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Squalane: What It Is, What It Can Do for Your Skin and the Best Products to Try Now

Does this ultra-lightweight oil belong in your skincare routine?
Squalane for skin

If you’ve been studying your skincare labels since way back, then you’ve probably noticed squalane among the ingredients in your favourite moisturizers. Now, this superstar hydrator has stepped into the spotlight as a facial oil—and you might be wondering if it deserves a solo in your routine.

Brands like Biossance, Indie Lee and The Ordinary have all come out with their own versions of this sought-after oil, which is prized for its lightweight texture, fast absorption rate and immediate skin-softening effect. 

In this tutorial, you will learn what squalane actually is, what it can do for your skin, the best squalane oils to try, and how to use them in your routine.

What Is Squalane?

Squalane—also known as squalane oil—is a colourless, odourless hydrator that has been used in beauty products as far back as the 1950s.[1] 

Although it has the texture of a thin, lightweight oil, it is very different from plant-based oils. The latter are a mixture of hydrocarbons, triglycerides, esters and alcohols,[2] while squalane is a pure liquid hydrocarbon.[3] That means it consists of only carbon and hydrogen, and belongs to the same ingredient family as mineral oil, petrolatum and alkanes.

These hydrocarbons, which are all commonly found in skincare products, are 100% saturated, so they have a chemical structure with no double bonds. This makes them extraordinarily stable and resistant to oxidation. In comparison to plant oils, squalane and other hydrocarbons have a much longer shelf life.

But there are some key differences between squalane versus mineral oil or petroleum jelly. The most obvious one is the texture—squalane is so thin, lightweight and non-greasy that it has been called “the water of emollients.”

Another important distinction is how squalane is created. Mineral oil, petrolatum and paraffin waxes are of petrochemical origin, created as byproducts when crude oil is refined to make gasoline. In contrast, squalane is derived from squalene—a naturally-occurring lipid that we’ll talk about next.

Squalane vs Squalene

Squalene (with an “e”) is a natural component of our own sebum, along with triglycerides, waxes, fatty acids, cholesterol and cholesterol esters.[4] 

Besides helping to keep our skin supple and flexible, squalene also prevents water loss, acts as an antioxidant, and even protects against certain carcinogens.[5]

The only problem? Squalene is polyunsaturated—so it is highly volatile and quick to oxidize (go rancid). That’s why it needs to be processed into squalane (with an “a”) in order to become more stable. Skincare manufacturers are able to do this using squalene from plant or animal sources. 

Squalane is created when the squalene undergoes hydrogenation. This turns the squalene from an unsaturated molecule into a saturated one. It also greatly extends its shelf life. Most squalane oils on the market have an expiry date that is two to three years away.

Where Does Squalane Come From?

Olive SqualaneSugarcane SqualaneShark Liver Squalane

75-94% purity[6]

75-94% purity[6]

98-99% purity[6]

May contain sterol esters and paraffin after hydrogenation

May contain isosqualane and monocyclosqualane after hydrogenation

No significant impurities after hydrogenation

A century ago, when squalene first started being hydrogenated, it was extracted from shark livers.[7] While this process allowed manufacturers to create a squalane of high purity, there were obvious ethical and sustainability concerns.

Fortunately, shark-derived squalane is no longer widely available. Although you should always double check, most brands today use plant sources such as olives, sugarcane, beets, wheat germ, rice bran and palm oil. 

Of these, olives and sugarcane are the most common, and as per the chart above, are typically between 75-94% purity.

  • Olive squalane: Squalene is extracted from the olive pulp, skin and pits, and then combined with hydrogen to become squalane. 
  • Sugarcane squalane: Bioengineered yeast that feed on the sugarcane produce a precursor of squalene, which is transformed into squalene and then squalane after being extracted.[8]

Does it matter which type you use? Maybe. Because each has different impurities that remain after hydrogenation, there can be subtle differences in texture, rate of absorption and even performance. Most people probably won’t notice, but sugarcane versions tend to be the most lightweight while olive versions are usually a bit richer.

What Does Squalane Do for Skin?

Now that you know what it is, does this oil belong in your routine? Here are all the ways it can help your skin:

1. Hydrates and Softens

As an emollient,[9] it moisturizes your skin and improves its softness, flexibility and smoothness. But unlike most oils, which tend not to penetrate fully, it sinks in quickly with no greasy residue.

“Similarly to hyaluronic acid, squalane can be seen to plump and hydrate the skin,” says Dr. Anjali Mahto.[15] “Your natural squalene production starts to deplete dramatically at around 30 (like many other skin components, such as collagen),” adds Dr. Janet Mason,[16] “so using squalane helps to replenish these stocks to keep skin moisturized and looking youthful.”

2. Prevents Moisture Loss

Besides being an effective hydrator, it also works to seal in moisture and prevent it from escaping—without feeling heavy or occlusive.

“Squalane oil actually helps to repair the barrier of your skin,” says Dr. Loretta Ciraldo.[17] “So when you put it on, you’re not only preventing water loss, you’re also helping to protect the skin from harsh stuff in the environment.”

