The so-called vegetable squalane is regularly presented as a major advance. What is the origin of this ingredient?
François Laserson tells us the story of squalane. François has an extensive experience in the market of squalane: he marketed specialties containing this ingredient for a long time, but he is also René Laserson’s son. René Laserson founded a trading company specialized in cosmetic and perfume ingredients. In 1951, he partnered with Sébastien Sabetay to set up a company called Laserson & Sabetay. The enterprise marketed a specialty called Cosbiol® for many years: it was actually Perhydrosqualene, i.e. squalane, which Sébastien Sabetay had developed. The best of the best!
Some ingredients are better known than others. They can be called “cult ingredients”. How come they are so successful? It can be hard to explain. Squalane is part of this category, but its success can definitely be illustrated. It is due to its properties, which were already remarkable at the beginning and remain unchanged. It is particular in that it is re-emerging after a period of oblivion following a well-deserved fame.
It all started in the North of Europe. Vikings consumed a lot of fish liver oil, in particular cod liver oil. At that time, they used it both as foodstuff and drug. This product was actually an integral part of the Nordic diet. Cod liver oil is a derivative of cod liver (fish). Then, the Japanese had also long consumed these fish liver oils in high quantity when scientific progress and curiosity inevitably pushed specialists to take interest in their composition. In the early 20th century, Japanese chemist Mitsumaru Tsujimoto characterized their main component, an unsaturated hydrocarbon of the alkene type. He named it squalene as a nod to its origin. Its structure was confirmed in 1916 by the same chemist. This unsaturated linear hydrocarbon is a triterpene C30H50. It is almost ubiquitous in living organisms – plants and animals – where it has different functions, but is mainly related to cell membranes. For example, it can be found in large quantities in shark liver, because it can bind to an important quantity of oxygen due to a physiological need of sharks. That is how it all started.
Squalene as such was hardly ever used in cosmetics due to its properties: high unsaturation, strong smell, easily oxidizable. Its hydrogenated derivative was. As a reminder, hydrogenation of a compound with double bonds leads to the saturation of these structures. Therefore, by hydrogenation, squalene, which is an alkene, led to the corresponding alkane which was named squalane. Hydrogenated oils are generally called “hardened oils” because this treatment increases their melting point. This hydrogenation treatment will be applied very quickly, in 1930 books already mention it. Sébastien Sabetay went down this path when he developed Cosbiol®. This ingredient sparked much interest and got widely used by many brands, like Barbara Gould, but also in many countries. Over a few decades, this interest gradually faded due to different factors: tricky sourcing, price fluctuation, but above all, bans on products of animal origin. Later, if interest in squalane remained strong, it was replaced by other products whose only difference was their origin. In fact, they were at least cousins, if not clones!
Controversies have settled around the use of fish squalane. The main criticism is that the sharks have been and continue to be sinned for their oil. This is not correct, there are unfortunately other uses of these fish which are at the origin of this fishing. I was discussing it in a humor post, Ce n’est ni juste ni équitable, published on the Cosmetics Observatory website in 2015. Anyway, the properties of squalane remain the same depending on the different origins. It is above all a hydrocarbon whose properties are to be a remarkable emollient with good solvent properties, particularly stable to oxidation. Its use is ubiquitous, many classes of products can incorporate it.
Besides that, other “cousins” will emerge. Some are from plant sources like olive oil. Soybeans or sunflowers are potential candidates. Others come from sugar cane, but from a different process involving fermentation. Finally, some are almost entirely derived from synthetic chemistry, hydrogenated polyisobutenes (INCI: hydrogenated polyisobutene or hydrogenated polydecene). Their name, fairly neutral and difficult to understand, including by “experts”, will allow you to get through a few battles as memorable as they are pointless around these ingredients. For the others, it is practically impossible to know what their origin is from simply reading their INCI name.
But for all of them, it is very approximate to qualify these products as “vegetable”, chemistry occupying a central role in all cases. Moreover, the facts illustrate a fairly common fact that the quality of the so-called natural or vegetable is not superior and that the prices are often significantly higher.Finally, if olive squalane can be qualified as a sustainable product, it was the same for fish squalane because the approach was to recover waste from industrial fishing and not destroy marine fauna.
All of this is told to you in this note. Back on this fascinating history of squalane: Squalane by F.Laserson
Warm thank to François.
Jean Claude LE JOLIFF
To know more :
On fish squalane Shark Squalane-bloom report
On Olive squalane neossance SQUALANE by Laserson
On Olive squalane too : ECOSQA_Article PCE_Apr17
On Sugar squalane : Sugarcane Squalane-Amyris