4 Sustainable Alternatives to Your Beloved Coconut Oil

The coconut oil you smear into the frazzled ends of your hair could be resulting in deforestation.

The Philippines has been the world’s top exporter of coconut products for several years now. I was thrilled to visit, hoping to sweep some raw coconut goodness into my clutches. When coming in to land, I saw acres of coconut plantations along the coastline, glimmering deep emerald, swaying in the sun.

It’s easy to see the beauty of coconut palms fringing a beach, but acres and acres of coconuts monocropped across entire islands are troubling.

Coconut palms grow well in hot, humid, well-filtered soil, which just happens to be coastal in most cases. Development of coastlines is nothing new, but subprime coastline--specifically mangrove swamp--is disappearing at an alarming rate, and coconut plantations are to blame for at least part of the deforestation.

Mangrove swamps are seen as dark, smelly and crawling with bugs--to be fair, they are--but mangroves are important hotbeds of biodiversity, and function as a nursery for countless fish, crustaceans, amphibians and birds, many of which populate nearby reef systems. Their importance to people lies in their ability to both filter waste entering the ocean, as well as buffer storm surges and tsunami waves. During the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, coastlines that had intact mangrove forests suffered the least amount of damage from the waves; the mangrove swamps took the brunt of the impact and then recovered quickly, as they have for thousands of years. Regions affected by the tsunami began to re-plant mangroves in areas where they had been removed in order to protect towns from future disasters.

Rehabilitation of coastlines hasn't caught on everywhere--coconuts are still a hot commodity (literally), and mangrove swamps are being dozed over to plant them. While not all coconuts are produced at the cost of mangroves, some are, and it’s nearly impossible to know if the coconut oil you lovingly smear into the frazzled ends of your hair is resulting in deforestation, among other things.

The actual effects of high-demand commodities are tricky. Much like the supposed "quinoa crisis," individuals using imported oils aren't always doing harm; in a lot of cases, they are empowering small farmers and bringing commodity export prices up to par. There are other alternatives available that we know are actually benefiting people and the planet, and might be better for your skin. Here’s a roundup of oils that might replace your coconut-oil habit.

Argan Oil

Oh heavens, it’s expensive--but for good reason. Traditionally gathered and pressed by Berber women, argan oil is processed intensively by hand. There are plenty of women's cooperatives that are easily accessible online, with competitive prices for argan oil. It’s harvested sustainably, primarily in Morocco (where the trees are endemic), from trees that create shade and control erosion, are slow-growing and protected.

I have a teensy bottle of orange blossom-scented argan oil from Leaves of Trees that I use as a spot-treatment for dry hair, cuticles and lids, and a larger Limn Oil from Portland General Store that's jasmine and honeysuckle scented.

Kukui Nut Oil

Kukui, or candle nut, was one of the original canoe plants brought from Indonesia to islands throughout the Pacific by voyaging Polynesians. Kukui is a prolific tree, producing hundreds of pounds of greasy nuts per tree. High in linoleic acid, it’s suitable for oily skin, and has a lovely nutty scent. It’s also sustainably grown and harvested by small-scale farms in Hawai’i, which makes it sound pricey, but it’s surprisingly affordable.

Dr.Adorable has the best deals on cold-pressed kukui nut oil around--it goes for about $1.25 per ounce in bulk. If you aren't hip to buying jugs of oil off the internet, Osmia Night Oil has a blend of coconut, jojoba and kukui nut oil, with a sweet forest smell that I love. It’s supposed to be a nighttime oil, but I mix it with my foundation, and hit my neck and decolletage with it every morning.

Hempseed Oil

Hemp oil is one of my favourite oils for my face; it scores low on the comedogenic scale, and provides lasting moisture. It’s lovely drizzled on roasted vegetables, or on dry elbows or heels. Hempseed oil isn’t as shelf-stable as other tropical oils, so if you get a larger quantity, keeping it in the fridge is a good idea.

Industrial hemp production is ramping up in the United States and Canada because it uses less water than other oil crops, and is fairly pest-resistant. Oh, and the byproducts of hempseed oil production goes on to become fabric and paper, and the plant itself conditions the soil for other crops. In your face, canola!

Sunflower Oil

This is one of the more affordable in the bunch, so I use it for body/massage oil, or anything involves losing a bit--scrubs, masques, and sometimes a stir fry. Sunflower oil is light--with 75% oleic fatty acids--so it’s super-moisturizing and absorbs quickly.

Sunflower farming is generally done on a smaller scale, requires less pesticides and, more importantly, not very much water at all. It’s from a renewable resource that’s grown in North America, making it ideal if you want to consume local products.

An honourable mention goes out to apricot seed oil; it’s a lovely oil, a byproduct even! However, it’s farmed primarily in California (in the U.S.--it’s cultivated throughout the world), which hopefully doesn’t dry up and blow away in the wind this summer.

  • Do you think about the sustainability of your beauty products?
  • Where do you get your oils? Share!
  • Is there an oil above all others we should know about? I have tried a ton, but I draw the line at emu oil.