If you’ve paid close attention to the ingredients list of some cosmetic products that promise to moisturize the skin and reduce fine lines, you may have noticed a specific component: squalene.
Squalene is a triterpene, a class of compounds made up of three terpene units. Plants and animals all produce triterpenes, including squalene.
This triterpene is a naturally-occurring, poly-unsaturated hydrocarbon liquid and is among the many natural lipids the body produces to protect and lubricate the skin. Given this benefit, squalene is often found in cosmetics products.
What Does Squalene Do?
Squalene is included in skincare products to serve as an effective emollient to soothe and soften the skin. It is also a potent antioxidant and it demonstrates antitumor and chemopreventative properties.  As mentioned, squalene is naturally produced in the body but, unfortunately, its production declines with age which is why many people supplement it with moisturizing products. Squalene in skin care products mimics the body’s naturally produced sebum and can increase skin hydration and moisture levels.
Controversy Over Sourcing Squalene
Squalene has been shrouded in controversy, as it is often sourced from the livers of sharks.
Approximately 2.7 million sharks are killed for their livers every year, mainly to provide the cosmetics industry with squalene. The aforementioned moisturizing and anti-aging properties of squalene make it a highly coveted ingredient among cosmetics companies, particularly higher-end facial services.
But while the triterpene is often derived from the livers of sharks, many people look for more sustainable sources. Fortunately, the cosmetics industry can also harvest squalene in more ethical ways. For instance, squalene is commonly obtained from plant sources such as rice bran, olives, and wheat germ oil. 
Differentiating Between Squalene and Squalane
In its natural state, squalene has a brief shelf life and tends to turn rancid when it’s exposed to oxygen. Given this, it can be challenging to include squalene in cosmetic products.
This is where squalane comes into the picture. Squalane is a hydrogenated version of squalene where the hydrogenation reaction produces a saturated molecule (no double bonds) that is less reactive. It provides the same level of moisturization as squalene, but has a much longer shelf life.
So, while using squalene on the skin can provide much-need moisture while helping to reduce the look of fine lines and aging, where the squalene is sourced from matters. Rather than compromising the shark population to access this triterpene, more sustainable resources can be tapped into instead.
Image source: andreas160578 via Pixabay
- Huang ZR, Lin YK, & Fang JY. “Biological and pharmacological activities of squalene and related compounds: Potential uses in cosmetic dermatology“, Molecules. 2009;14(1):540–554. [Journal Impact Factor: 4.411; Times Cited: 456]