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A Safe Bleed by Donna Trope
Photography Donna Trope

These are the weirdest ingredients hidden in your beauty products

From whale shit to infant foreskins, this Halloween we discover what hidden tricks are found in your treats

TextAlex PetersPhotographyDonna Trope

The beauty industry is built around glamour and the idea that the products we buy will make us look better, smell better, and feel better. But underneath this shiny, polished veneer is a darker underbelly, and the products designed to make us pretty are actually full of ingredients that are at the same time repulsive and intriguing.

Below we round up the weirdest things found in your beauty products that will have you asking: trick or treat?

Ambergris aka hardened whale vomit (or is it faeces?)

As Outkast once told us, “Roses really smell like poo”. But they could just have easily been singing about perfume. Because the thing you spray onto your body every morning to smell good could actually made from something that notoriously smells bad: shit. Whale shit, to be precise. Or ambergris, as it is known in the industry. Historically highly valued by perfumers as a fixative to help scents last longer, ambergris is now banned in many countries and has been replaced by a synthetic form of ambroxan, although it can still be found in perfumes from brands including Tom Ford, Acqua Di Parma, and Comme Des Garcons. Incidentally, ambergris has always been thought of as hardened whale vomit, but now, according to the National Geographic, “the argument seems to be weighted toward the back end of the whale.” What we do know for sure is that ambergris is produced in the digestive system of whales and it’s often been used in perfumes.

Guanine aka Fish Scales

Always wanted to shine like the Rainbow Fish? Well thanks to guanine – a crystalline substance derived from fish scales that has a shimmery, pearlescent quality – now you can. In fact, you’ve probably already been using it, as it’s a common ingredient in beauty products such as lipsticks, nail polishes, and eyeshadows.

Carmine aka Crushed Beetles

Carmine is a red pigment commonly used in cosmetics and as a food colouring. It's what makes your red lipsticks red. But did you know that it was made from crushing female cochineal insects which are basically really small beetles? PETA have reported that 70,000 of them are needed to produce one pound of the red dye. Carmine also goes under the names “cochineal extract,” “natural red 4,” and “CI 75470” on ingredient lists.

Keratin aka Ground-up Hooves

A common component of hair treatments and masks, Keratin is a protein taken from ground-up animal parts including horns, hooves, claws, beaks, and scales.

Squalane/Squalene aka Shark Liver Oil

While squalane can also be derived from plants, it’s often harvested from shark livers. Squalane mimics the consistency of our natural sebum and so is used in products such as moisturisers and conditioners to hydrate and combat dryness.

Tallow aka Animal Fat

Found in lipsticks and other cosmetics and hair care products, tallow is rendered animal fat made by boiling beef or sheep carcass and taking the leftover fatty substance that is produced.

Lanolin aka Sheep Grease

Creams, moisturising products, make-up removers, and lipsticks are just some of the many products lanolin can be found in. Also called “wool wax,” lanolin is the product of oil glands in sheep and other woolly animals and is extracted from their wool. Great for dry skin, lanolin is harvested from domesticated sheep in a cruelty-free process. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acid aka Snail Slime

The slime that snails secrete is packed full with proteins, glycolic acids and elastin. It’s said to have regenerative properties and protects the snail from bacteria, cuts and UV rays. Elastin is also known to force tissue to return it to its original shape after being stretched. These properties make snail slime an attractive ingredient for anti-wrinkle creams, facials, and for minimising scars.  

Infant foreskins

Foreskins, taken during circumcision and then harvested for their stem cells, can be used to make fibroblast which helps generate collagen and elastin. Because of this, it's often used in anti-ageing skincare products and facials, which Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock are famously fans of. The foreskins also have another role: they are often used to test cosmetics on instead of animal skin.

Nightingale droppings

First used in facial treatments in the 17th century by geishas, nightingale faeces contains nitrogen-rich urea which helps to bond moisture to the skin. Nightingale droppings facial are also said to have anti-ageing qualities, be effective in the treatment of acne scars, repair skin damage and leave the skin glowing.