Why You Should Avoid Cosmetics That Contain Squalene

Millions of sharks are killed annually for a compound that comes from shark liver oil.

a great white shark in Mexico
A great white shark off the coast of Mexico.

Dave J Hogan / Getty Images 

Earlier this year I was asked to review a list of beauty products that were vying for environmental prizes. I acted as a sustainability consultant of sorts, looking at ingredient lists and analyzing packaging to help determine which were the most eco-friendly products. On several occasions, I saw the word "squalene" in the ingredient list, which made my job easy; the product was immediately dismissed from the list (unless it was certified by Leaping Bunny, which none were). 

Squalene is a common ingredient in cosmetics and skincare products, a naturally-occurring moisturizing oil that can come from sharks. An estimated 2.7 million sharks are killed every year for their livers alone, which are a rich source of squalene. Deep-sea sharks are most desirable because they have the fattiest livers; these help them stay buoyant beneath the intense pressure of the ocean.

Hunting for squalene, however, has made certain shark populations vulnerable to decimation. Shark Allies reports, "These deepwater sharks are some of the most vulnerable to exploitation because of their extremely low reproductive potential. In other words, their populations are more likely to be easily decimated if sexually mature sharks with the largest livers are the ones being fished."

This is why the Gulper shark fishery has collapsed in the Maldives, only twenty years after it started, and the Portuguese shark is in steep decline. With sharks also being hunted extensively for their nutritionally-deficient fins and low-grade meat, we do not need yet another reason to kill them for our daily skincare routines.

Squalene can be sourced from plants such as olives, wheat germ, amaranth seed, and rice bran, but it costs 30 percent more than using shark-sourced squalene, which is already a pricey product, costing $12-15 per kilogram. Nor are some companies aware of where their squalene comes from, since the industry is overshadowed by secrecy and mislabelling. Shark Allies explains:

"Many brands are using unknown sources of squalene and therefore do not specify where the squalene is sourced from on their labels. It is common to see squalene listed without 'animal-derived' or 'plant-based,' so that is where the consumer has to dig to get the correct information. Essentially, these companies could either be unaware or just uninformed, buying whatever source is cheapest."

Shoppers cannot assume that a "Cruelty Free" label means a product doesn't contain animal ingredients. Cruelty Free only means that a final product wasn't tested on animals, but its individual ingredients could have been. Therefore, you must look for an item that is both Cruelty Free and vegan. (Vegan products can, in theory, engage in animal testing, although it seems anathema to its whole mission.) That is why, when in doubt, look for the Leaping Bunny logo, as it's the "only label claim that is checked and certified." 

Treehugger has warned about the harms associated with squalene in cosmetics, but it has not yet become a product that is widely recognized as cruel or unsustainable by the public – at least, not in the way that palm oil has. 

Shark Allies hopes to change this with a new campaign to educate people about how cosmetics purchasing affects shark populations. It wants people to commit to avoiding animal-based squalene in beauty products, to demand shark-free products from retailers and manufacturers, and to help spread awareness of the problem among friends and communities. Its website contains letters and fact sheets that can be used to educate, inform, and support arguments. 

"Use a friendly approach with your community based businesses," Shark Allies urges. "Give people a chance to absorb new information." It may come as a shock to many that beauty products contain such a fishy ingredient, but it doesn't take much to convince them that it's a bad idea, especially when plant-based substitutes exist. We just have to be willing to pay a little bit more, which seems a small price for the life of a magnificent shark somewhere in the ocean.