The animal we fear the most is also one we depend upon for our survival.
Sharks play a crucial role on this planet. For 450 million years, since before there were trees, 200 million years before dinosaurs – sharks have been shaping our world – creating a framework for life in the oceans. And the oceans are the most important ecosystem to our survival – providing food, at least half the oxygen in the air we breathe, and regulating the climate. Every second breath you take comes from the oceans.
But sharks and our planet are in trouble. Shark populations have dropped up to 95% regionally.
Sharks are being killed for their fins, livers… for their flesh… for their cartilage… for their skin. And they’re being sold to you in disguise! But most shockingly – sharks are in our cosmetics. Chances are, you’ve used products that contain shark. You just didn’t know it!
It’s hard to believe that many of us have been smearing endangered, 450-million-year-old super predators on our face without being aware of it. But sadly, it’s true. Shark liver oil or squalene is commonly used in cosmetic products ranging from anti-aging creams, lotions, deodorants, hair conditioners, eye shadows, lipstick, lip balms, sunscreen, and cleansers.
Squalene – though can be produced from plants – is typically derived from the liver of deep-sea sharks, since these sharks have especially large reserves of squalene, as their livers comprise one-third of their entire weight. Consequently, most deep-sea sharks are caught solely for their livers. The excessive targeting of these sharks has caused dramatic population declines of certain species like some of the gulper and dogfish sharks which live over 3000 feet below sea level, greatly impacting their future survival – all for the sake of beauty. They cannot withstand the pressure.
Rob Stewart brought awareness to the issue of beautiful endangered predators turning up in products for human consumption and that was the driving force behind his film Sharkwater Extinction. He knew that when consumers are made aware, they can make better choices.
Squalene or Squalane?
When you see these on a cosmetics or personal care product label, it’s usually shark. One version is hydrogenated. Don’t buy these products unless you know the squalene/squalane is from a vegetable source. We thought we’d provide you with this information not only to save sharks – but also to end a destructive industry.
Cosmetic uses for squalene
90% of shark-based squalene goes into cosmetic and personal care products. It is used as an emollient for moisturizing. Millions of sharks are hunted for their livers each year and you can find squalene in sunscreen, foundation, face moisturizers, lipstick, lip balm, eye makeup, tanning oil and many other products.
Shark-based squalene is commonly used by many consumer product and cosmetic brands you are no doubt familiar with. Over 3 million sharks are hunted and killed for their livers each year to be used in these cosmetics. Because squalene (or a derivative called squalane) is highly prized for its moisturizing, wrinkle prevention, smoothing and restorative properties, it is in high demand by our youth-loving culture. It’s also used as an emollient in sunscreen, foundation, face moisturizers, lipstick, eye makeup, tanning oil, and many other products, which most consumers remain completely unaware of.
More than 50 shark species are fished for their liver oil, several of which are listed on the IUCN Red list – the most sought after are deep sea sharks, since their liver can make up one-third 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. However, according to Bloom, the demand for shark liver oil in 2012 was estimated at 2,200 tons – the vast majority from the cosmetics industry.
A viable alternative
Shark-based squalene has a readily available substitute on the market that comes from a purely vegetable origin – olives – which is actually known to be of better quality than shark-based squalene and less expensive as well. Squalene is also found in amaranth seeds, rice bran, wheat germ, fungi, and date palm. Manufacturers claim that plant alternatives possess significantly lower quantities of the oil, consequently it takes more effort to harvest plant-based squalene and, as a result, costs around 30% more. These two factors – price and potency – make shark squalene the most desired source in the market, and are driving deep water sharks into extinction.
In the last decade as more and more consumers are becoming aware of the issues facing sharks, the market is shifting towards more ethical, plant-based squalane. And some companies either never used squalane or shifted towards plant based alternates, including Unilever, Ponds, Dove, Beiersdorf, LVMH, Henkel, Clarins, La Mer, Lush Cosmetics and L’Oréal. And by 2010, much of the EU shifted to using only plant-based squalene/squalane. However, on a global scale, shark remains the primary source of squalene.
