“Organically-produced” and allegedly sourced from the Swiss Alps, the brown glass bottles of natural skin serum appear unassuming at first but a closer look at its ingredients list– conveniently printed in tiny, miniscule font–found squalene, derived from shark liver oil.
Its promoter swears by it. “Try it. It evens out your complexion and is great hydration for dry skin.”
But there is often an ugly truth behind these popular makeup and skincare products, even those that claim to be organic. The bottle, found in a kiosk in an upscale mall at the heart of Singapore’s shopping belt, is from just one of many brands touting “organic and natural” skincare products that contain shark squalene.
While many might assume that they aren’t contributing to the demise of endangered sharks and rays because they don’t eat shark fin soup, even the most environmentally conscious shoppers may unknowingly be contributing to the killing of sharks by purchasing skincare and cosmetic products containing shark squalene.
“Consumers deserve the truth about where their products come from.”
Shark finning was propelled into public consciousness in the late ‘90s. Over the years, people around the world became increasingly aware of the gruesome cruelty involved in harvesting shark fins to produce shark fin soup—a popular delicacy commonly served at Chinese wedding banquets and extravagant events. But thanks to high-profile celebrity endorsements and even a crackdown by the Chinese government as part of an anti-corruption campaign, public boycotts began and demand for the soup began to wane. The demise of the trade in Asia would go on to become one of the most significant wildlife success stories in recent years.
But shark experts and conservationists say that the hunt has since shifted to other areas, with reportedly 100 million animals continually being hunted and slaughtered every year—not for their fins as much but other products like their skin, cartilage and livers, which are highly regarded for their moisturizing and supposed healing properties.
Squalene, an antioxidant with moisturizing properties, is naturally produced by human bodies to hydrate skin and protect it from substances that cause cancer. But the process slows as people age and the skin becomes drier and rougher as a result—which is why consumers turn to external sources like skin creams, sunscreen, serums and moisturizers. It also isn’t the most stable compound in its natural state and therefore goes through a saturation process called hydrogenation to become squalane which is used in beauty and skin care products.
Squalane is also derived from plant-based oils and other sources like olives, rice bran and sugarcane.
In animals, squalene comes from sharks which use the oil in their livers to regulate their buoyancy in water.
“For a very long time, the world’s attention was on the shark fin trade,” said Andrew Chin, a marine scientist and senior research fellow at Australia’s James Cook University. “But the unsustainable overfishing of sharks and rays has continued to happen and has now become an issue so large that it completely overshadows everything else.”
Shark experts like Chin believe that more than 60 deep sea shark species are fished for their livers, 26 of which are listed as vulnerable and critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “We know very little about the shark liver oil trade because products containing squalene are poorly documented,” Chin said. He added that a “complete reassessment” of sharks in the liver oil trade was long overdue.
“Sharks have been around for over 400 million years and play such an important role in our oceans and marine ecosystems,” he said. “But a lot of species are now extremely vulnerable to open exploitation.”
“This is extremely concerning and if the trend continues, we could soon lose more than a third of shark species to extinction.”
Aside from extinction however, the overfishing of sharks exacerbates climate change, threatening entire marine eco-systems and severely hindering the ocean’s capacity to mitigate and adapt to global warming.
Scientists and conservationists say that over 90 percent of global fish stocks are either overfished or have collapsed altogether. Allowing fish populations like sharks to replenish contributes to healthier marine environments, bolstering the ocean’s capacity and ability to cope with the climate crisis. “There is lots of evidence that sharks are important to the ocean because they maintain healthy ecosystems,” noted Chin.
But sharks are also important to the multi-billion dollar beauty and cosmetics industry. A global study conducted in 2015 by the French marine conservation organization Bloom revealed that the cosmetics sector was the main consumer of animal squalene, even though cruelty-free plant substitutes were available. “One moisturizing cream out of five contains shark squalene,” the group said.
It also highlighted how companies using shark squalene often practised “deceptive advertising” when it came to marketing their products, and publicly named the Swiss skin care brand Méthode Swiss, selling eye masks, pore serums and gel creams, as one such company guilty of this. “This is the case with the Swiss Méthode Swiss beauty care which uses shark squalene but nonetheless mentions that ‘All [their] products draw on the Swiss Alps’ richest natural resources’,” Bloom said in its report.
