What Is Squalene? Why Is It Controversial?

Harvesting this beauty ingredient has wreaked havoc on shark populations.

Underwater view of oceanic whitetip shark

Paul Souders / Getty Images

Squalene is an antioxidant and emollient often used in cosmetics and skincare products. Although admired for its ability to impressively mimic the skin's natural oils, the ingredient is generally too ambiguously sourced to be classed as ethical or sustainable. That's because squalene often comes from shark organs.

Products That Contain Squalene

Known as a natural lubricating oil with moisturizing properties, squalene can be found in the following beauty products:

  • Sunscreens
  • Anti-aging creams
  • Moisturizers
  • Hair conditioners
  • Deodorants
  • Eye shadows
  • Lip balms
  • Lipsticks
  • Foundations
  • Face cleansers

Squalene From Sharks

While other fish rely on swim bladders for buoyancy, sharks lack these gas-filled sacs and instead stay afloat with large livers full of fatty oil. This oil is the most common form of squalene available—even the "squal" in its name is derived from the word Squalus, a genus of sharks.

Because deep-sea sharks have particularly fatty livers—needed to withstand the pressure of the ocean—these species are intensely hunted squalene jackpots. According to a 2012 survey by the marine conservation coalition Bloom Association, 2.7 million sharks are killed every year just for their livers.

The survey, titled "The Hideous Price of Beauty," found that the cosmetics industry accounts for an astonishing 90% of the global demand for shark liver oil. That's an estimated 1,900 tons of squalene used for hair conditioners, creams, lipsticks, foundations, sunscreens, and more—some even audaciously labeled as "cruelty-free." Even worse, more recent reports say that demand for the ingredient has increased over the past decade.

Great white shark biting fishing bait on hook

Ken Kiefer 2 / Getty Images

Today, the mass slaughtering of sharks for their prized liver oil is taking a major toll on certain populations. And when apex predators suffer, so does the health of the entire ecosystem.

Oceana says deep-sea sharks—which are most coveted by the beauty industry—are especially vulnerable because they have such long lifespans and, therefore, slow reproduction rates. For example, the leafscale gulper shark that lives in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans doesn't reach sexual maturity until about 35 years old. In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elevated the species' listing from vulnerable to endangered.

Overfishing (for fins, meat, leather, and oil) is reportedly the leading reason why global populations of oceanic sharks and rays declined by 71% from 1970 to 2020. According to the Rob Stewart Sharkwater Foundation, there are at least 60 species that are fished for squalene—among them kitefin sharks, Portuguese dogfish sharks, and gulper sharks—and 26 of those are vulnerable to extinction.

Although many states and countries have laws against shark finning—removing the shark's fin and discarding the rest of the shark—fewer have laws against shark fishing in general. In the U.S., shark fishing is legal, albeit heavily regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which claims to have "some of the most robust environmental standards in the world." Still, the U.S. reportedly produces 33% of the world's squalene, with the remaining 67% coming from China.

Shark fishing is also legal throughout the European Union, but the European Commission's 2009 Plan of Action for the Conservation of Sharks has helped protect vulnerable species by putting stricter restrictions on fisheries and closing loopholes on illegal finning.

In a follow-up assessment published 10 years after the plan was adopted, the European Commission addressed the success of tighter finning regulations and noted "progress in management and conservation of sharks" but made no mention of fishing for squalene. The deep-sea gulper shark, one of the most in-demand species for liver oil, remains critically endangered off the coasts of Europe, whereas it's considered vulnerable globally.

Transitioning to Plant-Based Squalene

Plants of flowering amaranth growing in field

NataGolubnycha / Getty Images

Crops like olives, wheat germ, amaranth seed, and rice bran also harbor reserves of the treasured lipid. Though vegetal squalene can't compete with the production yields of shark squalene, another Bloom study released in 2015 showed a widespread shift to nonanimal sources.

The study revealed that about 80% of all squalene used in the U.S. and Europe came from olives and an additional 10% to 20% hailed from sugarcane. Both regions still used shark squalene, but only in relatively small amounts. Bloom's report also showed that Asia was an exception in the trend, still using more than 50% shark liver oil at the time of research.

Squalene Versus Squalane

Like squalene, squalane—with an a—is also commonly used in cosmetics. It can also come from sharks, as it's simply a saturated form of squalene that has undergone the process of hydrogenation. The derivative is much lighter than pure squalene, is noncomedogenic, and has a longer shelf life, making it even more popular as a beauty ingredient. 

Regardless of the global shift to plant sources, it remains difficult to decipher where the squalene in cosmetics comes from, especially because products containing shark squalene can legally be labeled "cruelty free" in the U.S. and Canada. The term lacks regulation in these regions. It most often means the finished product hasn't been tested on animals, not that the ingredients weren't tested on animals or come from animal sources.

While Bloom's 2012 study reported that plant-based squalene was 30% more expensive than shark liver oil, a subsequent study published in 2020 claimed the two were similarly priced, which could be a reason for the sudden transition from shark-based to plant-based squalene. Still, due to the murky guidelines surrounding cruelty free claims, many have vowed to avoid the ingredient altogether until it's no longer associated with shark fishing. 

How to Identify Products That Contain Squalene

If a product contains squalene or squalane, it should be clearly labeled on the ingredients list as such. However, brands are not obliged to specify the origins of the squalene in their products, so you might have to do some research to ensure the brand is using 100% plant-based sources (beware of mixed animal and nonanimal origins). To make this process easier, Shark Alliance has created its very own Shark-Free Seal.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How is squalene used?

    Besides cosmetics, squalene acts as an adjuvant—a boosting agent—in vaccines, making them more effective. Vaccines account for a very small portion of squalene uses.

  • Why is the demand for squalene increasing?

    Squalene is a growing trend in cosmetics, especially in countries like Brazil, China, and India. The ingredient's benefits—such as being an antioxidant and immune system booster—are becoming well-known. And with an increasing interest in (and willingness to pay for) high-quality cosmetics, the global use of squalene is growing.

  • What are some squalene alternatives?

    Squalene can easily be replaced in beauty products with olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, and sugarcane.

View Article Sources
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