Sharks are critically important for marine ecosystems; their diverse roles are part of a balance needed for healthy oceans. Unfortunately, shark populations around the world are steadily declining with more than a third of shark species facing extinction. At the same time, there is an increased demand for shark products such as shark fins, which is accelerating their decline. But what is lesser known is the use of shark products in the cosmetic industry. Read on to find out about how shark liver oil is used and ways in which we can reduce the demand. 

Why are Sharks Important and What Threats Do They Face?

Sharks are a critical part of life in the ocean. As apex predators, sharks keep ecosystems healthy by controlling the food web. As well as being carbon stores themselves, they are also able to manage habitats such as coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests that sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This makes sharks a key player and solution in the fight against climate change. In nature, everything is balanced so if we lose sharks, entire ecosystems will collapse and with that, many other important marine species that we rely upon.

In the past 30 years, global shark populations have dropped by over 90%. Overfishing, bycatch, climate change, pollution, habitat loss, prey loss and human disturbance have all collectively played a role in the decline of global shark species, with over a third of shark species now threatened with extinction. The decline of global shark populations is driven mainly by the consumption of shark fins for shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy. However sharks are also targeted (and increasingly so) for their liver oil.

What is Squalene and Squalane? 

Squalene is a natural organic compound with moisturising and restorative properties. This compound is naturally produced by the sebaceous oil glands in our skin. However, as we get older, the production of natural squalene decreases so people have started resorting to other sources such as shark liver oil to keep skin looking healthy and improve skin texture. 

Shark liver oil is a major source of squalene and it is commonly used in cosmetics such as anti-aging cream, suncream, lipsticks, lip balm, foundation and eye make-up. Another variation is squalane, which is derived from the hydrogenation of squalene. Squalane offers the same properties as squalene but it has a much longer shelf life so it is more commonly used in personal care products.  But it is important to note that both squalene and squalane can come from sharks. Although squalene can also be extracted from plants such as sugar cane, olives and fruits, it is 30% more expensive to harvest, which makes shark squalene a much more favourable commodity. 

Bloom Association, an ocean conservancy and advocacy organisation in Hong Kong, claims that 90% of all shark liver oil production is sold to the cosmetic industry. As it can take up to 3,000 sharks to produce 1 tonne of squalene, it is not surprising that 3 million sharks are killed every year to serve this industry alone.

What is Livering?

Livering is a cruel and inhumane process akin to shark finning; when the shark liver is removed, the carcass of the shark is dumped back into the ocean. Sharks subjected to livering suffer a slow and painful death. 

A shark’s liver can account for up to 25% of its body weight, making it the biggest organ in their body. Unlike other fish, sharks don’t have swim bladders, so their large oily livers help to control their buoyancy. In general, deeper water sharks have a higher content of squalene and are therefore primary targets for the beauty industry.

Unfortunately, now more than 60 species of shark are targeted for their livers and 26 of those are now listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The Lack of Regulation in the Cosmetic Industry

The beauty industry is highly unregulated so cosmetic companies and brands have no legal obligation to let consumers know the source of squalene used. In 2014, Bloom Association tested 62 moisturising creams, whose list of ingredients mentioned squalene, in the US, Europe, Asia. The testing revealed that 1 out of 5 creams tested positive for shark squalene. 

What Can You Do to Protect Sharks and the Ocean?

The overfishing of sharks isn’t just endangering shark species, it is also worsening the climate crisis – we’re actively killing off carbon stores. The global demand for fish and other marine species is disrupting the natural rhythm and causing catastrophic shifts in marine environments.To ensure a sustainable and liveable planet, we must keep the ocean healthy at all costs. To protect the ocean and all shark species, we must reduce the demand for shark products. Unfortunately, it has become the consumer’s responsibility to research the source of ingredients so the only way to ensure your products are shark-free is by looking for words such as ‘100% plant-derived’ and ‘vegetable-based’ or the certified vegan label. Removing squalene from cosmetics will immediately save sharks caught for their livers by reducing the demand; when the buying stops, the killing stops, too.

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