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Trees and cosmetics

A carnauba palm tree grove in Piauí, Brazil.
Luis Bartolomé Marcos
WikiMedia Commons
A carnauba palm tree grove in Piauí, Brazil.

Although I'm of an age and a profession that doesn't require me to use a lot of cosmetics, I do admit to dabbing on a bit of lipstick when I attend the occasional gala or fancy dinner.

One benefit of putting on lipstick is that if the party chitchat turns boring, I can bring up the fact that I — and everyone else wearing lipstick — has trees on our lips.

That's because wax from the carnauba palm tree is in nearly every tube of lipstick. A native to Brazil, the carnauba tree is known as the "Tree of Life" due to the many lifeforms it supports. We use this wax in furniture, car and shoe polishes, and as coverings for medicinal pills. But the biggest use for carnauba palm wax is in cosmetics.

Carnauba wax has a higher melting point than other waxes, so it easily holds a lipstick’s distinctive shape. It also produces a durable film that keeps those bold reds and hot pinks bright for an entire evening of socializing.

The wax is extracted from the surfaces of the carnauba palm leaves, which grows in semi-arid savannas. During the dry season, the tree exudes wax over its leaves to reduce the loss of water. The leaves are cut, sun-dried and mechanically thrashed to separate the wax from the leaf. The resulting yellow powder is then melted and combined with oil and pigments to create those tubes of many colors.

And even though a single tube of lipstick can last me for years, cosmetic sales in the U.S. last year alone reached over 30 billion dollars — which caused me to wonder: Is all of this lipstick-buying a problem for this tree of life? Although most carnauba palm wax comes from plantation trees, scientists are exploring ways ensure sustainable use of these palms in the face of climate change. 

Trees turn up in our lives in ways we’d never expect, a topic any of us can use to enliven our next dinner party.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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