This page covers the below sections:
- What is Cocoa Butter and what are the concerns about its use?
- Sustainable Cocoa Butter initiatives
- Why is Cocoa Butter used in cosmetics?
- What are the Alternatives?
- What can the consumer do?
- Methodologies, any available online tools, accreditations
- Challenges and practical tips for companies
- Examples of voluntary initiatives, case studies, innovations and technologies
See the Index for all available Sustainability Hub pages.
What is Cocoa Butter and what are the concerns about its use?
Cocoa Butter (INCI Theobroma Cacoa Seed Butter) is a yellowish white solid material obtained from the roasted seeds of the Cocoa, Theobroma cacao L., Sterculiacae(1). In cosmetic products it can impart fragrance but is mainly used for its skin conditioning, emollient and skin protecting properties.
In its safety review of Plant Derived Fatty Acid Oils, the US Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an expert scientific panel, describes Cocoa Butter as being a mixture of Palmitic (24-29%), Stearic (34-36%) and Oleic (30-40%) Fatty Acids(2).
Cocoa is usually grown by smallholder farmers on farms averaging two to four hectares. It is found in hot, humid regions, mostly in West Africa (Ivory Coast and Ghana), Latin America (Ecuador) and Indonesia. The trees need the shadow of other plants such as banana or palm trees, they also need plentiful rainfall, which should be distributed evenly through the year. Cocoa trees can live up to 100 years but are most productive for about 25 to 30 years(4).
The cocoa pods, which contain the beans, are harvested then split to allow the beans to be removed(4). The beans are then fermented and dried on the farms or in the farmer’s village, in a process that takes three to seven days. After fermentation, the beans are dried in the sun for five to seven days. After drying and cleaning they are weighed and put into sacks. The farmer then sells the full sacks to an intermediary representing a buying company. The sacks are then shipped to an exporting company who inspect and grade the cocoa(4). They supply chain can get incredibly complex as there can be intermediaries at all stages. Sometimes the beans can be sold directly to the exporter by a cooperative. Direct sourcing like this enhances traceability, trust, and efficiency(4).
Once at the processing factory the dried beans are shelled to give “nibs”, which are then alkalised, roasted and ground at high temperature to produce cocoa liquor. It is this liquor from which cocoa butter is extracted by pressing under high pressure (up to 550kg/sq.cm), and then filtered(3). Cocoa butter can be made odourless by steam and vacuum extraction(3).
It is estimated that most cocoa farmers live below the poverty line. Their agricultural practices are often outdated, which can result in low yields. The market also fluctuates so the price for the crop can vary from season to season(4).
Cocoa farming communities have been battling the effects of poverty, child labour and deforestation for many years(5). In the last few years there has been campaigning by NGOs and an increase in chocolate companies asking for increased regulation. Legislation is being introduced around the world to protect the environment and try to eliminate poverty. The two largest countries producing cocoa, Ivory Coast and Ghana, have formed a partnership to drive up the price paid to cocoa farmers(4).
Global production of cocoa had doubled in the last 30 years, most of this comes from West Africa where production has risen from 1.37 million tonnes to 3.47 million tonnes per year(4). As production elsewhere in the world has not increased in the same period it now means that 74% of the world’s cocoa is produced in this region(5).
Latin America is also a producer of cocoa, about 10% of the global production, but this is produced mainly for its fine flavour, the pricing structure is very different to that in West Africa, as is the supply chain(5).
West Africa is very dependent on the cocoa industry. Unfortunately, the countries where the cocoa industry is concentrated are those with a low Human Development Index score(5). Child labour, forced labour, discrimination and deforestation are all illegal in the West African countries that produce cocoa(5). The last few years have seen increased willingness for Governments, cocoa and chocolate companies to consider regulations. Several European countries have implemented laws on child and forced labour in the supply chain for commodities used in their countries(5).
Sustainable cocoa butter initiatives
Awareness of the issues in the cocoa supply chain have given rise to a number of initiatives. The world Cocoa Foundation has several, the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, CocoaAction, Cocoa Livelihoods Program, African Cocoa Initiative II and Climate Smart Cocoa(4).