“It is possible that some suppliers deceive their clients by selling them a ‘pure plant squalane’ which, in reality, blends in with shark squalene,” Bloom said.
“However, brands are not exempt from responsibility for the composition of their products since reliable, inexpensive and quick tests have been available since 2010 to verify the type of squalene being sold to them.”
Attempts by VICE World News to reach Méthode Swiss were unsuccessful.
But Méthode Swiss isn’t alone. Other popular brands in Asia named by Bloom included Missha and Etude House from South Korea. Haba, a Japanese skin care giant established in 1983 and known for their wide range of “additive-free” products, does not explicitly say where their squalene comes from. But the company has since introduced a line of plant-derived squalane products, which it claims has the same effects as shark squalene.
“The fact that Asian brands lag behind with regards to adopting shark-free environmental standards for the composition of their cosmetics products points to the need of raising awareness in Asia on this issue and targeting communication efforts towards the Asian market, which has not been done up to now,” Bloom said.
According to official guidelines set by the ASEAN Cosmetics Directive (ACA), one of Asia’s leading bodies which oversees regulations in the cosmetics industry, squalene is permitted as an ingredient in products and there are no rules that prohibit or restrict its use. But ACA noted “special precautions” to be observed with regards to ingredients of animal-origin. “Member countries may require specific warnings based on local needs for declaration of ingredients from animal origin,” it said. “There must be a statement (of any format) on the product label signalling the presence of ingredients of animal origin. For ingredients of bovine or porcine origin, the exact animal must be declared.”
VICE World News reached out to beauty brands from South Korea, China and Japan about the use of shark squalene in their products. A Singapore-based marketing promoter from the cult Korean brand Etude House group, headquartered in Seoul, confirmed that animal-based squalene was used in its best selling lip tint, skincare and makeup products but failed to address why plant-based or cruelty-free alternatives were not used instead.
Another popular Chinese beauty company, that did not wish to be publicly named, defended its use of shark squalene in its popular serums and eye creams because of its “superior qualities” in boosting collagen production as compared to plant-based alternatives. “Our lab tests showed that animal-based squalene made for smoother and creamier results,” a spokesperson told VICE World News. She added that the company “adhered to industry standards” and “sourced ingredients from legitimate suppliers”.
There is still a long way to go with regards to protecting sharks from being exploited and killed, particularly due to demands by beauty and cosmetics companies.
Australian zoologist Glenn Sant recently co-authored a statistics-heavy report that detailed the trade in shark liver oil and the toll that overfishing took on already-deteriorating global shark populations.
“Sharks are often considered secondary catches and do not get the same level of attention and state protection as highly-valued fish like tuna, so there is a tremendous amount of overfishing going on on an unregulated scale,” Sant told VICE World News.
He cited the ongoing pandemic as posing various challenges to the protection of sharks and rays from fishermen and vessels. “Our volunteers are often on the vessels to gather information on shark catches but because of social distancing measures, there is less opportunity for them to be present on board to observe the process.”
According to Sant, it isn’t just about the lack of information around the trade in shark liver oil. What he finds equally alarming is how the market is highly unregulated and that companies are under “no legal obligation” to disclose squalene sources in their products to consumers. “Companies must be more transparent about using shark squalene and need to understand the great risks to shark species,” Sant said.
“Consumers deserve the truth about where their products come from and place a high level of confidence and trust in these brands. They are obligated to do the right thing not just by consumers but for the environment as well,” he said.
Chin, the marine scientist, echoed this sentiment. “Consumers play a very powerful role and can exercise their power in demanding accountability and transparency from beauty and cosmetics companies,” he said. “If you buy a product and suspect it’s made of dead shark, you have every right to know where the animal lived and was hunted, how it was caught and if it indeed came from a sustainable source.”
“These are all basic information and if it isn’t available or clear, please remember that millions of sharks and a third of species are faced with the threat of being wiped off our earth forever.”
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