Is Squalane Cruelty-Free and Vegan? (Warning: Horrifying Facts)

You’ve probably just discovered the shocking truth about squalane and its origins. Forget cruelty-free or vegan – how we’ve historically extracted squalane for personal use is downright sadistic. But before you throw out your squalane products – there is some good news you need to consider too. 

Is Squalane Cruelty-Free and Vegan?

Squalane can be considered vegan when it is derived from plant-based sources. However, it is commonly harvested from shark livers which are not vegan. Products that use squalane can be considered cruelty-free if no animal testing occurs during manufacturing, regardless of whether sharks were killed in the process.

Yes, you read that right! Squalane is typically derived from shark liver oil! 

Like with most natural resources, humans abuse the hell out of squalane, too, and we kill up to 2.7 million deep-sea sharks each year for the beauty industry alone.

There are other uses for squalane that we’ll touch on.

But if want to keep using this powerful ingredient in your beauty routine without harming wild life – you're in luck. Your favorite serum might be made with vegan squalane so don't throw it out yet.  

Here’s what you need to know about identifying vegan squalane, how it compares to the original shark-based stuff, and why it will impact your beauty regimen.  

Is Squalane Cruelty-Free and Vegan?

Squalane based cosmetic products

Technically, squalane could be considered cruelty-free if a brand chooses not to test it on animals.

So even if squalane is made by slaughtering sharks – it can be officially considered cruelty-free if no bunny or rabbits had it lathered into their eyes before it was sold to us.

Just because shark-based squalane might be “cruelty-free” doesn’t mean it’s not free of cruelty altogether. (See what we did there? 😉

Luckily shark livers are not our primary source of squalane anymore. Humans have found a way to derive it naturally without slaughtering millions of wild animals.

But you need to know what this magic substance is first before you can choose a product that is best suited to your skin’s needs. Here are the essential points to consider.

What is Squalane?

Squalane is actually a lipid (or essential fat) that is non-greasy and easily absorbed into our skin. It’s used in cosmetics and skin care because it’s odorless, resistant to extreme temperatures, and feels so moisturizing.

While squalene is a compound found in high concentrations in shark livers – it’s also found in humans!

Please don’t get grossed out by this, but yes – we need fat in our skin!

Lipids serve an essential purpose because they form our skin’s protective barrier. This shield keeps all the environmental toxins out of our skin and all the moisture locked in.  

And guess what? Our livers make squalene too. When it’s released, it goes through our bloodstreams and makes its way to our skin’s sebum.

As we age, we produce progressively less squalene which is why it’s a boon in skincare. The only way to increase levels is to introduce it through a proper skin regimen. 

BUT we have no need to get it from sharks anymore. The squalene molecule is found in all animals and plants! It’s just produced in various amounts depending on the source.

So why do we choose to kill so many sharks?

How is Squalane Made?

Prepare yourself ­– this isn’t going to be pretty.

People choose to extract squalene from deep-sea sharks because they have the richest quality squalene to offer than any other ‘source’ we know of. Up to 25% of a deep-sea shark’s body weight is its liver.

Since the 1950s, Gulper sharks and dogfish have been overharvested in the Northeast Atlantic to keep up with squalane demand.

These sharks are caught, killed, and have their livers removed to start the extraction process.

The squalene is isolated from the liver oil by subjecting it to high heat and pressure. Then to stabilize the ingredient for cosmetics, it is hydrogenated and turned into squalane.

Not-so Fun Fact! This modern beauty must-have was ‘discovered’ in Japan in the early 1900s. But we didn’t start using it until the 1950s, when a new extraction process made it safe and stable for cosmetics. 

If the horror scenes from the last sea-environmentalism documentary you watched are now looping through your mind, we don’t blame you. And we’re sorry about the harsh reality of it.

Squalane vs. Squalene?

No – the words squalane and squalene are not interchangeable. They’re actually two different things.

Squalene is the naturally occurring substance you find in your body. Other animals (like sharks) and plants make the compound too.

Squalane is the hydrogenated version of squalene, meaning it has been treated with hydrogen. This new molecular format is more stable and safer for skincare.

This single letter change is confusing, but it makes a huge difference.

To summarize:
Squalene = naturally occurring
Squalane = processed to be safe

Let’s leave the sharks behind and talk about the plant-based options you need to use instead. There is hope – but finding effective equivalents can be harder and more expensive if you’re not careful.

Is Squalane Vegan?

It can be!

Some praise to the scientists who figured that out (we’ll mention who they are and their excellent skincare brand next).

Sharks have the highest concentration of squalene in their livers out of any ‘production means’ currently known.

