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Sharks in Your Lipstick: What You Need to Know About Liver Oil

posted: 10/07/15
by: Danny Clemens
A juvenile blacktip reef shark swims in a water tank at a seafood market in Hong Kong
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A juvenile blacktip reef shark swims in a tank at a seafood market in Hong Kong. Campaigners warn overfishing has led to a decline in their numbers.
Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

There's an ugly truth behind many cosmetic and beauty products -- a frightening fact that isn't hidden in the fine print on the packaging, an ugly reality that most people have no clue even exists.

A shark may have died for your lipstick.

Many commercially produced brands of moisturizer, sunscreen, lipstick and eye makeup contain squalene, a compound commonly derived from shark liver oil. The oily organic compound is a favored addition to many beauty products because of its moisturizing properties.

"Because [squalene] mimics our body's own natural moisturizers, it can rapidly penetrate the skin and is absorbed quickly and completely without any lingering residue," explains beauty expert Tricia Chaves.

Shark liver oil pills
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Where does it come from?

A United Nations report lists more than 50 shark species that are fished for their oil, several of which are currently listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List.

Deep sea sharks are especially valued for their livers, according to Shark Trust. The high concentration of oil in the sharks' livers is integral to their survival at deep depths: many fish sport a gas-filled organ known as a swim bladder that helps the creature control its buoyancy in the depths of the ocean.

Most deep-sea sharks, however, lack the swim bladder. Instead, an oily liver (which is less dense than water) is responsible for helping the shark maintain its buoyancy within the water column without having to expend energy to swim.

Depending on the species, a shark's oily liver can comprise up to 20% of its body weight, making deep-sea sharks a prime target for fishermen looking to harvest squalene. A pound of the substance can go for almost $7 -- more than double the price of many supermarket meats.

Due to its high value, a shark's liver is sometimes the only part of the shark that commercial fishing operations harvest. We've all heard of shark finning -- now some conservation organizations report a similar phenomenon known as "livering", a brutal and wasteful process in which a shark's liver is harvested while the rest of the animal's carcass is thrown back into the ocean.

As is the case with many valued commodities, the demand for liver oil far outpaces the supply. French conservation organization Bloom estimates that more than 3 million sharks are caught each year specifically for their liver oil. Deep sea sharks, however, have a slow life cycle: the creatures reproduce infrequently and grow slowly. When the sharks are fished at unsustainable rates (as they are currently), populations are unable to rebound and quickly fall victim to overfishing.

Despite the ecological implications of shark oil harvesting, the practice continues unabated: Bloom reports that up to 2,200 tons of liver oil were harvested in 2012, 90% of which made its way into cosmetic products (the compound is also used in vaccines and other medical products).

There are abundant alternatives to shark oil. Nearly identical oils can be derived from olives, wheat germ and amaranth. However, alternative oils are approximately 30% more expensive than shark oil.

Sand tiger shark
Ian Cartwright/Getty Images

What can we do?

In 2008, ocean conservation organization Oceana launched a successful campaign to encourage European beauty product manufacturers to discontinue using shark liver oil in their products.

"Consumers deserve the full information to make educated decisions about what they put into - or onto - their bodies," said Oceana marine biologist Dr. Allison Perry. "Many people are completely unaware that the cosmetics industry is a major source of fishing pressure on deep-sea sharks. Yet, given the choice, who would opt for cosmetics made from vulnerable sharks, especially when plant-based alternatives are available?"

In response to the immense pressure generated by Oceana's campaign, multinational corporations L'Oreal and Unilever agreed to stop using shark oil in their products.

Despite public outcry, however, many jurisdictions still do not require that shark-derived squalene is labeled on packaging. Conservation organization Fin Free urges consumers to still do their research before making purchasing decisions:

"Often, squalene that is not shark-based is labeled 'vegetable', 'vegetable based' or from 'vegetable origins' due to recent pressures being placed on companies that utilize shark-based squalane or squalene," the organization explains.

"But, one cannot simply assume that if squalene is contained in a product, it is derived from shark, which is why it is important to do your homework. Most likely it is, but an enquiry to the manufacture when in doubt is your best bet."

Racing Extinction horizontal key art
Discovery Communications

Want to learn more about wildlife trafficking and species extinction? On Wednesday, December 2nd, Discovery will present a global broadcast of Racing Extinction, a powerful eco-thriller from Academy Award(R)-winning director Louie Psihoyos. Visit RacingExtinction.com for more information.

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