Ask a Chemist: What is the Difference Between Squalene and Squalane?

Our Head of Chemistry, Lizzy Trelstad, weighs in on your most pressing skincare questions.

Squalene and its sibling squalane are both moisturizing agents, although squalane — that’s the one with an “a'' instead of an “e” — is the only one you’ll find in the skincare aisle. That’s because squalane (with an a!) is the stabilized version of squalene, a chemical compound that already exists in the body. In skincare, squalane can protect and hydrate the skin.

What is squalene?

Squalene is naturally occurring in the body, and is most heavily concentrated in the skin. About 13% of the lipids (hydrators) in our skin’s surface are squalene. Our livers manufacture it, and our sebaceous glands deliver it to the skin’s surface, where it acts as a moisture barrier to protect your skin from the elements.

What Is squalane?

Squalane — that’s with an “a,” as in Lois Lane — is the hydrogenated version of squalene. Simply stated, hydrogenation makes the molecule more stable, so it can live in your medicine cabinet.

How is squalane manufactured?

Years ago, squalane came from shark livers (eek!). Today, squalane in skincare is almost exclusively plant-based. Squalene appears in more than a few vegetable oils, namely rice bran oil and olive oil.

Squalene and your skin:

Our body slows squalene production at age 30, which is why we start slathering squalane on our faces. Squalene protects our skin from lipid peroxidation and provides necessary moisture to the skin barrier. When our body stops producing squalene at a high rate, our skin becomes drier and more vulnerable to the elements.

How does squalane work in skincare?

Squalane is a slightly viscous, colorless and odorless lipid-soluble liquid easy to incorporate into formulas for a smooth and hydrating feel. It's lipid solubility means it can relatively easily sink into the upper layers of the epidermis, bringing other oils and oil-soluble skin actives with it. Many formulators include squalane for its ability to "increase skin penetration" of other ingredients alone.

Part of squalane’s appeal is its texture. Though it is an oil, it moves like water and doesn’t leave the skin feeling waxy or sticky. Like other powerful skin agents (BHAs, we’re looking at you), squalane easily commingles with the other lipids at the skin’s surface, allowing it to bypass certain checkpoints and get down to business.  

How should I use squalane?

Squalane is itself not a moisturizer. Use it as part of the moisturizing process. A good moisturizer should include both emollients (squalane) and humectants, which pull moisture into the skin. The emollient will make the skin smoother, while the humectant provides the actual skin-plumping qualities we need for long-term moisture.

Pair squalane oil with humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid for best results. In these formulas, the squalane’s lipid solubility can even help the humectants get past the skin’s initial barrier.