Squalane an emollient used in tons of cosmetics can be made from either a plant source (olives mostly) or shark’s livers. I had blithely assumed that these days getting hold of an olive must be a heck of a lot easier than hunting down a shark and that very few of my potions could be further endangering this fragile species.

It turns out I was wrong. More than 100 out of 400 shark species are being commercially exploited and many are so overexploited that they face extinction. Nonetheless, the cosmetic industry maintains a preference for shark oil-derived squalane as it requires shorter processing times and produces a higher yield than its olive oil counterpart.

In 2006, the EU imposed deep sea shark fishing limits in the North-East Atlantic, and pressure from environmental groups prompted companies such as L’Oreal and Unilever to begin phasing out the use of squalane in their products in 2008.

Despite such efforts, identifying the origin of the compound has been impossible, thus cosmetics manufacturers cannot confidently say where their squalane comes from. Conveniently, the cynical might say. Anyhow, now researchers in Italy claim to have developed a method to distinguish olive oil from shark squalene and squalane samples, and detect the illegal addition of shark derivatives in olive oil based products.

The author, Federica Camin, said the approach could help protect deepwater sharks and allow product manufacturers to communicate ethical practices.

“Our method will protect both cosmetics firms and consumers from commercial fraud and will make it possible to promote the production of squalene from olive oil. It will also allow the origin of squalane within a finished product to be determined.”

What can we do? Start asking our cosmetic companies where their squalane comes from.