Could There Be Shark Oil in Your Lipstick? Cosmetic Companies Use This Surprising Ingredient As a Base

A Grey Reef shark swims in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives on April 20, 2017. Shark populations around the world are hunted for their liver oil, which is used in cosmetics. Andrey Nekrasov /Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The face cream that keeps your skin hydrated could have a surprising ingredient.

Oil found in the livers of sharks help the animals to regulate their buoyancy, but in consumer products, this oil—known also as squalene—is used in everything from lip balm to Omega-3 dietary supplements, Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told Newsweek.

The ingredient is often just listed as "squalene," but some dietary supplement labels will show "shark cartilage." It's often used as a base for modern cosmetics or as an emollient in lotions and moisturizers. It has been used in this way for more than 25 years, according to the Personal Care Council's Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Squalane is also naturally occurring in some plants. Olive oil, wheat germ oil and palm oil all contain it. But much larger quantities are found in shark liver oil—which is also cheaper to produce.

A nurse shark swims at night on April 22, 2017 in Indian Ocean, Maldives. Sharks have long provided a source of protein, but the increase in demand for cosmetics is another threat to shark populations. Andrey Nekrasov /Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Sharks have long provided a source of protein, popular in Chinese shark fin soup, but the increase in demand for cosmetics is yet another threat to shark populations. It's hard to know for sure exactly how many sharks are killed every year to support the cosmetics industry, but numbers could stretch into the millions. Current estimates suggest that about 2,000 tons of squalene are derived from shark livers harvested each year, Naylor said.

The oil has been extracted for at least 200 years. In the 18th century, squalene was used to fuel lamps and as an industrial lubricant. The use of squalene in cosmetics is a more recent phenomenon.

Forty years ago, most of the sharks harvested for their liver oil were basking sharks, Cetorhinus maximus, but companies have now shifted to sharks at the depths of the ocean since technologies for deep-sea fishing have advanced. The gulper shark, Centrophorus, is now also commonly hunted for their particularly high-quality squalene.

These animals are caught in the North Atlantic, around Australia and New Zealand. More recently, they have been fished in South East Asia, where regulations are less restrictive, Naylor said.

About 90 percent of shark squalene produced is sold to cosmetic producers, according to the French ocean conservation nonprofit BLOOM.

As public concern for shark conservation has grown over the years, many companies around the world have swapped the shark oil out of their products for a plant-based alternative, even though it's more expensive to produce.

In 2008, two cosmetic giants, L'Oréal and Unilever agreed to stop using shark liver oil as a base for moisturizing creams and lipsticks, The Telegraph reported at the time.

Rebecca Greenberg, a marine scientist with Oceana, told The Telegraph: "Some of the biggest names in the cosmetics industry are recognizing their corporate social responsibilities and choosing not to contribute to the extinction of these important animals.

"We encourage people to become educated and responsible consumers by asking cosmetic retailers about squalene sources and directing their purchases towards companies that have never used this animal-based product in cosmetics or that have made the decision to replace it."