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Cosmetic Industry Underbelly – The Fat Trade

November 20, 2009

This morning I was called by the ABC to comment on a gruesome mass murder involving the cosmetics industry. Apparently police uncovered a Peruvian gang who were alledged to have been harvesting the fat from humans and selling it to the cosmetics manufacturers for $15,000 per Kg.  Not being something I hear every day I must say that my first thoughts were of magical or mystical connections,   just like the hunters who take bile from bears hoping to capture its strength and virility this certainly seemed more superstition than science. 

That got me thinking   of the book  “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind, a book about a murderer motivated by his desire to  capture the perfect essence of humanity – an essence that was captured via carefully peeling the victims scent from them after embalming their bodies in warm animal fats (a technique called effluage which is still used today, only not usually on humans).

Anyway, aside from that what use would human fat have for the cosmetics industry?  I have to say that I don’t know ANY cosmetic house that would seek out this kind of ingredient. Fats are used in cosmetics to make creams, lotions and sometimes body washes feel good on the skin. The oils keep the skin moisturised and softened, help to deliver active ingredients to the skin and protect it from the environment.  Nowadays the oils used in cosmetics are most often vegetable derived – palm,  coconut, cotton, avocado, jojoba, macadamia and olive are often used. The prices of these oils can vary but usually you would usually only be looking at between $1000 and  $4000 for a MT of  plant-based oil making this human oil pretty expensive.

Chemically speaking, the composition of human fat would vary depending on the age, weight, collection site on the body and nutrition of the person the fat was harvested from. Sourcing human fat from a liposuction clinic would mean that you get lots of adipose tissue (the tissue that stores excess fat until we need to break it down and use it). This fat could contain stem cells, fatty acids, hormones and signalling molecules called cytokines – some of which could be of great interest to the cosmetic chemist – but NOT if they are sourced from murder victims (these active ingredients are usually plant or milk derived).

Overall I cannot think of any cosmetic company that would mandate using human tissue in this way, especially as the actives that the fat may (or may not) contain can be sourced ethically and sustainably from non-animal sources. The same would go for ingredient manufacturers who would have to give good traceability as to the origins of their oils, fats and actives. It seems that the lure of big money has again made some  people forget all about morality, ethics and respect. Let’s hope that this gang is stopped before any more people lose their lives in such a cold and calculating way.

To hear the ABC interview click here.

Update: 3rd December 2009

Cosmetic Design Europe reported today that the above story had been fabricated! Not surprising really as like many people commented, there is enough excess fat in Europe without importing more.  However, the fact remains that innocent people have been murdered and so far there has been no justice.  Let’s hope that the local police can get back on track and solve this gruesome crime.

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