What is Squalene?
Squalene (or squalane is when it is processed for products) is a natural oil that comes from shark liver. The molecule C30H50 is also found in many plants such as olive oil, and is harvested from plants like sugarcane and soap box for the synthesis of other compounds. A natural lubricating oil, squalene is also an important component of sebum in human skin at around 10%, and is a precursor for other biosynthesis in our livers.
Where is squalene/squalene found?
Commercially derived from shark liver, squalene/squalane is found in cosmetic products including sunscreens, anti-aging creams, lotions, hair conditioners, deodorants, eye shadows, lip balms, lipstick, and face cleansers. It is also used in vaccines and in some have medicinal pills and supplements. Squalene can also be found in some lubricants and cleaning agents.
Will COVID Kill More Sharks?
Squalene has been used in vaccines, as an adjuvant that enhances the immune response and makes vaccines more effective. The use of shark-squalene adjuvants used to treat influenza has been evaluated by the World Health Organization by Norvartis, Chiron and other large pharmaceutical companies. However, not all vaccines use squalene.
There have been made claims that COVID vaccines that use shark based squalene adjuvants could kill as many as 500,000 sharks, including hammerhead sharks. This number is the statistical extreme based on the entire world receiving two doses of squalene across the entire human population which is highly unlikely. The estimate makes major assumptions of use per dose, average amount extracted per shark, and shark size to arrive at the statistical extreme. However, killing sharks in great numbers is a concern.
The vaccines currently being administered and developed by Moderna and Pfizer are mRNA vaccines do not use Squalene. Some companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Seqirus are believed to be using squalene in the development of vaccines not yet brought to market. However given the pace of FDA approval guidelines, even at the accelerated rate, and the current rate of vaccine availability, it is unlikely that any new shark fishery will be developed to supply a COVID- SARS 2 vaccine. Additionally, no new market for hammerheads and tiger sharks can be developed at scale. Most of the existing commercial fishery is targeting smaller, deepwater sharks.
A study by BLOOM discovered that 1 out of 14 products contained shark squalene in the US. The beauty industry claims it’s a perfect mimic of our natural oils for a more youthful face, and some claim it holds medicinal value. What they don’t tell you is that deep sea sharks are a major source of this compound. Some shark populations like the spiny dogfish on the west coast have been overfished commercially, with increased pressure in the Atlantic. These and other sharks are consumed for their meat in addition to liver oil. Some have accused fishermen of killing the sharks for the liver (akin to shark finning) “livering” the sharks and throwing them overboard: however there is no available evidence to substantiate this. A major side effect of this industry is sharks once caught as bycatch and returned alive are now being killed.
The negative effects of squalene for sharks:
Since sharks don’t have swim bladders like bony fish to aid in buoyancy, they have large oily livers that help them control their buoyancy. The shark’s liver can be up to 25% of its body weight, making it the biggest organ in their body.
Since sharks (especially deep-sea sharks) have this oil compound in higher amounts in their livers. Historically, shark liver has been used for vitamin A, particularly during world war II when the east coast cod fishery was blockaded and shut down. Chemosynthesis of vitamin A after the war essentially eliminated the fishery, but the demand did create a sudden market for soupfin, blue and even white sharks off the west coast, and may be the source of conservationists claims of shark livering.
In general, deeper water sharks have a higher content of squalene. Livers are harvested from the spiny dogfish, an abundant species of shark commercially harvested for meat. Other species of dogfish and Gulper sharks (Centrophorus sp.) have been overfished in the NE Atlantic for this product. ( With high fecundity and a managed fishery off North America, these sharks provide a major source of shark squalene.
BLOOM claims cosmetics use accounts for 90% of shark liver oil production worldwide, contributing to approx. 2.7 million deep sea shark deaths per year.
Many deep sea species like rough-skinned sharks have very poor data on population as well as catch. Additionally, these and other species do not have the high reproductive rates of other sharks and these fisheries require closer scrutiny and regulation to avoid overfishing. (Musick, and Musick 2011)
At an estimated rate of 73-100,000,000 sharks killed per year, we need to work on all fronts to protect sharks.
Consumers can act to save sharks
While riding on the hysteria driven by the pandemic, the squalene story makes good press, but can backfire and harm the science based conservation decision making. The shark conservation movement should not pit human survival vs sharks, or groups against each other. Shark conservation instead should be based on a rational approach to regulate fisheries, stop shark fin consumptions and reduce bycatch. In the USA we can continue to pressure lawmakers to support the US Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, recently scuttled by Florida Senator Mark Rubio, but will be reintroduced in the next seating of Congress. We will also be reintroducing fishing gear regulations vetoed by President Trump, responsible for killing thousands of California sharks.
Currently we do not have a lot of choice of getting a vaccine or what the ingredients are. Consumers can choose products from companies that are squalene free, including supporting Biotech companies like Amyris that do not use squalene. Many manufactures, including LUSH Cosmetics are animal product free, guaranteeing they are shark safe. Consumers should avoid products from companies like M.A.C that uses sharks. In the next administration we will work to urge the FDA to support research in plant based alternatives to squalene and help save sharks.
Many manufactures, including LUSH Cosmetics are animal product free, guaranteeing they are shark safe. Be sure to check your labels for products that are cruelty free/vegan. Once COVID is under control, we can pressure the FDA and manufactures to certify and produce vaccines that do not require shark-based squalene.
Researched and written by Sara Forsgren and David McGuire
M. Azalia Lozano-Grande, Shela Gorinstein, Eduardo Espitia-Rangel, Gloria Dávila-Ortiz, and Alma Leticia Martínez-Ayala, “Plant Sources, Extraction Methods, and Uses of Squalene,” International Journal of Agronomy, vol. 2018, Article ID 1829160, 13 pages, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1829160.
American Cancer Society. “Shark Liver Oil.” Novemer 1, 2008. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/common-questions.html
Chaves, Tricia. “What is Squalane?” ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2019, thoughtco.com/what-is-squalane-2478094.
Science Daily: “New method could stop shark oil being used in cosmetics and vaccines” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100518230649.htm
Axiology: “The Truth Behind One of the Cosmetic Industry’s Deadliest Ingredients: Squalene” https://axiologybeauty.com/blogs/our-blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-one-of-the-cosmetic-industrys-deadliest-ingredients-squalene
Bloom: “The hideous price of beauty” http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/squalane-bloom-english-1.pdf
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Shark utilization, marketing, and trade.” (1999). http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4795e.pdf
Musick, J.A.; Musick, S.
Sharks. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Reviews and Studies. Rome, FAO. 2011. 13p. http://www.fao.org/tempref/FI/DOCUMENT/reviews&studies/sharks.pdf
WHO Squalene-based Adjuvants in Vaccines Dec. 2008 https://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/committee/topics/adjuvants/squalene/questions_and_answers/en/#:~:text=Squalene%20is%20a%20component%20of,do%20enhance%20the%20immune%20response.