In the world of skin-care ingredients, there's more than a lot to keep up with. Things can get overwhelming — we get it. But we'd venture to bet that if you took a look through your medicine cabinet right this second, you would probably find a product or two that contains squalane or squalene (and more likely the former). Although both serve a similar purpose, that one letter makes a big difference when it comes to efficacy and stability. Confused yet? Keep reading to learn what the difference is between squalane and squalene and their benefits, plus some of our favorite products made with the ingredients.
Squalene, with an e, is naturally produced by the body. More specifically, it's produced by the sebaceous (oil) glands in our skin. The sebum that our sebaceous glands produce is actually "made up of triglycerides, wax esters, and squalene," explains Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. As annoying as oil can be, all of its components, squalene included, "help to keep the skin moisturized."
Charlotte Birnbaum, another New York City-based, board-certified dermatologist, sums it up succinctly, saying that "Squalene is a lipid, or fat, made naturally by our oil glands to hydrate and maintain the barrier of our skin." The beneficial properties of squalene don’t end there; it has also been found to fight free-radical damage in our skin as an antioxidant, Birnbaum explains.
Unfortunately for all of us, though, our natural production of squalene "slows significantly after the age of 30," explains board-certified dermatologist Samantha Fisher, which is why it makes sense that we’d all want to bottle it up and slather it on our skin. However, squalene in its natural state isn’t very stable, which is why, for skin-care purposes, it goes through a saturation process to become squalane.
To get into the nitty-gritty, the e turns into an a when squalene is converted into squalane through a process called hydrogenation. Why is this necessary? "If squalene was not hydrogenated, it would oxidize when exposed to air and no longer have its benefits," Garshick explains. In other words, squalane is a more shelf-stable and effective version of squalene, which is why the former is the version that makes it into our skin-care creams, face serums and oils.
Squalene is naturally found in high concentrations in shark liver — yes, as in actual sharks, the ocean animal. As such, for a long time, shark liver oil was one of the most common squalene sources in cosmetics. Due to obvious ethical concerns, many companies have shifted away from using shark-derived squalene in their products; in fact, it's hard to find it on shelves in the United States at all. Instead, "The squalane in skin-care products is now being derived mostly from plants such as olives and rice bran," Garshick says. It can also be derived from other plant oils including amaranth seed, wheat germ, and even sugar cane, Fisher explains.
Because of its well-documented emollient properties, people with dry and/or mature skin can especially benefit from using squalane, though it can really benefit all skin types (including sensitive). Additionally, since it works to naturally seal in moisture, squalane can "aid in skin-care problems wherein the skin barrier is disrupted and transepidermal water loss is an issue," Fisher says. These include things like eczema, acne, and even psoriasis.