So, there wasn’t any urgency to find other sources for a long while. But we managed to get it right in the 2000s. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to vegan squalane, you need to consider a few things:

  • Plant-based squalene is usually more expensive because there’s a lower percentage of it available in plants (so you need a lot more plants to make it).
  • It can be challenging to determine if a product uses authentic plant-based squalane in its products unless it clearly states that it is on the packaging or website. Supply chain transparency is imperative.  
  • It takes up to seven times longer to produce most plant-based squalane than the shark-derived process – which also increases its cost.

So how has it become widely accessible and the more popular option today?

What is Vegan Squalane?

Today, vegan squalane can be derived from olives, amaranth, rice bran, wheat germ, and even coconuts – but it was initially made from sugarcane.

The beauty brand Biossance launched this innovative technology in 2016. It was a big revelation because it was the first fully vegan, ethically produced, and sustainable squalane. Pretty impressive – right?

Biossance also claims to save over 2 million sharks annually by producing vegan squalane.

Why stop when its parent company, Amyris, makes most of its revenue from vegan squalane!

Today numerous cosmetic products from various brands contain this highly beneficial ingredient. Just remember to look out for what’s vegan and what is not.

We’ll look at the most common products you’ll find squalane in next.

What Products Contain Squalane?

Squalane is one of those beneficial ingredients you can chuck into any skincare product.

It’s most commonly used in:

  • Serums
  • Facial moisturizing creams
  • Anti-aging lotions and creams
  • Body moisturizers
  • Foundations and BB creams
  • Sunscreens and tinted SPFs
  • Hair conditioners
  • Deodorants
  • Eye shadows
  • Blushers and lipsticks 

In fact, one in five creams contained shark-derived squalane, according to a 2015  report by Bloom, a non-profit organization focused on preserving the marine environment.

And it is also commonly used in another mass market product – vaccines!

Around 1% of the world's shark-derived squalene is used in vaccines. The pharmaceutical industry is aware of the issues and looking for a way to change this. Let’s hope it happens soon.

When you want to buy something that contains squalane, two other names to look out for in the ingredients section include:  

  • Perhydrosqualene
  • Dodecahydrosqualene

Why is Squalane A Powerful Cosmetic Ingredient?

Some of the main reasons squalane is a loved ingredient is because it:

  • Has strong emollient properties – meaning it’s highly moisturizing and softening for the skin.
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties that help acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. It reduces redness and swelling.
  • Is a lightweight and non-comedogenic oil, so it won’t block pores. This means it's suitable for oily and combination skin too. A bonus? It regulates sebum production, which may reduce acne.
  • Helps with skin texture (fine lines and wrinkles) in anti-aging formulas. It also helps brighten the complexion.
  • Is skin-identical, meaning it's super gentle and ideal for sensitive skin.
  • It increases shine, strength, and smoothness when used in haircare like conditioners or leave-in oils.

Even though squalane can serve many skin concerns and issues, it’s always best to find a formula suited to your needs. Check the ingredients list as other parts of formulas may not be suited to you.

We recommend going for the vegan option because it has even more benefits besides being the humane alternative.

What Are the Benefits of Plant-Based Squalane?

Do you see all the squalane benefits we’ve listed above?

Well, you will get the same results from the plant option too.  

Plant-based squalane has the adaptable benefits of the shark-derived ingredient but is much better for the environment.

We’d say that’s a definite plus for plants!

Commercial shark fishing is simply not sustainable. Even if Jaws gave you a life-long fear of sharks – we’ve got to respect their place in our world.

These apex predators are essential for the survival of the ocean and the planet.

With fewer sharks, some larger deep-sea fish species that shark prey on start to over-populate. And too many large deep-sea fish means their food sources will deplete over time!  

Often deep-sea trawling is used, where weighted nets are dragged along deep seas beds, causing irreversible damage.

When the ocean’s ecosystems are disturbed and threatened, the ripple effects are felt far are wide.

Plant-based squalane puts less stress on the global environment, and if it doesn’t undergo animal testing, it’s cruelty-free!

Formulas may have squalene blends or multiple sources to help with further absorption.

  • Rice bran oil – quick penetration (rapid skin absorption)
  • Grape seed oil – quick to moderately fast penetration
  • Amaranth oil – quick to moderately fast penetration
  • Macadamia nut oil – moderately fast penetration
  • Sunflower oil – moderately fast penetration
  • Olive oil – slower penetration (stays on skin’s surface the longest)
  • Coconut oil – slower penetration (stays on skin’s surface the longest)

Are There Risks to Using Squalane?

As always, we highly encourage you to do a spot test on your inner arm before using squalane for the first time.

Like all skincare ingredients, there can be allergic reactions to squalane even if it’s been deemed safe.

Look out for itchy, redness, or swelling.

There are very few reports of this, but it’s something to keep in mind!

Shocking Squalane Facts

Squalane production may have helped our beauty regimes for decades, but at what cost to the oceans?

