We don’t know whether you’re vegan or not, but if you take a more plant-based approach to your diet and lifestyle in general, then it’s likely that you’ve developed a habit of looking at labels to figure out which ingredients are in your foods or products.
At the same time, If you’re into beauty and personal care products, then you’ve probably looked at a few labels and saw this weirdly-named ingredient called “squalene”.
What is Squalene?
Squalene is a natural organic compound primarily synthesized from shark liver oil, which is unfortunately obtained through the hunting of sharks.
It is often used in the formulation of a wide variety of skincare products including bath oils, shampoos, eye makeup, foundations, lipsticks, sunscreen, cleansing & moisturizing products… and the list goes on.
However, plant-based sources such as vegetable oils derived from amaranth seeds, rice bran, wheat germ, and olives are also becoming more common. Environmental concerns, as well as ethical reasons, have motivated this growing search for plant-based alternatives.
How is Squalene Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?
Sadly, squalene is highly regarded for its moisturizing and restorative properties.
Squalene (and its derivative, squalane) increase the spreadability and absorption of creams and lotions. These ingredients have the ability to prevent moisture loss, restore fine lines, as well as rejuvenating the skin by preventing wrinkles from developing.
However, for this to happen, over 3 million deep-sea sharks are hunted and killed for their liver each year. One of the leading contributors to such a market is the cosmetics industry.
In fact, the United Nations released a report stating that more than 50 shark species are hunted for liver oil — several of which are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list. In addition to that, an investigation conducted by Bloom concluded that the global demand for shark liver oil in 2012 was 2200 tons.
Out of these 2200 tons, 90% went into cosmetic products, 9% in nutraceuticals, and 1% in pharmaceuticals. Every year 3,000 sharks are required to produce 1 ton of squalene.
Most fish have a swim bladder, which is a gas-filled organ that helps maintain buoyancy in the ocean, preventing them from sinking.
However, deep-sea sharks don’t have a swim bladder and instead have an oily liver that provides them with neutral buoyancy without expending excessive energy. In some shark species, the liver can represent 20% of the bodyweight.
As such, this makes them a highly sought-after source of squalene.
Squalene fishermen often extract the liver and throw the remains into the sea, which is a practice named “shark livering”.
What’s The Difference Between Squalene and Squalane?
As we’ve noted earlier, squalane is a derivative of squalene.
Squalene is a liquid hydrocarbon that occurs naturally in shark liver and human sebum. The body secretes squalene through the skin (akin to cholesterol) and it plays a huge role in protecting the body from external environmental factors.
For example — it helps protect the body against cancer and the effects of aging.
Squalane (spelled with two “a’s”), on the other hand, is the byproduct of squalene after it goes through a hydrogenation process. In fact, squalane is far more used in cosmetics because it is odorless and typically lasts longer than squalene.
By adding either squalene or squalene to cosmetic products, companies are essentially able to replicate the results achieved by the body’s own ability to moisturize.
Plant-Based Alternatives to Squalene
Fortunately, sharks are not the only optimal source of squalene in the world. As we’ve mentioned earlier, squalene can also be found in a number of other plant-based ingredients: olives, amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran, and wheat germ.
However, the issue with plant-based alternatives is that they contain significantly lower quantities of the oil. Therefore, it takes far more effort to extract optimal amounts of squalene, which consequently makes it more expensive to obtain.
Obviously, because of that, shark liver oil becomes the most coveted source of squalene.
The Shift in Awareness is being Reflected in the Market
Sharks liver oil remains the principal source of squalene around the world.
However, in the last decade, a shift in awareness and consciousness has been occurring, and more consumers are now less willing to tolerate inhumane practices against animal species.
As a result, we’re also beginning to see a shift in the market, with companies now relying often on plant-based alternatives. This is only possible because organizations such as Oceana are running awareness campaigns that prompt multinational companies such as Unilever or L’Oreal to remove shark-derived squalene from their products.
With that being said, there’s still a long way to go because the market is still heavily unregulated, and brands have no obligation of letting the consumers know the source of the squalene. But this is not only true for squalene, but also other ingredients such as glycerine and stearic acid, which can be both derived from animal and plant-based sources.
In addition, we also have companies that falsely promote “Squalane” as a plant-based alternative, when this ingredient is just, in fact, a derivative of shark liver oil.
How Do You Know Non-Vegan Squalene Is Being Used in a Product?
Sadly, companies are not required to reveal the source of their ingredients which, unfortunately, encompasses any ingredient that isn’t considered a major allergen. Squalene isn’t one.
As such, the only way you can find out whether the squalene/squalane in your product is not animal-based is by actually contacting the respective companies yourself.
At the same time, it’s important to continue to raise awareness, as well as push for laws that require product labels to be accurately labeled. Furthermore, if you’re looking at a product that contains squalene/squalane, you have to look for the words “100% plant-based” or “vegetable-based”, or an indication that the brand or product is “vegan-certified” before purchasing.
Sharks Are Being Overexploited
With over one hundred million sharks being killed by commercial fisheries each year, you have a pool of shark species that are dwindling over time and ending up the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sharks are one type of species that take long breaks from reproductive cycles, and thus are extremely vulnerable to dangers like overexploitation. This is not only important for vegans like us, but also to everyone living on this planet, as sharks play an important role in our eco-system.
When purchasing cosmetics, we should be warier about the ingredients, and opt for products that aren’t as harmful to both animal species and the environment.
We sincerely hope that the information in this blog post will help you make decisions that have a positive impact (not only on your body), but also on this beautiful and vast planet.