Is There a Fishy Ingredient in Your Cosmetics?

Sharks in a marketplace.

Siewwy84 /Getty Images

Shark liver oil is a common moisturizing agent in many beauty products. Stay away!

The poor sharks can't seem to catch a break. Whether it's their fins, skin, meat, oil, or cartilage that people want, or if it's just their misfortune to be caught up in fishing nets and left to die as bycatch, these magnificent apex predators face never-ending dangers from humans. An estimated 100 million are killed worldwide every year, which works out to a horrifying 11,000 dying hourly.

One particularly harmful industry is that of squalene, or shark liver oil, which is a much sought-after ingredient for sunscreen, lipstick, foundation, anti-aging cream, and other cosmetics produced worldwide. (A related term is squalane, a derivative of squalene.) The oil comes from the liver, where it helps certain species of shark stay buoyant when they're deep underwater, specifically the leaf gulper shark, basking shark, and tope shark. It is rich in fatty acids and antioxidants, an excellent moisturizer that doesn't leave a heavy or oily residue, which is precisely why manufacturers prize it so much.

While some squalene producers claim that the oil is taken from carcasses that have been hunted for other purposes, thereby making use of bycatch that would otherwise go to waste, an investigative report in 2012 by non-government organization BLOOM found that many are being targeted precisely for this purpose:

"Given the high market value of shark liver oil (12 to 15 US$ per kilo), it appears that a distinct phenomenon of ‘livering’ exists, in which the liver is removed and the carcass thrown back overboard, by analogy with ‘finning’: removal of shark fins, before the injured animals are thrown back, usually still alive."

An estimated 2.7 million sharks are killed annually for their liver oil, and 90 percent of the shark liver oil produced annually goes to the cosmetics industry, even if several high-profile companies, such as Unilever and L'Oréal, have pledged not to use it. The problem, however, is that relatively few companies have made such promises, and even when they do, it can be hard to trace squalene back to its origins if suppliers are not fully transparent.

National Geographic cites David Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center:

"The problem is we don't really know what's going on down there. A lot of these fisheries operate in parts of the world that are kind of off the radar."

He's referring to the Indian, southeastern Atlantic, and western Pacific oceans, where fishing is notoriously unregulated. Ebert goes on to say, "These [deep-sea sharks] are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because most grow slowly and reproduce infrequently."

Plant-based substitutes do exist. It's possible to formulate squalene from ingredients such as olives, wheat germ, amaranth seed, and rice bran, but, as National Geographic reported, "Sourcing it from sharks is easier and significantly cheaper... [Plant-based squalane] is about 30 percent more expensive to produce."

Lush's shark fin soap

Courtesy of Lush

With last Saturday being World Oceans Day, soap and cosmetics maker Lush wants people to get on board with protecting sharks. It has launched a campaign to highlight humans' ongoing attacks on sharks and the devastating effect that will have on the oceans if allowed to continue. You can support the campaign by purchasing its limited edition Shark Fin Soap, with all proceeds going to The Rob Stewart Sharkwater Foundation, for as long as supplies last.

In the meantime, unless a cosmetics product explicitly states the ingredients are 100 percent plant-derived or vegetable based, it's not safe to assume it's shark-free. Ask the manufacturer directly and stay away from anything with a fishy response.