Updated: 20 September, 2022
One question about natural ingredients that surfaces frequently in our online classroom is: “What is the difference between squalene and squalane?”. They are both fantastic ingredients that are trending in the natural cosmetic industry and yet there is a lot of confusion among natural skincare formulators about how they relate to each other and what their roles are.
First, here is a brief definition of the two related ingredients:
- Squalene is a lipid naturally present in the skin sebum and is widely distributed in nature. In cosmetics, it is used as an emollient that helps repair the skin’s lipid barrier. However, it is highly unstable and prone to oxidation, which limits its use.
- Squalane is the hydrogenated version of squalene. It is far more stable than its precursor, which is why it has been widely used in natural cosmetic formulations lately.
In this blog post, we delve into the science behind squalene and squalane to give you a comprehensive guide to their differences, benefits and how to use them. We also put these ingredients into action in a natural squalene and squalane booster for you to try out for yourself.
What is squalene and its biological functions?
Before explaining the differences and relations between squalene and squalane, let’s focus on the first one for now.
Squalene first came to light in the early 1900s, when a certain Dr Mitsumaro Tsujimoto discovered and isolated this substance from shark liver oil. It was named after Squalidae, the shark family from which it was first isolated and sourced for many years.
In animals and plants, squalene is produced as a part of the biosynthesis of sterols and phytosterols. In humans, it is an intermediate in the production of cholesterol, steroid hormones, and even vitamin D.
Squalene plays a significant role in our skin, as it is naturally present in the sebum and is a component of the skin lipid barrier. As a skin surface lipid, it helps prevent moisture loss from the skin while also acting as an antioxidant. For this reason, it has been used in cosmetics as an emollient for over 25 years.
While shark liver is considered the richest source of squalene, it is also widely available in the plant kingdom, where it can be found in olive, rice bran, amaranth, palm and wheatgerm oils among others.
The chemical structures of squalene and squalane
Chemically speaking, squalene is a compound from the class of triterpenes and is the precursor of many other triterpenoid molecules in nature.
It is a polyunsaturated lipid, meaning it has more than one double bond (unsaturation) between its carbon atoms, as seen in the figure below. Double bonds are more unstable than simple bonds, making unsaturated oils more prone to oxidation. You can learn more about this topic in our Formulator’s guide to antioxidants in cosmetics.
Due to the multiple double bonds on its chemical structure, squalene was considered too unstable for most practical uses. However, in 1950, the French chemist Sebastien Sabetay had the idea of hydrogenating squalene. Hydrogenation is a chemical reaction used to reduce double bonds to single bonds, adding hydrogen atoms to the molecule. Then, Sabetay was able to produce squalane, which is the hydrogenated version of squalene and a stable compound widely used as a cosmetic ingredient.
So, in brief, we can see that squalane is a stable compound derived from squalene. It is easy to mistake one for the other, considering the two names have only a vowel difference.
Functions and properties: the difference between squalene and squalane
As we have already seen, squalene is an intrinsic component of our body. It is synthesised by the liver and secreted in high quantities by the sebaceous glands. As part of the sebum, it is one of the main components of the skin’s surface lipids. As squalene is prone to oxidation, it “sacrifices” itself in place of other skin components, becoming what is called a free radical scavenger. By doing so, it helps prevent oxidative damage to the skin, such as peroxidation caused by exposure to UV light, for example.
Research indicates that squalene peroxide, the result of squalene oxidation, seems to induce inflammatory responses and contribute to the formation of comedones (blackheads and whiteheads, for example). So, it plays a role in acne; a multi-factorial skin condition.
Squalane, however, does not have double bonds to be oxidised, so it does not present antioxidant properties and does not form squalene peroxide.
Both squalene and squalane have incredible emollient properties and help restore the skin’s suppleness and flexibility. Also, they reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL), which is the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface.Do you know the difference between the skincare ingredients squalene and squalane? @formulabotanica has the ultimate guide to explain, plus a squalene and squalane booster formulation. #naturalskincare #facialserum… Click To Tweet
Production of Squalene and Squalane
When squalene began to be used in cosmetics during the 1950s, it was mainly obtained from animal sources. Its production from sustainable and renewable alternatives has advanced in the last decades, which has contributed to the increase in squalene and squalane usage, especially in natural cosmetics. Research continues until today to try to facilitate squalane production, both in terms of improving or discarding the hydrogenation process.
