceuticals (Ghazali et al., 2007).

Figure 2. Hydrolysis of triglyceride

n the cosmetic industry, basic oleochemicals and derivatives are frequently used as emollients, humectants, emulsifiers, rheological additives and/or preservatives (Salmiah et al., 2004). Palm oil is one of the world’s most commonly used vegetable oils primarily in food, but also as the dominant source of vegetable fat and oil in beauty and chemical products. Palm oil is one of the best options and most cost effective cosmetics ingredients, especially when the drive for natural products started where consumers demand natural and animal free products. Palm oil in the cosmetic industry can be processed into many different products. It is versatile. Due to its high fatty acid content, it can be used to make surfactants, emulsifiers and emollients.


Surfactants are the most important of all cosmetic ingredients used for cleansing, foaming, thickening, emulsifying, solubilizing, penetration enhancement, antimicrobial effects and other special effects in cosmetic products. 


An emulsifier includes any ingredient that helps keep unlike ingredients such as oil and water from separating in an emulsion. Emulsifiers are widely used throughout the cosmetics industry and are also known for their abilities in enhancing the absorption of skincare ingredients and may be useful for prolonged topical delivery.


Emollients are some of the first ingredients used as cosmetics that are not compatible with water. It includes ingredients such as oils, butters, waxes, and esters. They tend to be low molecular weight molecules and do not have the ability to form a continuous film to block water. However, they are important for improving the way the surface of the skin feels and they impart shine. When creating skin creams and lotions, emollients are used to modify the way formulations feel, how they rub into the skin, the ease at which they spread and the length of time they remain workable. Common examples of emollients include natural oils and esters such as myristyl myristate, cetyl palmitate and lauryl laurate. Each of these feels slightly different and has different abilities to absorb into the skin.

More than 70% of cosmetic products contain palm oil and its derivatives as they provide multiple benefits such as skin hydration, foaming, softening and texturizing actions in finished products. It is also an essential building block in the manufacture of over 1,000 synthetic compounds, which are made through chemical reactions. They are identified by their chemical names such as cetyl palmitate, stearic acid and palmityl alcohol (cetyl alcohol).

For instance, the basic ingredients for lipstick are wax, oil, alcohol and pigments (colorants). It may also contain glycerin, glyceryl stearate, caprylic/ capric triglyceride, isopropyl myristate, octyldodecyl myristate and cetyl alcohol derived from palm oil. These compounds hold colour well, do not melt at high heat and have a smooth application plus being odourless and having moisturizing properties.

Glyceryl stearate can be found in lotions, creams, powders, skin cleansing products, makeup bases and foundations, mascara, eye shadow, eyeliner and sunscreen products. It acts as a lubricant on the skin’s surface, which gives the skin a soft and smooth appearance apart from slowing the loss of water from the skin by forming a barrier on the skin’s surface.

Most skincare products contain at least one ingredient derived from palm oil because it is a highly beneficial product for the skin. Palm oil has been found to be a low-hazard ingredient for use in skin care formulations and is safe to use on the skin (EWG, 2018). The safety of palm oil products was assessed by The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel on the basis of the animal and clinical data and concludes that palm oil and its derivatives are safe as used in cosmetic formulations (Johnson, 2000). During the last 20 years, the cosmetic and personal care industry has shifted from non-renewable sources (fossil-based) towards plant-based oils (Pletnev, 2003). The use of palm oil in cosmetics is identified to have the potential that will have a significant impact towards the palm oil industry.

In Malaysia, it is estimated that the growth of cosmetics and personal care products market increases at the rate of 5% per annum. Nowadays, in a knowledge-based community, consumers have the tendency to choose plant-derived cosmetics products over animal-based cosmetics products as they believe that natural cosmetics are more environmentally friendly. Due to religious consideration, some consumers are also more inclined to use a plant-based cosmetics product in contrast to tallow or lard-based products, which are not acceptable by Hindus and Muslims respectively.  Apart from that, an opportunity to create product differentiations also can be introduced by incorporating natural products such as palm-based oleochemicals into the cosmetic formulations in order to capture a niche market.


  1. Johnson W. (2000). Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Elaeis guineensis (Palm) Oil, Elaeis guineensis (Palm) Kernel Oil, Hydrogenated Palm Oil and Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil. International Journal of Toxicology, 19:7-28.
  2. Pletnev, M.Y. (2003). Innovations in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Impact of the Changing of Global Market of Oleochemicals. SOFW Journal, 129:54-66.
  3. Ahmad, S., Ismail, R. and Ismail, Z. (2004). Palm-based oleochemicals in cosmetic and personal care applications. ICIS-LOR World Oleochemicals Conference, Amsterdam, 6-7 October 2004.
  4. Ghazali, R., Yusof, M. and Ahmad, S. (2007). Non-food applications of palm-based products–market opportunities and environmental benefits. Notes, 96(100): 100.
  5. Ismail, R., Hasan, Z.A.A. and Hassan, H.A. (2014). Synergy of Palm and Plant Extracts for Application in Cosmetics. Palm Oil Developments, 61: 1-6.
  6. Elaeis guineensis (African Oil Palm) Oil. EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. Published 2018. (Accessed 23 October 2020).
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