  • An estimated 90% of global squalene demand from sharks is for the skincare, personal care, and cosmetics industry.
  • An average of 3000 sharks are needed for one ton of squalene! The estimated annual demand for squalene is between 1000 – 2000 tons.
  • Approximately 96% of the liver oil found in deep-sea sharks is squalene.
  • Commonly targeted species include the deep-sea shark (Centrophorus squamosus), basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), and dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias).
  • Sharks are apex predators playing a crucial top-down role in regulating marine ecosystems. Without them, oceans will suffer disastrous effects.
  • Many shark species are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

    Some species have experienced population declines of as great as 95%. As far back as 2010, the EU started putting pressure on the squalene industry to reduce this overfishing.
  • Sharks have slow growth and reproduction cycles. This makes it even harder for sharks to recover from commercial overfishing and exploitation.

How to Avoid Shark Squalane

In 2022, you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding shark squalene than you did four years ago.

This is for a few reasons:

  • Plant-based squalane only hit the market in 2016. So it’s relatively new and has taken a while to build popularity.
  • Skincare has evolved rapidly in the last seven years, and active ingredients are now part of many consumers’ knowledge base.

    (If you’re interested in squalane, then we’re pretty sure you know about hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, and carmine.)
  • As consumers have become more aware of what goes into their cosmetics, brands are also improving their supply chain transparency and choosing sustainable ingredients.
  • Squalane was the most Googled skincare ingredient in 2020. And with cruelty-free beauty being the main concern for most millennial & Gen Z shoppers – you can bet that many brands are switching to the plant-based option.

But that still doesn’t mean shark squalane isn’t used.

Over half of the creams from Asian companies containing squalane are known to be sourced from sharks.

Whereas both America and Europe had far fewer creams containing shark-derived squalane and far more containing the vegan alternative.

Remember when we spoke about blends earlier? Some brands had shark squalene blended in with the ‘plant-based’ squalane. 

A few ways you can ensure you’re getting vegan squalane is by:

  • Always shopping from vegan cosmetic brands. This is the safest way to guarantee no animals or by-products are in your skincare.
  • Checking a brand's sustainability policies. A report from BLOOM found many brands using shark-derived squalene despite sustainability commitments and claims not to!
  • Doing research on a brand’s website. Often, brands that use plant-based squalane publicly mention it on their website or product bottles.
  • Contact the brand directly and ask them. It might take a bit longer, but it will help clarify any concerns.

    (Side note: many brands that use shark-based squalane tend to use the phrases “we try to source” or “we do our best to support” instead of giving you a yes or no answer.)   

If you don’t know which brands to trust or vegan squalane products are most effective – we are here to help you!

Here are some of our favorites:

Conclusion

If you’re keeping a mental tally on our pros and cons for plant-based squalene, it may look like this:

Plant-based squalane

Pros

Cons

  • Sustainable
  • Ethical
  • Less loss of lives
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Huge skincare benefits
  • Supports livelihoods of farm workers (and other staff in production.)
  • Slightly more expensive

Shark-derived squalene

Pros

Cons

  • Huge skincare benefits
  • Supports livelihoods of deep-sea fishmen
  • Slightly cheaper
  • Decimates endangered shark populations
  • Loss of sea life in addition to sharks
  • Unsustainable
  • Environmentally threatening
  • Unethical

After looking at this, we can’t help but wonder why the hell shark-derived squalane is even an option?

We had the same argument with another common cosmetic ingredient called carmine – made by mass killing and grinding up small insects.

You might think it's easy to avoid carmine – but if you've ever eaten a strawberry yoghurt or used red lipstick then chances are that you've used it! Here's what you need to know about how to choosing alternatives: Is Carmine Cruelty-Free and Vegan?  

This also begs another question – would the costs of plant-based squalane decrease if our demand increased and production was scaled?

Plant-based squalane is still a massive opportunity for biotech companies that want to keep our oceans safe or just want a planet to live on in the future. 

We’re not suggesting that deep-sea fishing is irradicated completely.

We know this entire industry has people earning from it, supporting themselves, and caring for their families. Data on seafood consumption shows that other fishing will continue.

But if switching squalane sources meant fewer sharks were targeted – it would help the environment infinitely.

We also keep in mind the century-long traditions of sharks in food and folk medicines of Scandinavian regions. These cultures need to be honored. (Which also didn’t engage in overfishing until the industrial age – coincidence? We think not!)

But, mass-scale, industrialized deep-sea fishing does not respect the very resources it plunders and profits from.

I.e., YOUR OCEANS

Ask the skincare brands you purchase from to show you their squalane is vegan and cruelty-free.

Our recommendation is to opt for reputable, vegan, and cruelty-free skincare to ensure your squalane is shark-free.

Latest Articles