“Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together” is sound counsel from one of history’s most glamorous superstars, Elizabeth Taylor. If the quote had been amended to, “put on some fish scales”, though, it perhaps wouldn’t have become quite so eternal in the lipstick-quote hall of fame. It’s true, lipstick does contain fish scales, but for good reason.
The reason lipstick contains fish scales is because they can be used to make synthetic pearls, which makes pearlessence. Pearlessence is the non-toxic ingredient that catches and reflects light to give your lips the shimmering aesthetic marketed by lipstick brands.
Here’s all you need to know about the history and relationship between fish scales and lipstick, highlighting the the logic for their use:
Fish Scales in Pearls
Pearls are used in lipstick. However, as anyone with a string of pearls will know (or rather, anyone with either a multi-generational pearl necklace passed down the family, or just a fake one), they don’t come cheap. Given that lipstick, on the other hand, often comes cheap, there must be something going on between the pearly inclusion and the stick of lippie.
The answer is simple: fake pearls, which are probably more accurately just a “crystalline substance”, which proto-material scientists can create using fish scales. Long story short, a Frenchman called Jacquin discovered that a pearly substance (pearlessence) rose to the surface when fish scales were submerged in water, mixed it with varnish and did a few other moulding techniques, and made a shimmering, inexpensive alternative to real pearls. That substance, often listed in the ingredients as “guanine”, is what’s making your lipstick shimmer (not unlike a fish…)
Pearls in Lipstick
So, now that you understand how there are fish scales in pearls (or rather, the fake versions used in lipstick), the next thing to unpack is the reasoning behind why these fishy alternatives are used in lipstick in the first place, answering the question of “why” on a very literal level. This leads to a sentence arguably unexpected on a beauty platform: imagine a colourful fish in the sun. Their scales are sparkling, reflecting the light, and resulting in the flesh underneath the scales to positively shimmer. This is what your lipstick is going for, too, so that’s why it’s used.
This is where the less yes/no answer to “why” comes into play, with many probably wondering, “Surely there are shimmering substances that… aren’t fish?” Well, the first element is the cost. Though plenty can be said for the fishing industry, so long as humans are still consuming fish, using all the parts of it seems both cost-effective and less wasteful.
Another element is that they are non-toxic. Lipstick products are often riddled with parabens, not to mention lead, so the inclusion of fish scales is arguably the least of our worries. However, this does of course mean that most lipsticks are not cruelty-free – and that’s just one of the reasons in cases such as French make-up brand Nars.
So What If You Don’t Want Fish Scales In Your Lipstick?
The reality is that even once you understand the logic behind using fish scales in lipstick, you still may not want products containing it. Reasoning varies, but all can be resolved by purchasing the following vegan lipsticks (and therefore, no fish scales). Though you could try swapping to fish-less lipsticks that aren’t vegan (and simply use alternatives to pearl essence), it seems like if you’re rejecting fish-scales, you’re probably also off-put by an alternative of crushed up bugs…