The Cocoa Initiative, founded in 2007 and working in Ivory Coast and Ghana, aims to improve the lives of children and adults at risk of child and forced labour(6). The European Cocoa Association published a position paper on Due Diligence in the Cocoa Supply Chain in December 2019. This concluded that to achieve sector-wide change everybody in the supply chain had to take bold commitments on sustainability, whilst conducting due diligence in their operations(3). They said that they believed this could be partially achieved by the setting up of an EU Due Diligence Regulation for all companies placing cocoa and cocoa derivatives on the EU market. They suggested that this should be complemented by supply and demand-side measures similar to the VPAs (Voluntary Partnership Agreements) used in the timber industry(3).
The UK Government’s Environment Bill published in November 2020 builds on the recommendations made in the Global Resources Initiative taskforce report issued earlier in the year. As the UK Government’s press release for this bill indicates, the bill will ensure that greater resilience, traceability and sustainability are built into the UK’s supply chains by working in partnership with other countries and supporting farmers to transition to more sustainable food and land use systems(7).
Why is Cocoa Butter used in cosmetics?
Because of the high level of fatty acids in Cocoa butter it is credited with being able to hydrate and nourish the skin and improve skin elasticity. The fat in the cocoa butter forms a protective layer over the skin reducing transepidermal water loss(8).
The melting point of cocoa butter is about 33°C(2). It is widely used in leave-on products, in particular those used around the eye area, lip products and general body products such as body lotion(2).
CosIng details the functions of cocoa butter as being skin conditioning, emollient and skin protecting(1).
It has a good toxicological profile and has been shown not to be a dermal irritant of sensitiser(2).
In the USA Cocoa Butter is listed in the eCFR Title 21 Section 347.10 as a skin protectant active ingredient for OTC products, when used at 50-100%(9). The Federal Register Volume 68 No 107 of Wednesday June 4th 2003 pertaining to Rules and Regulations, states “The Panel stated in its safety evaluation of cocoa butter (43 FR 34628 and 34635) that “No reports regarding the safety of cocoa butter have been specifically identified. However, the Panel recognizes that its safety has been established by its wide and continuous use in pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. Clinical and marketing experience has confirmed that cocoa butter is safe in the dosage range used as a skin protectant”. Thus, these products have an extremely low risk in actual consumer use situations. In addition, the agency has considered the ORC uses for this ingredient as providing temporary protection of minor cuts, scrapes, burns and chapped or cracked skin and lips.” (10).
Due to its good safety profile and beneficial skin properties, along with the fact that it melts at roughly skin temperature to give a nice-feeling product, cocoa butter is used in a range of skin, facial and body care products. It is also popular in lip products, being safe for ingestion as it is a major component of chocolate. Cocoa butter can also provide a nice natural fragrance to the skin and product.
What are the alternatives?
The cosmetics industry has a wide range of ingredients to choose from to give emollience and moisturisation. Many of these are also butters so will have similar properties in the final product. Ingredients such as Shea Butter, Cupuacu Butter, Murumuru Butter or Bacuri Butter are all plant derived and come from similar geographical areas to cocoa butter and are therefore associated with similar issues to those linked to cocoa butter, particularly deforestation.
Others will be petrochemical derived, which brings other ethical and environmental issues.
It may not therefore be beneficial to substitute cocoa butter in products if the alternatives do not have a sustainable supply chain that can be audited to ensure no child or forced labour and no deforestation are involved.Because it the main use of cocoa butter is in confectionary the volumes produced are much larger than for other exotic butters, meaning that it is easier to ensure the cocoa butter used in the cosmetics industry is from a certified sustainable source.
What can the consumer do?
Consumers love the properties that cocoa butter provides to the cosmetics and toiletries that they use, and its association with other luxury items such as chocolate. They are increasingly aware that the supply chain for cocoa products can mean child or forced labour and deforestation.
Consumers are increasingly insisting that the manufacturers of the cocoa butter products they use can guarantee a supply chain that is both ethical and sustainable. This may be through a certification scheme, or other appropriate due diligence methods.