Rob Stewart swims with the sharks. Rob Stewart swims with the sharks.

Sharks play a crucial role on this planet. For 450 million years – before there were trees, 200 million years before dinosaurs – sharks have been shaping our world and 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 percent in some regions.

Sharks are being killed for their fins and livers, but also for their flesh, their cartilage and their skin. And they’re being sold to the public in disguise. Perhaps most shockingly is that sharks are in our cosmetics. Chances are, if the public has used cosmetics, those products have contained shark.

It’s hard to believe that many of us have been smearing endangered, 450 million year old super predators on our faces without being aware of it. Sadly, it’s true. Shark liver oil, also known as “squalene”, is commonly used in cosmetics ranging from anti-aging creams, lotions, deodorants, hair conditioners, eyeshadows, lipstick, lip balms, sunscreen and cleansers. Over three million sharks are hunted and killed for their livers each year to be used in these cosmetics.

Though can be produced from plants, squalene is typically derived from the liver of deep-sea sharks who carry especially large reserves of squalene, since 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 gulper and dogfish sharks, which live over 3,000 feet below sea level. This has grave implications for their future survival, and all for the sake of beauty.

Rob Stewart thought you should know when an endangered predator was turning up in something you consume, a motivation at the heart of Sharkwater Extinction.  Unfortunately, due to labeling laws (or the lack of them), companies don’t have to disclose their use of animal-based squalene, leaving the burden of identifying products and their origins to consumers.

Cosmetic uses for squalene

Shark-based squalene is commonly used by many consumer products and cosmetic brands you’re likely familiar with. Because squalene (or a derivative called “squalane”) is highly prized for its moisturizing, wrinkle prevention, smoothing and restorative properties, it’s 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 that most consumers remain unaware of.

(Heads up: Don’t be fooled into thinking “squalane” doesn’t come from sharks. It often does. “Squalane” is a saturated form of squalene, and because it’s less susceptible to oxidation, is odorless and has a longer efficacy, squalane is more commonly used in personal care products than squalene. Additionally, many companies falsely promote squalane as the plant alternative. It’s not.)

More than 50 shark species are fished for their liver oil, several of which are listed on the  International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. 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 Association, 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 from a purely vegetable origin that’s of better quality than shark-based squalene and less expensive – olives. Beyond olives, squalene is also found in amaranth seeds, rice bran, wheat germ and date palm. Yet manufacturers claim 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 percent more.

It’s these two factors – price and potency – that make shark squalene the most desired source, a market that is driving deep water sharks towards extinction.

In the last decade, as more and more consumers have become aware of survival pressures facing sharks, the market is starting to shift towards more ethical, plant-based alternatives. Some companies have shifted towards plant-based sources, including Ponds, Dove and L’Oreal. And by 2010, much of the European Union shifted to plant-based squalene/squalane. 

Yet on a global scale, shark continues to be the primary source of squalene.

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. Shark liver oil is used to promote the healing of wounds, irritations of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract and general debility. It’s also a common ingredient in medicinal creams like Preparation H.

Given its supposed impact on white blood cells, squalene is also becoming increasingly popular as an immune system booster and even as a method for preventing cancer, sold in pill form. These days, you can also find it in your doctor’s office as an additive to several vaccines, including pandemic flu, swine flu and malaria vaccines, put there by pharmaceutical giants like Novartis to improve the efficacy of their products.

Consumers bear the burden

The global cosmetics industry is highly unregulated. Brands, meanwhile, have no legal obligation to let consumers know the source of squalene used in their products.

Until laws are passed to ensure squalane-based products are accurately labeled, it’s up to consumers to thoroughly research the products we buy and vote with our dollars. Look for the words “100 percent plant-derived” or “vegetable based.” If the label doesn’t indicate its 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 jeopardize the future health of sharks and our ocean ecosystems when you have other option?

#SHARKFREE

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, for that matter. Or as 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 you 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 Shark Angels, Shark Savers, United Conservationists and Fin Free – all non-profits dedicated to the protection of animals she loves - @juliesharkangel

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.