Does lipstick contain fish scales?

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Dear Cecil: Does lipstick contain fish scales? I saw this in a list of fun facts making the rounds by E-mail. Natalie Monahan, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Who comes up with these lists? Yeah, lipstick contains fish scales. Some lipstick, anyway. This could be the first E-mail factoid in the history of the Internet to have some grounding in reality. Sooner or later you knew something was bound to slip through.

The ingredient under discussion is called pearl essence. (Some sources give this as “pearlescence.”) It’s the silvery stuff found in fish scales that’s used in some lipsticks, nail polishes, ceramic glazes, etc., to make them shimmery. Pearl essence is obtained primarily from herring and is one of many by-products of large-scale commercial fish processing. Synthetic versions have been developed, but to what extent they’ve supplanted the natural variety I hesitate to say. The cosmetics companies were not forthcoming and I got contrary stories from different industry observers. Fishermen still collect the stuff, though, and one presumes it’s being put to good use.

What was interesting to me — I got numerous inquiries about this — was that people are still alarmed to discover that consumer products contain (oh, ick!) animal body parts. Gang, one hates to harp on this, but get a grip. Most of you eat hunks of dead animal every day! You wallow in the flesh of critters that once gamboled in the gardenias! (Frolicked in the foam, whatever.) You want the pearl essence to go to waste? It would otherwise be left over after they extracted the more obviously useful parts of the fish, and surely it’s preferable to have the stuff wind up on the lips of women than on some heap of toxic slag.

Still, one wants to be thorough. I contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, figuring that any organization with the balls to urge college students to drink beer rather than milk because dairying hurts the cows was sure to have a horror story or two about how we oppress fish. No response, although you have to assume the hook and net thing isn’t good. Prowling about on the Web I did find this description of how pearl essence is harvested: “The purse seine draws the herring up from the bottom and into an ever-decreasing circle, where the pumper [boat] pumps the fish out, and into the hold of the buyer’s boat. In the meantime, due to thrashing in the seine and going through the pumper, nearly all of the herring scales are removed and diverted into bags on the pumper’s deck.” This is perhaps not the world’s kindest process. I also learned that global herring production is threatened by overfishing, raising the specter of a world full of nonshimmering lips.

Pearl essence is just one of a long list of unsuspected animal ingredients in cosmetics. If you think fish scales in lipstick is gross, get a load of cerebrosides, used in skin-care products to create a smoother skin surface, increase moisture retention, heighten “luminosity,” etc. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “the raw material for cerebrosides in cosmetics comes from cattle, oxen, or swine brain cells or other nervous-system tissues.” Eww.

If you’re bothered by this sort of thing you might prefer to get your cosmetics from environmentally aware companies such as Aveda. In addition to minimizing the use of synthetics and volatiles, Minneapolis-based Aveda relies on plant- rather than animal-based ingredients. “Some colors, for example, are very difficult to create without using carmine, but the company decided that crushing insects to derive the ingredient is unethical,” we read. One smiles, but in the era of the rape of the rain forest it’s charming to hear about a company so good-hearted that it wouldn’t hurt — well, if not a fly, at least a Dactylopius coccus.

Questions we’re still thinking about

first of x-files and the video game are just another thing to incourage sceptics and futher more talking to any1 about it and the abduction theories they don’t care and it gets me a lil’ pissed off i’ve treid streiber and another and they don’t return anything by looks the government has sold our souls to the greys and i think any concerned people about this area 51 crap is nothing compared to what evidence there is in the past are possesions of these inteligent intergalctic beings after all we where created by them why do u think that after all this time there still isn’t peace in the world plus there are so many religons although we have changed hands many times


Cecil replies:

You’ve got a point there, brother–and one of these days I’m going to figure out what it is.

Cecil Adams

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