Heightened demand for palm oil — harnessed in myriad cosmetics, personal care products, processed food items, biofuel and more — has come at a steep price, generating a slew of detrimental environmental consequences.
But sustainable reform might just be on the horizon — and it’s budding in a 20,000-square-foot office in Midtown Manhattan.
“Every person uses palm oil every day, even if they’re trying to avoid it — that’s how big the problem is,” said Shara Ticku, chief executive officer of C16 Biosciences, which announced its breakthrough palm oil alternative, torula oil, in November, and will launch a multipurpose face, body and hair oil harnessing the ingredient on March 1 through its consumer-facing platform, Palmless.
“[Torula oil’s] reception has just truly blown expectations out of the water,” said Ticku, who cofounded C16 in 2018 alongside David Heller. She adds that C16 has received a flood of inbounds from brands and retailers — who are grappling with increasing pressure and legislation to minimize palm oil usage in their formulations and stock, respectively — since introducing torula oil to the world.
“The industry has sometimes talked about natural as inherently good, but natural has a lot of problems because it’s so resource-intensive. Biotech is a real enabler in beauty to unlock what we sort of call the ‘new natural,’” said Ticku.
C16’s search for a sustainable palm oil alternative ultimately led the team to the fungal kingdom, where they discovered an oleaginous (or oil-producing) yeast with the potential to produce oil yields commensurate to that necessary of a palm oil alternative — with a little help.
“We’re essentially harnessing what nature’s already very good at, but applying the ability to scale that through biotechnology, and that’s the precision piece of the fermentation,” said Ticku, noting that the company operates a 50,000-liter fermentation tank to produce the vast majority of its torula oil.
It’s a big tank, for a company with bigger ambitions.
“We want Palmless to be on everyone’s mind, and on everyone’s skin in the next 12 to 18 months — it’s our singular focus as a company,” said Ticku.
To further this goal, the company is launching its first consumer product, available for a limited time. Retailing for $45 for a 120-ml. bottle, the Save the F#$%ing Rainforest Nourishing Oil is designed to hydrate the face, body and hair, and is formulated with jojoba oil, meadowfoam seed oil, oat kernel oil and, of course, torula oil.
“We blended torula oil with other ingredients, but we held those to a high standard in terms of sustainable sourcing to showcase you can make awesome formulas that are high-performing and don’t have to sacrifice on sustainability,” said Ticku, adding that the product’s packaging was designed to emulate a protest poster, emphasizing the brand’s call to action.
“One bottle of our nourishing oil is not going to save the rainforest, we acknowledge that,” said Ticku, adding that there aren’t plans for other Palmless consumer product launches in the near term (but long term — no category is off the table), rather the focus is to raise awareness and use Palmless to enable other brands to innovate sustainably.
“We’re trying to communicate that contributing to the development of sustainably sourced breakthrough ingredients, helps us build an infrastructure as a company and as an industry, to make progress; you’re helping build that journey.”