That said, “if the skin is very dry and the environment is very dry, a stronger, heavier occlusive may be needed in addition to or instead of the squalane to lock in the moisture and ensure that hydration is not evaporating from the skin,” says Dr. Hadley King.[18]

3. Treats Chapped and Irritated Skin

You can also apply this oil to soothe and repair rough, chapped, cracked or irritated skin that needs extra TLC. In fact, it is often used to treat skin disorders such as eczema (atopic dermatitis), contact dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, acne and psoriasis.[10][11]  

“It has anti-inflammatory properties, so it can help soothe inflammatory skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and inflammatory acne,” says Dr. King.[18] Plus, it’s “ideal for sensitive skin, because it’s non-irritating and doesn’t induce allergic reactions—even at high concentrations,” adds Dr. Samantha Ellis.[19]

4. Balances Oil Production

Believe it or not, you can even use it to help regulate excess oil production.

“Many of my patients with oily skin also benefit from squalane because it is mattifying,” says Dr. Jeanine B. Downie.[20] “It sucks up any excess oil and deeply nourishes without clogging pores.”

5. Prevents the Lipid Peroxidation That Leads to Acne

Finally, it helps to prevent the oxidation of squalene in your sebum—which is a little-known trigger for breakouts. 

This process is known as lipid peroxidation,[9] and promotes inflammation, clogged pores and oxidative stress within the follicles.[12] Researchers have in fact called this the “driving force behind the progression of comedogenesis and inflammation in acne.”[13]

“It helps resist lipid peroxidation on the skin and in the pores which can lead to acne,” confirms Dr. Cynthia Bailey.[21] “It [also] has some degree of antibacterial effect.”

Is Squalane Comedogenic?

Squalane can be used by all skin types, but if you have acne-prone skin, you may want to proceed with caution.

On the plus side, it is far lighter than other oils, and most people report being able to use it without experiencing clogged pores or breakouts. Plus, as we just learned, it can actually help with acne by reducing excess oil, fighting bacteria and preventing lipid peroxidation.

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But everyone’s skin is different, so it is possible for any ingredient—especially oils—to be comedogenic. “Generally speaking, I do not recommend squalane for people who have acne-prone skin,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner.[22] “It is a fully saturated fat and may cause breakouts in some people.”

If you break out easily, I recommend trying only a drop or two, perhaps on just one small area, and monitoring your skin closely. Often, it’s not just the type of oil but also the amount that leads to breakouts—you don’t want to overload your skin with more than it can handle.

Is Squalane Safe?

By now, you’re probably thinking, “This sounds like the perfect oil!” But are there any downsides to using it?

Squalane has long been considered safe as a cosmetic ingredient. There are just two additional considerations I want to draw your attention to:

  • It can’t be metabolized: Unlike plant oils, hydrocarbons cannot be metabolized. Traces can be absorbed through our skin and stored in fatty tissue,[3] where they can accumulate with prolonged use. Mineral oil hydrocarbons, for example, have been called “the greatest contaminant of the human body” and “cosmetics might be a relevant source of the contamination.”[14]
  • It may slow down cell renewal: Hydrocarbons also remain in the superficial skin layers for longer than plant oils, which “affects the natural balance and regenerative capacity of the skin.”[3] The more occlusive the hydrocarbon (think: petroleum jelly), the more likely it is to slow down cell turnover.

Does this change my view on squalane? Not really. Personally, I am comfortable using it on my face, where just a couple drops are all I need. However, I would not use this oil (or other hydrocarbons) to moisturize my body. I think plant oils with a saturated fatty acid profile, such as coconut oil, are much safer to use on the body, where you’d be absorbing greater amounts. 

The Best Squalane Oils for Your Skin

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil is a luxe but lightweight oil derived from olives. (“I found the highest grade you could get,” Indie Lee herself told me in this interview.) 

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane

The Ordinary 100 Plant-Derived Squalane

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane is the most budget-friendly option. The brand doesn't officially specify which plants it comes from, but it may be sugarcane, beets or bamboo, according to various reports.

Biossance 100% Squalane Oil

Biossance 100 Squalane Oil

Biossance 100% Squalane Oil

Biossance 100% Squalane Oil is made from sugarcane, and has the lightest texture of any oil I’ve tried. It also comes in a bigger size, with a convenient pump dispenser.

The Inkey List Squalane

The Inkey List Squalane

The Inkey List Squalane

The Inkey List Squalane comes in flip-top packaging and is plant-derived. Although the brand doesn’t disclose which one(s), I suspect it may be sugarcane due to its thinner texture.

BeautyStat Universal Moisture Essence

BeautyStat Universal Moisture Essence

BeautyStat Universal Moisture Essence

BeautyStat Universal Moisture Essence is created from “sustainable plant sugars,” also known as sugarcane. Founder and chemist Ron Robinson recommends mixing it with any moisturizer to boost hydration.