Now, most plant squalane – also known as phytosqualane – is derived from squalene extracted and purified from olive oil processing waste or sugar cane fermentation. More recently, amaranth oil has also been found to be a rich source of squalene. It contains considerably higher amounts than other grain or nut oils and could be an interesting source for squalene extraction.
Since the production of squalene and squalane from shark liver oil is cheaper and less complex, you may come across phytosqualane adulterated with squalane of animal origin. You will need to be selective and buy only from trustworthy suppliers. It is not possible to differentiate if squalene or squalane are animal- or plant-derived by looking at their INCI names, as these are the same regardless of the product’s origin. A laboratory test called carbon isotope fingerprint is used at a professional level to analyse squalene to determine if it comes from animal or plant sources.
Formulation tips for squalene and squalane
As a natural formulator, you can opt to use squalene-rich oils and add phytosqualane to your formulations. Both squalene and squalane are incredible emollients that are easily absorbed. Isolated squalene can also be found as an ingredient, but due to its high instability, we recommend the use of squalane.
Like squalene, squalane is liposoluble and can be added to oil-based products or in the oil phase of emulsions for both skincare and haircare. Squalane is colourless and odourless and has high thermal stability and considerable resistance to chemical oxidation. It also has excellent compatibility with other ingredients.
Squalane offers a nice sensorial profile, with a light and silky skin feel, and reduces TEWL to restore the skin’s suppleness and flexibility without leaving an oily residue.
It has good skin biocompatibility and is non-irritant. You can use it up to a concentration of 100%.
Our Formula: Natural Squalene & Squalane Booster
As we saw, squalene is a vital compound for keeping our skin hydrated and supple. In the human body, the concentration of squalene starts to decrease between ages 30 and 40, so we’ve formulated our natural squalene and squalane booster for use on mature skin.
Here, we are creating a customisable formula that allows you to create your own version of this booster, according to the oils that you have available or to your preferences.
In the table below, we give some guidelines on the average squalene concentration of different oils, along with their absorption rate:
|Oil||Ave. squalene concentration||Absorption rate|
|Rice bran oil||0.3%||Fast|
|Grape seed oil||0.01%||Fast|
Oils with slower absorption rates stay longer on the top of the skin and will feel more nourishing, heavier and greasier. The faster the absorption rate, the lighter and drier their feel.
Formulation & Guidelines
Use this framework formulation and the information on squalene-rich oils in the table above to create your own formula. You will need to buy squalane from a reputable supplier.
Combined plant oils: 79%
Vitamin E: 1%
Method of Manufacture:
1. In a beaker, weigh the oils you wish to use in your booster.
2. In two separate beakers, weigh the squalane and the vitamin E. Add the squalane and the vitamin E to the first beaker homogenising the formula.
3. Decant your booster into a dark glass bottle with a dropper dispenser and apply a few drops to the face daily.
Other formulations using squalane
If you’ve enjoyed this formula and would like to experiment using squalane, why not try these formulations as well:
How to make a high-performance vitamin E serum (uses olive-derived squalane).
How to make an organic pressed serum
How to make an organic day facial oil (which uses a large amount – 10% – of olive-derived squalane).
We talk in this post about the thermal stability of squalene vs squalane. If this is a new concept to you, or you’d like to find out more about the behaviour and degradation of certain oils when exposed to heat, our chemist’s guide to checking plant oils for heat sensitivity can help you.
And finally, another formulation that is similarly easy to make and ideal to customise with oils to suit your preferences is our post on how to make an after-sun body oil.
Now it is your turn to enjoy giving your formulations a boost with squalane. We’d love to hear how you get on and also hear your reports on the benefits of using squalane in various formulations, so do drop us a comment below.
Suggested suppliers of squalane:
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Eliziane is a Pharmacist and Biochemist, manages our Student Experience Team and provides technical advice for the ingredients research we undertake and provide. She loves bringing together the concepts of science, sustainability and organics. Read more about the Formula Botanica team.