What is Shark Squalene, and How Does it Appear in Your Beauty Products?
Shark squalene (aka squalane) is often known for its cameo appearance as a leading ingredient in cosmetics products. It often serves as a moisturizing ingredient to reduce facial wrinkles and soften the skin and is sometimes found in vitamins and wound creams. It’s used in a wide range of makeup and skincare products ranging from sunscreen to foundation to lipstick.
What Are the Problems That Accompany Shark Squalene Production?
Unfortunately, the shark oil trade and squalene fisheries are too often left unregulated. Each year, millions of sharks are killed. Their livers are then harvested and this oil, called squalene, is extracted from them. Although squalene can come from other plant sources like sugar cane, experts say that sourcing it from sharks is cheaper and easier.
Despite this, some leading companies in the beauty industry, such as L’Oréal, have actually already made the transition over to using plant-derived squalene. This occurs as many shark species already face numerous man-made threats that push them further towards extinction.
A related prominent issue in the shark space is demand for shark fin soup in China that is also contributing to the degradation of the shark population. This led to a massive surplus in overfishing sharks. Although the Chinese government outlawed shark fin soup at official events, shark fin soup is still sold in many states.
Sourcing squalene from sharks has left many shark populations in a vulnerable position, for they have become part of the collection of hidden ingredients used in the beauty industry. In fact, the few regulations with regards to ingredients such as this one used in the cosmetics industry have led to the rise of the Clean Beauty Movement.
Sharks and COVID-19 Vaccines
As reported in Smithsonian Magazine, a shark conservation group called Shark Allies has estimated that 500,000 sharks are at risk of being killed so researchers can use their squalene in a COVID-19 vaccine. This number is based on the global use of this ingredient, with each person getting two doses of such a vaccine.
However, it is important to note that a minority of the vaccines in development contain squalene; therefore, this number from Sharks Allies overstates the number of sharks implicated in global vaccine development efforts.
In addition to its beauty-enhancing properties, squalene is also said to boost immune response, so it is used in agents called adjuvants. One of these adjuvants, called the MF59, contains 9.75 milligrams of squalene in every vaccine dose administered. Per the Infectious Disease Research Institute and reported in USA Today, “a single shark could yield up to 300 grams of squalene, enough for about 30,000 doses of vaccine adjuvant.”
Researchers are Searching For Alternatives to Shark-Based Squalene
While the biological properties of shark-based squalene are advantageous for use in vaccines, researchers are actively searching for alternatives to shark-based squalene. Biotech firm Amyris is developing a solution that starts with sugar fermentation. Squalene can also be created from the byproducts of olive-oil refining. According to Chemical and Engineering News, both methods have made inroads into the cosmetics industry, but neither has entered the more highly regulated pharmaceutical supply chain.
To protect sharks further, there’s also a a clear need for overfishing and shark conservation regulations.
Our Final Thoughts
It is important to note that sharks are unexpectedly present in products that belong to the healthcare and cosmetics industries. When it comes to the world of beauty, there’s a better alternative to squalene specifically derived from sharks – a plant-based solution is available. With this in mind, some may opt to shop for vegan beauty products.
Finally, there’s a difference between learning about the use of squalene in the COVID-19 vaccine and receiving a vaccine on behalf of public health reasons. Information presented here is not meant to oppose vaccine administration nor ongoing research efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.