Is Lipstick Made from Fish Scales?

Coral garden with starfish and colorful tropical fish
  • Yes, there can be ‘fish scales’ in lipstick- pearl essence, a substance made from fish scales, is a common ingredient in makeup, including lipsticks.
  • Some cosmetic companies are more transparent than others about whether their products contain pearl essence.
  • The ingredients used to create pearl essence can also be derived from cattle, oxen, and pigs.
  • There are alternatives to cosmetics that contain pearl essence, including those made by Aveda.

My friend was horrified when she learned some of the facts about fish by-products in cosmetics.

She was especially disturbed to learn that some of her favorite makeup brands use ingredients like pearl essence, which is made from fish scales.

She had always been a vegan, so the idea of using any kind of product that involved harming animals was really unacceptable to her.

She decided to do some research on her own and found out that many companies now offer synthetic versions of pearl essence.

While this was good news for her, she also appreciated the fact that some companies were more transparent about their ingredients and disclosed whether or not their products contained fish scales.

In the end, my friend decided to stick with brands that were transparent and ethical in their manufacturing process. She also vowed to spread the word about the icky ingredients that can be found in some popular makeup products.


Something Fishy

So, is it fact or fiction that lipstick is made from fish scales? According to Healing Natural Oils, (SOURCE:, yes it does. Well, at least some of them do.

flat lay with various shades of lipsticks isolated on black
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Whenever you come across a lipstick that has a silvery substance to it, this is called pearl essence. It’s also referred to as pearlescence. This is the stuff that usually comes from fish scales.

To be specific, herring fish is the species that are used where their scales are put into lipstick, nail polish, as well as any form of cosmetic products that want to create the shimmer effect.

While herring is primarily where the pearl essence comes from, this can also be found in other species of marine life as large-scale commercial fish processing is big business.

Fishermen cash in on the business of earning an income by selling pearl essence as a product to interested buyers. Usually, those buyers are cosmetic companies.

So, what does this mean for people who have fish allergies? How about people who prefer to wear makeup that doesn’t have any kind of animal by-products in them?

Are there lipsticks, as well as other cosmetics, that don’t use fish scales?

The answer to that question is yes. They’re known as synthetics. Nowadays, most cosmetic companies carry a synthetic version of the pearl essence that goes into makeup, including lipstick.

Some of these companies are transparent enough to let consumers know whether or not any of their cosmetic products contain fish scales. This includes lipsticks.

Transparency Issues

However, not all cosmetic companies are always so forthcoming. In many cases, the thought of consumers freaking out that animal body parts were used to make all sorts of products was rather odd.

The reason for this is that there are so many people who eat meat without giving it any thought.

This is beginning to change, though, as overfishing has threatened global herring production. Because of this, the cosmetic industry began to look into non-shimmering lipstick products.

The thing is if you assume fish scales are the only animal by-product that goes into lipstick, think again. There are also cerebrosides, which are used in skin-care products in order to increase moisture retention.

This allows a smoother skin surface that feels luminous. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the raw material found in cerebrosides for cosmetics comes from the brain cells and nervous-system tissues belonging to cattle, oxen, and pigs.

How It’s Done

Deckhands working on fishing boat
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When pearl essence is harvested, the purse seine draws the herring up from the bottom and into a consistently decreasing circle. The pumper boat pumps out the fish, which goes into the hold of the buyer’s boat.

In the meantime, due to the thrashing in the seine, nearly all of the herring scales are removed, which are then diverted into bags on the pumper’s deck.

While this process doesn’t exactly sound like it’s a sophisticated operation, it works with great efficiency. It’s also the kindest process there is when it comes to fish farming.


If the idea of using animal by-products on your skin is too icky for comfort, consider looking into companies that seem to be more ethical when it comes to their skincare products.

Even for lipstick, companies like Aveda go out of their way to not just avoid using animal body parts but synthetics as well. Instead, they use plant-based ingredients.

This also includes avoiding the usage of crushed bugs just so they can achieve certain colors from their carmine.

Lipstick Fishing

If you’re the type of customer who wants to know exactly what goes into your lipstick and you need to know whether or not fish scales are in it, check the list of ingredients.

If it says it has guanine, this means it contains fish scales. that’s the name used to identify the crystalline substance otherwise known as pearl essence.