The Truth Behind Skincare Favourite Squalene

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Cruelty-free is a common phrase across makeup and skincare, with fluffy animals as the focus for this movement. Testing on animals has been the battleground for animal rights activists for years, but it is not the only way that our products can bring harm to them. We often forget that animal products are used in skincare itself. A sinister ingredient lurks in our beauty products that many people are completely unaware of: squalane. 

Squalane (or squalene) is an oil that our bodies naturally produce. It helps fight signs of ageing, but the amount of it we produce declines over the years, so it is added into beauty products. A study by Bloom Association found that around 7 in 8 creams contained shark-based squalane. It can be found in skincare, sunscreen, lipsticks and more. Its prevalence in our products is a shockingly under-discussed topic.

Traditionally, the most cost-effective place to source squalane was from a shark’s liver. In particular from deep-sea species, with an estimated 2.7 million sharks being killed each year in the name of beauty. This is in spite of the fact that there are other ethical alternative sources. As Stefanie Brendl, founder and executive director of Shark Allies, says: “The fact that shark squalene is used instead of plant-based is mostly a lack of knowledge and awareness on the manufacturer’s side, or simply convenience of sticking with what has been working for years.”

It has been well documented that sharks are crucial to our ocean ecosystems as they keep life balanced on the reef. While the European Union banned targeted shark fishing, this has simply forced the industrial fisheries out to non-protected territories. Brendl criticises the fishing industry’s “unwillingness to re-think their methods and unrelenting greed,” which allows the continued destruction of our oceans. With almost a quarter of shark species endangered, ranging from the formidable great white to the relatively harmless nurse sharks, “unrelenting greed” seems to be the only fitting assessment. 

Olives are an excellent source of squalene, along with fungi, date palm, and wheat germ. Some beauty companies did vow in 2019 to end their use of shark-based squalene and brands like The Ordinary claim to use squalene from a lab. Brendl says that “most manufacturers will proudly advertise that they use plant-based/olive derived [squalane].” Unfortunately, she adds that “some distributors will sell squalene to brands without specifying what the source is.” 

The beauty industry should be held accountable for this action since they are the biggest users of shark squalene. Sharks already have to fight against a bad public image, shark fin soup and by-catch, they shouldn’t be hunted for their livers too when there are sustainable alternatives. Brendl says that the “demand is justifying the continued taking of sharks as a resource,” by lessening the demand we can help save the sharks and ultimately the oceans.

Cruelty-free does not necessarily equate to using ethically sourced squalene, so if you’re unsure the best thing to do is avoid that product completely. Brendl says that “companies are catching on to the fact that people don’t approve of the use of shark squalene, so they may use some “flexible” wording to dance around the issue.” 

There are many ways we can begin to help our oceans recover and making what Brendl calls easy choices such as more ethical ingredients is one step towards this. If you cannot cut fish out of your diet, at least cut sharks out of your beauty routine—the ocean will thank you for it. 

Words by Danni Scott

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.


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