Is palm oil lurking in your favourite cleaning products?

Did you know your go-to washing up liquid contains palm oil? What to do about this controversial ingredient?

What's the problem with palm oil? Deep cleaning press image from Airtasker
(Image credit: Airtasker)

Palm oil is one of the most environmentally damaging ingredients used in everything from food to cosmetics to... household cleaning products. We've recently covered the health hazards behind commercial cleaning products, but it turns out that they're guilty of using palm oil, too. 

What's the problem with palm oil? Palm oil production is a leading cause of deforestation and loss of biodiversity – remember the devastating animation made by Greenpeace about palm oil and orangutans?

Many of us are clued up about the palm oil contained in mainstream peanut butter, lipsticks, and soap. We look for the dreaded 'Sodium Palm Kernelate' in the ingredient list. Unfortunately, palm oil is in many more products than we even suspect, and it isn't always labelled in a way most of us recognise. 

According to the guidance issued by WWF, palm oil can be contained in any of the following ingredients:

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.

This is such a long and confusing list (and it's not even exhaustive) that it's not unreasonable to assume that some brands simply would rather consumers didn't know their products contain palm oil. Following our investigation, we found that the following household cleaning products used by huge numbers of people contain palm oil:  

  • Washing up liquid: contains Sodium Laureth Sulfate, which is what gives it the bubbles;
  • Laundry Pods Original that contain MEA-Palm Kernelate;
  • Fabric conditioners that contain 'Laureth-20'.

For fairness's sake, even products that label themselves as eco-friendly or 'green' often still use sustainable palm oil, some notable eco-friendly brands among them. Ecover, for example, does have a statement on their website about using only 'sustainably sourced palm oil'. 

However, in recent years, even sustainable certification for palm oil has come under some criticism as something that isn't being enforced or controlled properly. In fact, investigations have found that even sustainable palm oil farming can reduce wildlife havens

What to do if you want to cut palm oil out of your shopping list? Look for products labelled palm oil-free. The Ethical Superstore and EcoZone Direct are good places to start if there's nothing in your local supermarket, but you can check how your favourite brands are doing on palm oil via the WWF website if you want to shop local.

Feeling a bit at a loss in terms of what cleaning products to use at home? Start with out top 21 natural cleaning hacks that don't use cleaning products.