Read the labels
Cruelty Free means a product has not been tested on animals, but not Shark Free. Don’t be fooled, a product can still contain shark and be technically “Cruelty Free” even though shark finning and shark livering is cruel.
Sharks are organic and natural… your cosmetic could still contain shark!
Medicinal uses for squalene
Not only will you find squalene in the cosmetic and lotion aisles at the pharmacy, you will also find it in the supplement and remedy aisles as well. Shark liver oil is used to promote the healing of wounds, irritations of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, and general debility – and is a common ingredient in medicinal creams like Preparation H. Given its supposed impact on white blood cells, it is also becoming increasingly popular as a booster for the immune system and even as a way of preventing cancer, sold in a pill form. And, you will also find it in your doctor’s office, as it is added to improve the efficacy of several vaccines, including pandemic flu (yes, even swine flu) and malaria vaccines, by pharmaceutical giants like Novartis.
The difference an “a” makes
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.
Consumers bear the burden
Unfortunately, brands have no legal obligation to let consumers know the source of their ingredient squalene. Additionally, many companies falsely promote “squalane” as the plant alternative to shark squalene, when it’s in fact just the derivative of shark liver oil.
Until laws are passed to ensure squalane-based products are accurately labeled, it’s up to us as consumers to vote with our dollars, thoroughly researching the products we buy. If squalene or squalane is listed – look for the words “100% plant-derived,” or “vegetable based” or “vegetable origins.” If the label doesn’t indicate the source, reach out to the company and ask. Or, better yet, choose a product you know does not contain shark squalene. More and more ethical, plant-based cosmetic companies are emerging. Why would you choose to jeopardize our oceans when you have another option?
With some attention and pressure, we know we can persuade companies to make their products without shark squalene. That’s why we’ve started a movement called SharkFree.
Through science, grassroots tools, and education, we want to make ALL the products we buy #SHARKFREE.
#SHARKFREE is a campaign to keep sharks out of our products, so we can reduce pressure on their populations and save them from extinction. Because it is entirely unnecessary to kill sharks for cosmetics… or pet food… or meat.
We’re also in the process of raising funds to test products so you know what products are free of shark. We’re certain the results will shock you, and change what products we consume. We are certain you don’t want to be contributing to the demise of one of the oldest, most important predators the planet has, without knowing it!
You can learn more, donate to our work and take the #SHARKFREE pledge at www.sharkwater.com.
Julie Andersen is a passionate shark advocate and diver, a decade-long Team Sharkwater member, and co-founder of United Conservationists, Fin Free, Shark Angels and Shark Savers – all non-profits dedicated to the protection of animals.
Clarke, Shelley C.; McAllister, Murdoch K.; Milner-Gulland, E. J.; Kirkwood, G. P.; Michielsens, Catherine G. J.; Agnew, David J.; Pikitch, Ellen K.; Nakano, Hideki et al. “Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets.” Ecology Letters 9 (10): 1115–1126 (2006).
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Discovery Channel: “There’s a shark in Your Lipstick” https://www.alternativesjournal.ca/community/blogs/aj-special-delivery/there%E2%80%99s-shark-my-lipstick
National Geographic: “There might be a Shark in your sunscreen” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/07/sharks-news-cosmetics-squalene-health/
Bloom: “The hideous price of beauty” http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ENG_Squalene_4-pager.pdf
Newsweek: “Could there be shark in your lipstick?” https://www.newsweek.com/there-could-be-sharks-your-lipstick-cosmetic-companies-use-shark-liver-oil-1040591
Science Daily: “New method could stop shark oil being used in cosmetics and vaccines” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100518230649.htm
Axiology: “The Truth Behind One of the Cosmetic Industry’s Deadliest Ingredients: Squalene” https://axiologybeauty.com/blogs/our-blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-one-of-the-cosmetic-industrys-deadliest-ingredients-squalene
American Cancer Society. “Shark Liver Oil.” Novemer 1, 2008. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/common-questions.html
Uses for Shark (Shark Angels): http://sharkangels.org/issues-facing-sharks/list-of-shark-products
Cosmetics Database: Squalane & Squalene: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/706264/SQUALANE/