Skin Deep

What do sharks have to do with your mascara, lipstick and moisturizer?

Some cosmetic products contain squalene, which is derived from liver oils of sharks, rays and skates. Squalene, which often is not disclosed on the ingredient list, is used as a moisturizing ingredient, as it is high in fatty acids and antioxidants.
Some cosmetic products contain squalene, which is derived from liver oils of sharks, rays and skates. Squalene, which often is not disclosed on the ingredient list, is used as a moisturizing ingredient, as it is high in fatty acids and antioxidants. University of Miami

Consumers are becoming savvier than ever about what they are putting on their skin. However, product mislabeling and nondisclosure about certain ingredients in beauty products can make it difficult —if not impossible — to know exactly what is inside the bottle.

Several studies have found that a variety of endangered and threatened shark species are winding up in cosmetic and other commonly used products, usually without being disclosed on the label.

One ingredient, squalene (or squalane, its derivative), can be obtained from animal or plant sources. When it comes from animals, squalene is derived from liver oils of sharks and other elasmobranchs — a subclass of cartilaginous fish including sharks, rays and skates. Squalene is used as a moisturizing ingredient, as it is high in fatty acids and antioxidants.

The problem is that most brands do not indicate the source of the squalene used in their products, so you do not know if it came from sharks or plant sources.

Traces of shark DNA found in beauty, pet products

A 2019 study tested 24 beauty products and 87 pet food products, finding traces of endangered or threatened shark species in both. None of the products that were tested were labeled as containing elasmobranch-based ingredients, yet 12.5% of the beauty products and 63% of the pet food products tested positive for shark DNA. Species included the blacktip shark, blue shark and scalloped hammerhead shark.

Among the tested products were moisturizers, oils, lipsticks, face powder and mascara. While not all beauty products in this study showed traces of elasmobranch-based ingredients, researchers speculate that many more products may contain these ingredients, and further testing is needed.

Cosmetics that contain small amounts of shark liver oil or those that contain small amounts of other ingredients can be challenging to test, meaning many more products could contain shark species.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, most companies do not readily disclose shark-derived squalene in cosmetic products. So the best way to know for sure would be to contact the company and ask if the squalene contained in its products is animal or plant-derived. Some of the common plant sources of this ingredient include olive oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, wheat germ and amaranth seed.

Back in 2008, Unilever announced that it would remove all shark-based products from its cosmetic brands, which include Dove, Ponds and Vaseline. As more awareness of the issue is brought to light, hopefully more companies will take steps to ensure that endangered and threatened shark species are not ending up in their products, especially undisclosed.

For more skincare news, updates, tips, and tricks from Dr. Leslie Baumann, be sure to follow Baumann Cosmetic on YouTube, or follow @BaumannCosmetic on Instagram or Facebook.

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