Over 3 million deep-sea sharks are hunted and killed for their liver each year. One of the leading culprits supporting this market - the cosmetic industry.
Shark livers contain an oil, known as squalene, that is highly regarded for its moisturizing and restorative properties. Squalene (and its derivative, squalane) increase the spreadability and absorption of creams and lotions. It’s proven ability to prevent moisture loss, restore fine lines, and help in the prevention of wrinkles makes it a highly sought after ingredient, especially for high-end facial cosmetics.
Also a favored emollient used in sunscreen, foundation, face moisturizers, lipstick, eye makeup, tanning oil, and many other products, squalene has been finding its way into everyday cosmetics for years - but at a huge, deadly cost most consumers remain unaware of.
The United Nations released a report stating that more than 50 shark species are fished for their liver oil - several of which are currently listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List. According to an investigation by Bloom, a French marine conservation charity, the global demand for shark liver oil in 2012 was estimated at 2,200 tons. Of this, 90% made its way into cosmetic products, 9% in nutraceuticals, and 1% in pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines, and other unknown products. To put this into perspective - 3,000 sharks are needed to produce 1 ton of squalene.
Most fish have a gas-filled organ, known as a swim bladder, that helps them maintain buoyancy in the ocean, preventing them from sinking. Deep-sea sharks (those living in ocean depths of 300 to 1,500 metres), however, do not have a swim bladder. Instead, they posses an oily liver that allows them to achieve neutral buoyancy without having to expend a lot of energy. (The high concentration of oil makes the shark’s liver less dense than water.) Depending on the species, a shark's liver can comprise up to 20% of its body weight. Consequently, this puts a huge target on their back as a prime source for squalene.
Much like the devastatingly inhumane practices that accompany shark-finning, squalene fishermen often extract the animal’s liver only to throw the rest of the remains back into the ocean. The practice is known as “shark livering”.
Squalene is a liquid hydrocarbon that occurs naturally in shark liver and human sebum. The compound is a metabolic precursor of sterols. Secreted through the skin (like cholesterol) it plays an important role in protecting the body from external environmental factors.
‘Squalane’ is the byproduct of ‘squalene’ after it has undergone a hydrogenation process. For cosmetics, squalane is the more commonly used form of the compound because it’s an odorless, longer-lasting version of squalene.
When cosmetics add squalene/squalane to their products, they’re able to mimic the excellent results achieved by the body’s own natural moisturizers - hence, why it’s such a sought after ingredient. But sharks are not the only source for this hot commodity. It’s also found elsewhere in nature - predominantly in olives, amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran and wheat germ. The issue for manufacturers is that plant alternatives possess significantly lower quantities of the oil. It takes more more effort to harvest plant-based squalene and, as a result, costs around 30% more. These two factors - price and potency - make shark squalene the most desired source in the market, and act as a driving force behind the continuation of shark livering.
On a global scale, most squalene is still sourced from sharks. However, in the last decade, as more and more consumers are becoming aware of the inhumane practices behind extracting shark liver oil, the market is starting to see a shift toward plant-based squalane . And going forward, the greater the push for companies and corporations to source their squelane from only plants, the closer we get toward completely eliminating shark-based squalene in cosmetics.
Campaigns, such as Oceana’s 2008 push for the cosmetic industry to stop using shark liver oil, are making tremendous strides, prompting big brands like Unilever (Ponds and Dove) and L'Oreal to announce the removal of shark squalene from their cosmetic brands. And by 2010, much of the EU shifted to using only plant-based squalene/squalane.
With that being said, there’s still a long way to go. The market is highly unregulated, brands have no legal obligation to let consumers know the source of their ingredient squalene, and many companies falsely promote ‘squalane’ as the plant alternative to shark squalene, when it’s in fact just the derivative of shark liver oil.
“Consumers deserve the full information to make educated decisions about what they put into – or onto – their bodies. Many people are completely unaware that the cosmetics industry is a major source of fishing pressure on deep-sea sharks. Yet, given the choice, who would opt for cosmetics made from vulnerable sharks, especially when plant-based alternatives are available?” says Oceana’s shark expert, Dr. Allison Perry.
Until laws are passed to ensure squalane-based products are accurately labeled, it’s up to us as consumers to thoroughly research the products we buy. If squalene or squalane is listed - look for the words '100% plant-derived,' or 'vegetable based'. If the label doesn’t indicate the component’s source, reach out to the company and ask. Or, choose a product that you can be certain does not contain shark squalene.
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that over a quarter of the world’s shark species are over-exploited for commercial reasons. And with around one hundred million sharks being killed by commercial fisheries each year, more and more species are nearing extinction and ending up on the the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sharks are slow-growing, mature late in life, and have long breaks between reproductive cycles making them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation. They play an integral role in the stability of Earth’s marine ecosystems - and their absence in the ocean could result in disastrous consequences. Our cosmetics don’t have to, nor should they, harm our environment and the creatures whom we share it with. Let’s use information to empower ourselves as consumers, so that we can make choices that have a positive and healthy impact on our bodies, and the world.
By, Stephanie Hernandez