Perhaps you have heard the song by Graham Nash from 1975 called “Wind on the Water,” where he laments the killing of whales for frivolous reasons, such as to “make the lipstick for your face.” And it was true — the only way you could make sure you did not purchase lipstick with whale blubber in it was to search for animal-friendly brands with a guarantee of “no animal byproducts”–not such an easy task at the time.
Whales have been hunted since prehistoric times for meat and for the blubber’s valuable properties as an oil or wax. Eventually, the oil was used for soap, lighting, and treating wool and leather. Whalebone had a wide variety of uses as well. In the 20th century, whale blubber also began to be used in cosmetics, pet food and general commercial lubricants.
Excessive whale hunting due to lack of regulation led to low prices for whale products, as well as a significant decline in the international whale population, some species with severe population losses. These factors led whaling companies to recognize the need for regulation, and in 1946, 14 nations signed the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This convention established the International Whaling Commission, which was seen as a major precedent for international regulation of natural resources because it gave economics and conservation equal weight. Countries which relied heavily on whaling as part of their economic foundation such as Norway, Iceland and Greenland, proved difficult to negotiate with in regard to scaling back on whale hunting, but by the 1960s so many species were endangered that a long negotiation process resulted in an international moratorium on whaling by the IWC in 1986.
Opinions and activities of different nations regarding whaling still varies widely. Aboriginal populations, for example, are allowed under the moratorium to continue subsistence whaling. Norway and Japan continue to engage in limited commercial whaling, making them a target of environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. Other countries, such as the United States, show a majority of the population agreeing that whale killing is wrong, in an age where the products are non-essential.
Although commercial whaling has become non-existent for the most part except in a few isolated countries, with popular sentiment strongly against utilizing whale ingredients in cosmetics and bath and body products, a prevailing misconception remains that whale oil is still to be found in most commercial cosmetics today. A quick look at question-and-answer sites on the Internet run by casual users will find people asking about whale blubber in lipstick and other cosmetics, and responses stating that this ingredient is indeed commonly used, warning vegans and vegetarians away from all but certain specific brand names. In reality, it is much cheaper and more politically expedient for companies to use a wide range of other options currently available.
Spermaceti from the sperm whale was typically the type of wax used for cosmetics, but with the moratorium on whaling, other products have completely replaced whale oil in lipstick and other cosmetics. Plant-based jojoba oil, for example, can be found in many products such as lipstick, shampoo, face cream and others. Jojoba is chemically similar to spermaceti and so can be used in many of the same products with similar results. Stearyl alcohol and stearic acid, which once were utilized from whale blubber, now are typically derived from plants or synthetic sources, although sometimes from mink oil.
Other wax and oil products which are found in lipstick nowadays are beeswax, carnauba and candelilla wax (both plant-based), castor oil, olive oil, lanolin, cocoa butter and vegetable oil. Also, don’t forget the powerful petroleum industry–petrolatum and certain mineral oils are common in cosmetics as well.
Some present-day cosmetics ingredients may be of concern for consumers who prefer all-natural, environmentally-friendly and animal-friendly products, but these consumers no longer need to worry about whale oil as an ingredient in lipstick and other cosmetics.