Maybe I’ve been missing out, but it feels like I just woke up one day and suddenly everything had squalane oil in it. Products containing squalane often tout benefits related to moisturizing the skin, managing stubborn acne, and sometimes even antioxidant properties.
So, what the heck is squalane oil and should I be slathering it on my face like everyone else?
But for real, what is squalane oil?
The first thing to know about squalane is that it’s a hydrogenated version of squalene, a compound produced naturally by our sebaceous glands, Mary L. Stevenson, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. The hydrogenation process makes squalane more shelf-stable than squalene and, therefore, easier to use in skin-care products.
The sebaceous glands are responsible for producing sebum, which is a cocktail of wax esters, triglycerides, and squalene, Dr. Stevenson says. Together, these things create a protective coating on top of the stratum corneum, the protective outer layer of skin. Sebum helps moisturize the outer layer of skin and keep that barrier intact, Rajani Katta, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston who specializes in sensitivity and allergic reactions, tells SELF.
Oh and, uh, maybe you’ve heard something about squalane and sharks? In fact, squalene is also found in high amounts in shark livers, which is traditionally where we got squalene (and squalane) from. Thankfully, most major companies have shifted away from using shark-derived squalane and it’s unlikely you’ll find it on the market in the U.S. Instead, many companies now get their squalane from plant sources, such as olive oil, Dr. Stevenson says.
On its own, squalene (or squalane) doesn’t feel greasy and acts like an emollient when applied to the skin, Dr. Stevenson says. That means that it can squeeze into the spaces between skin cells and make your face feel smoother. In doing so, it can also help keep moisture in your face by sealing that outer layer tight without being too heavy or occlusive, Dr. Stevenson explains.
So, what does the research say?
We know that squalene as it occurs naturally is important for our skin health, but does adding any extra actually help? For all the wonders attributed to squalane, there’s a surprising lack of studies in humans on what it can actually do, Dr. Katta says.
The studies we do have on squalane and squalene are mostly done using cells in the lab or animal models. For instance, in a 2008 study, researchers in the Netherlands found that a lipid and lanolin mixture (containing squalene and many other things) improved transepidermal water loss (TEWL) over 48 hours in hairless mice. But, obviously, it’s hard to generalize these results to humans, and it’s impossible to say that the squalene on its own was responsible for the results.
One study did involve human participants—specifically, 20 human participants dealing with mild uremic pruritis, a chronic itching condition related to kidney disease. For the study, published in 2004 in Therapeutic Apheresis and Dialysis, one half the participants applied a gel containing 80 percent water as well as aloe vera extract, vitamin E, and squalane twice a day for two weeks. The other participants received nothing. After the two weeks of treatment and an additional two weeks without treatment, the group that received the gel showed significant improvements in itching and redness compared to the control group. However, this is obviously a small study with some drawbacks, including the fact that the gel contained a bunch of things in addition to squalane (so it’s hard to know what effect the squalane had on its own).
“It’s all interesting from a laboratory standpoint,” Dr. Katta says, “but how does it work in the real world?” Right now, we have surprisingly little data to answer that question, unfortunately.
Who will get the most out of using squalane oil?
Because squalane is a part of sebum and excess sebum can contribute to acne, you probably want to exercise some caution with it if your skin tends to be oily or acne-prone, Dr. Stevenson says. You’re likely making plenty of sebum already and adding more could just cause breakouts. Plus, there is some research to suggest that squalene, when oxidized, naturally plays a role in the formation of acne—why add more?
But those with dry or combination skin who are looking to add a lightweight moisturizer may want to check it out, she says, adding that she personally tends to “run dry” and often uses products with squalane. From what we do know about squalane, “it would be fine as a moisturizing ingredient,” Dr. Katta says. “Because of the fact that its such a strong lipid, it should help lock moisture into the skin… I’d feel comfortable recommending it for that purpose.”
It’s also comforting to know that research suggests that squalane is very unlikely to be an irritant, so it’s an attractive option for those with sensitive skin. (However, as always, be mindful of the other ingredients in any product that could cause a reaction.)
And, of course, if you have any questions about how to incorporate squalane into your routine or if something else might be a better option for you, check in with your derm.