An estimated three to six million sharks are killed every year to supply the beauty industry with “secret ingredient” squalane.

Squalene Is Produced By All Animals And Plants

Squalene is an organic compound, naturally produced by the body. In humans, an estimated 12% of squalene is found in the sebum where it contributes to topical skin lubrication and protection. It is also an important biochemical intermediate that is used to synthesize sterols in all plants and animals. This includes compounds such as cholesterol and steroids which are essential to maintaining a healthy body. 

The Highest Concentration Of Naturally Occurring Squalene Is Found In Shark Livers

While many fish species rely on an organ called a swim bladder to regulate their buoyancy, sharks rely primarily on their livers and the oils that they contain. Deep-sea sharks, especially, have large livers which can consist of up to 20% of their total body weight and allow the shark to maintain a neutral buoyancy without expending energy.  

Deep-sea sharks tend to have higher concentrations of squalene in their livers and are therefore the primary targets of the beauty industry. Up to 96% of the liver oil found in deep-sea sharks is squalene. Commonly targeted species include the deep-sea shark (Centrophorus squamosus), basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias). The name squalene is thought to be derived from the genus name Squalus.

The estimated annual demand for squalene is between 1000 – 2000 tons per year. It requires an average of 3000 sharks to make just one ton of squalene! 

Deep-sea Sharks Are Particularly Vulnerable To Extinction

Many of these shark species are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and some species have experienced population declines of as great as 95%. Sharks are generally slow growing and mature late in life. Having these life cycle traits means that sharks are slow to recover from commercial overexploitation as their population growth rate is slow. Commercially fished populations of sharks, such as the spiny dogfish on the west coast of America, have already been reported to have been overfished and in decline.

In addition, there is limited data available on many species of sharks and their populations, as well as on the catch rates of sharks, which makes it difficult to assess the full impact of commercial exploitation. With limited available data, it is difficult to establish the sustainability of such fishing practices and we may only realize too late that the shark populations are beyond saving.

Sharks are apex predators and play a critical top-down regulatory role in many marine ecosystems. 

90% Of Shark Liver Oil Produced Per Year Is Used In Cosmetic Products

Derived from squalene, squalane is a purified, odorless, hydrogenated lipid which is commonly used in the cosmetic industry. As squalane is non-greasy, soluble, pleasant to touch and resistant to extreme temperatures it is a favored ingredient in moisturizing creams, anti-aging creams, foundations, sunscreens, hair conditioners, deodorants, eye shadows and lipsticks.

A 2015 Report By Bloom Found That 1 In 5 Creams Contains Shark-derived Squalane

Bloom is a non-profit organization focused on preserving the marine environment and the creatures that live in it from unnecessary harm, as well as improving social benefits in the fishing sector. In their 2015 report, which was the most comprehensive report carried out at the time, they tested 72 creams from 15 of the top cosmetic companies from three different geographic regions which listed squalane as an ingredient. They found that just over half of the creams tested from Asian companies contained shark squalene, whereas both America and Europe had a lower proportion of creams containing shark-derived squalene. 

There Are Alternative Sources Of Squalene

Squalene is also found naturally in olives, sugar cane, amaranth seeds, rice bran and wheat germ. Although squalene is also produced by plants, it is found at a much lower concentration than that found in shark livers and because of this it is much more expensive to produce. In 2012, it was estimated that the cost of producing plant-based squalene was 30% higher than shark-derived squalane, though this is likely to be substantially less now given the improvement in technology. However, the time taken to process plant-derived squalane is still much greater (~70 hours) than shark-derived squalane (~10 hours), so it is still a profitable source of squalane.

Squalene Was Originally Discovered In Japan In 1916

Due to its resistance to extreme temperatures (and high pressures), squalene was first used as a lubricant in the aeronautical industry in Japan. However, shark liver oil was also used earlier in Scandinavian folk medicine as a treatment for a number of ailments, such as wounds, respiratory illnesses, cancer and heart disease.

Squalene Is Used In The Pharmaceutical Industry In Vaccines

Squalene is also used as an immunological adjuvant in several vaccines, such as influenza and coronavirus vaccines. An adjuvant is a substance that stimulates the body’s immune response to the vaccine, thereby, in theory, making it more effective and reducing the quantity of the active vaccine components needed in a single dose.

None of the Covid-19 vaccines currently available on the market use squalene.

The 2015 report published by Bloom found that less than 1% of the global harvest of squalene is used in the pharmaceutical industry, and unlike the cosmetic industry, there have been no attempts to find alternative sources. This is largely because the squalene found in shark livers is much purer than that harvested from plants or other sources.

How Can You Help?

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to tell whether squalene is plant-derived or shark-derived, and many of the creams tested in the Bloom study were found to have a blend of the two. The study also found that several companies had not managed to remove shark-derived squalene from their products despite their commitment to do so. Other companies were also found to mislead clients on the source of squalene and the sustainability of the ingredients. 

Interestingly, price was a poor indicator of the source of squalene, despite the 30% increased cost of using plant-derived squalane. Shark-derived squalane was used in products across all the price ranges tested.

As always, the most important action you can take as an individual to limit your impact on the environment and the beautiful creatures we share our planet with is to be a responsible consumer. When it comes to using beauty products, try to use products that are cruelty-free and/or vegan from companies that are publicly committed to reducing their impact on the environment.