Focus: Carmine in Make-up

Carmine has been used as a dye by the Mayan and Aztec people’s for thousands of years however the use of Carmine in cosmetic formulation has become more and more controversial. In this post I am looking at the use of carmine in cosmetics and weighing up my options…

So what exactly is Carmine?
One of the most ancient natural dyes, Carmine is derived from the shells of the Cochineal, a scale insect (it’s not a beetle) native to South America. The non-flying Cochineal live on the prickly pear species of cacti (hence the name) and the female insects are intensively farmed specifically for their red pigment. It is this red pigment which gave its rise to the dye’s Aztec name; nochezli – meaning the blood of the prickly pear. 

The red colouring is due to the Carminic acid found in high concentration in the insects. The dye is produced by immersing the insects in hot water or exposed to sunlight or heat and then drying them until they weigh approximately 30% of their original body weight. The dried insects are powdered and this powder is the basis of the dye – it takes an estimated 70,000 dried insects to produce 1lb of Carminic acid dye.

Carmine acid is pH dependant and the colour of the dye aries depending on the processing method used. By adjusting the pH levels the colour of the dye can be altered; orange reds are created using a lower pH and deeper tones by a higher level.

The resulting dye is added to fabric, food and make-up, however it has many guises and may also be listed as CI 75470,  Crimson Lake, Cochineal, Natural Red 4, Natural Colouring or E120.

Why is the use of carmine such a problem?

If you can put carmine in your food and on your lips then it must be ok right? Carmine is considered safe to use in cosmetics and it’s use is widespread but it doesn’t come without it’s issues.

The use of carmine in products surely brings into question the use of the term crueltyfree within the industry. Many non-vegan natural and organic brands state they are cruelty free but use carmine in their formulations. So can these products really be considered truly cruelty free?

If you can put the issue of carmine/carminic acid being derived from insects to one side for just a moment, there other potential issues with it too.

Although not widespread there are many cases of contact dermatitis and skin irritation caused by the use of cosmetic products which contain the dye. In very rare cases it has been the cause of anaphylactic shock. Obviously these cases are very rare and no matter how controlled ingredients are there will always be someone who is allergic to something in a product no matter how safe, natural or organic is it.

But what are the alternatives?

The inclusion of Carmine isn’t exclusive to non-eco brands; many natural and organic companies also use it to add colour to lipsticks, blushers and even eyeshadows. Carmine isn’t the only option, there are alternatives however they aren’t without their pro’s and cons.

Extracts from plants and seeds such as beets, saffron and annatto (from the seeds of the achiote tree) all give red pigmentation. These extracts are generally found to be quite sheer and therefore may not give the desired opacity or density of colour required for some lipsticks.

 Iron oxides are also a possible substitute. Natural compounds of iron and oxygen, there are many types and shades of iron oxides (rust is one!). Generally considered non-toxic and therefore safe for use in cosmetics, they are found in many products however they can be a little drying.

The final alternatives are synthetic colourants, otherwise known as lake colors. These are widely used in both eco and non-eco brands however many are derived from coal tar. They often have catchy sounding names such as D&C Red 36, and D&C Red 22.

According to the EWG Skin Deep Database… In industrial production of colorants, the term “lake” is applied to pigments or dyes that are precipitated with metal salts such as aluminum, calcium, barium, or others. Most lake pigments are synthetically produced from coal tar or petroleum.”

I should of course emphasise that there are some companies who have managed to formulate a red lipstick relatively successfully without the use of carmine; Living Nature added two reds (Pure Passion and Wild Fire) to their product line earlier this year with excellent results and Ilia Beauty Lipstick Crayons and Colorise Lipsticks both also are great examples, however I use the word relatively. These are all are lovely products however they are the very few and even between them they don’t quite tick all my pro-use boxes…

So how do I feel about carmine in my products?

In principle I don’t like the idea of animals/insects in my products. I have always strived to have a kit which is cruelty free and this is the one ingredient (certainly that I am aware of) which directly challenges that theory.

I am not vegan; I eat sustainably sourced fish and I don’t object to beeswax in my beauty products however I do not want living things to be killed simply so I can have a red lipstick if I can help it but… and it’s a big but….

First and foremost I am a Make-up Artist. The job I do depends greatly on the quality work I produce and with that comes the performance of the products I use.  The vast majority of my beauty and male grooming kits are natural and organic however as I have already mentioned, many of these brands do use carmine as a principle colourant.

I actively look for and where possible use products free from carmine of course but if I need to produce a intense red lip in a special shade for a period make-up and the only product which gives me that is one which contains carmine, then what are my options?

I will only use products in my kit which I feel perform to the same standard (and in some cases higher) as conventional pro products; any less and they are not doing the job I need them to do. Until there is a suitable, safe and effective alternative to carmine in these products then sadly it is something I will have to continue to use – Long term I hope this won’t be the case!


What are your thoughts on the use of carmine in cosmetics?




Images: (1) Via IACM; (2) Via Most Becoming; (3) Helen K

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