2.7 million sharks are captured and killed for their livers each year (1). The primary culprit behind this inhumane hunt driving the extinction of endangered and vulnerable deep-sea species? The cosmetics industry.
Shark livers contain an oil, known as squalene, that is highly regarded for its moisturizing and restorative properties. Squalene (and its derivative, squalane) increases the spreadability and absorption of creams and lotions, and has been proven to prevent moisture loss, diminish the appearance of fine lines, and help in the prevention of wrinkles. These qualities make it a highly sought after ingredient, especially for high-end facial cosmetics.
As a favored emollient for sunscreen, foundation, face moisturizer, lipstick, eye makeup, tanning oil, and many other products, squalene has found its way into every corner of the personal care industry — but at a huge, deadly cost of which many consumers remain unaware.
The United Nations released a report stating that more than 50 shark species are fished for their liver oil, several of which appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List. The most sought after are deep-sea sharks, since their livers can make up 20% of their body weight. These deep-sea sharks are at such a great risk of overfishing that scientists have concluded they should not be caught at all. (2)
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. (3)
Most fish have a gas-filled organ, known as a swim bladder, that helps them maintain buoyancy in the ocean. Deep-sea sharks (those living in ocean depths of 300 to 1,500 metres), however, do not have a swim bladder. Instead, they possess an oily liver that allows them to achieve neutral buoyancy without having to expend a lot of energy (the high concentration of oil — a whopping 96% of which is squalene, specifically — 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— that’s a lot of oil. (1)
Though squalene exists elsewhere in nature — predominantly in olives, amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran and wheat germ — it does so in low concentrations. In fact, plant alternatives of the coveted oil are so much less rich in squalene than shark livers that flora-sourced squalene costs about 30% more than squalene from shark livers (4). These two factors — price and potency — make shark squalene the most desired source in the market, and act as a driving force behind the continued practice of capturing and killing millions of sharks every year for their livers.
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.”
You may have heard a rumor that ‘Squalene’ (with an ‘e’) comes from sharks, whereas ‘Squalane’ (with an ‘a’) comes from olives. Don’t be fooled. Squalene and squalane can both come from sharks.
Squalane is a saturated form of squalene in which the double bonds have been eliminated by hydrogenation. Because squalane is less susceptible to oxidation, is odorless, and has a longer efficacy, it is more commonly used in personal care products than squalene. (5)
THE IN-DEPTH VERSION
Squalene (with an “e”) is a lipid produced naturally by your skin cells, and makes up about 13% of human sebum. The amount of squalene your body produces declines with age, with peak production of this natural moisturizer occurring in the teen years, and production slowing in your 20s or 30s. As a result, your skin becomes drier and rougher as you age. Cosmetics help to correct for this natural process by supplementing your body’s squalene supply with that from shark livers or plants. The ability of shark- and plant-based topical squalane to mimic the excellent effects of the body’s natural functions is what makes squalane such a sought after ingredient. (6)
But animal or plant squalene is too unstable in the natural form to be used in skincare products; when exposed to oxygen, it can become rancid and spoil quickly. The hydrogenation process that converts squalene into squalane (with an ‘a’) creates a stable form of the molecule, while also making the oil softer, thinner, and more skin-friendly. It also changes the color from yellow to clear and greatly extends the shelf life. (P.S.: The way hydrogenation is bad for you in food, it’s not bad for your skincare. All squalene must be hydrogenated to be included in your skincare.) (7)
Chemically, squalane is the same makeup whether it comes from a shark or a plant (though it’s made via different methods), and there’s no easy way for consumers to distinguish between the two. (9)
This is why campaigns like Oceana’s 2008 push for the cosmetic industry to stop using shark liver oil exist, and why consumers are joining in urging the cosmetics industry to implement stronger labeling regulations around the sourcing of squalane.
Though on a global scale most squalene is still sourced from sharks, the market has started to shift toward plant-based squalane in the last decade as awareness of the inhumane practices behind shark livering has increased. It is up to consumers and advocacy groups to continue to demand that companies and corporations source squalane exclusively from plants in order to eliminate shark-based squalene in cosmetics.
Oceana’s campaign and others have made tremendous strides, prompting big brands like Unilever (Ponds and Dove) and L'Oreal to announce the removal of shark squalane from their cosmetics brands. And much of the EU shifted to using only plant-based squalene/squalane by 2010.
With that being said, there’s still a long way to go. The market is highly unregulated, and brands have no legal obligation to let consumers know the source of their squalane (or any other ingredient, for that matter). Other than South Korea, no nation has an individual customs code for squalane; instead, squalane is usually included in the "fish oils" customs categories. This makes it difficult to monitor and study trends in production and commercial exchanges on the global market of shark squalene. (1)
Plus, US and EU prohibitions tend to be based on proven toxicity studies, rather than sourcing concerns. Squalane by itself is not only benign and non-toxic, but actually made and used by plants and animals to make hormones like cholesterol and cortisol. (8)
“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. Consumers should also be aware that in more than 80% of the creams containing shark squalane, the squalane is a blend of plant and shark origin. (1)
For now, the only ways to guarantee that the squalane in your product isn’t from shark livering is to look for the certified Vegan label, which guarantees that the cosmetic is free of any animal ingredient, or to buy from a reputable brand with transparent sourcing that can guarantee its squalane is 100% plant-derived.
A FINAL PLEA
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that over a quarter of the world’s shark species are over-exploited for commercial reasons, with about one hundred million sharks killed by commercial fisheries each year. 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 with whom we share it. Let’s use information to empower ourselves as consumers, so that we can make choices that have positive and healthy impacts on our bodies and the world.
By, Stephanie Hernandez & Lauren Evashenk