My Makeup Has What In It?!
Rarely does a women's cosmetics conjure images of a tiny, and seemingly insignificant insect that feeds on the prickly pear cactus.
Surprisingly though, the crimson dye found in some lipstick and blush products come from such an insect called the cochineal.
* The Cochineal And Your Cosmetics.
Measuring about the size of a match head (one eighth of an inch or one third of a centimeter in length), the female cochineal is the major source of carmine - a beautiful and vibrant red dye - that is obtained from it's crushed body.
This red pigment, or carminic acid, winds up in many cosmetics today.
* The Historical Uses Of Cochineal.
Using the female cochineal for dyestuffs is nothing new. As far back as the ancient Mixtec population (a populace who lived in the modern-day state of Oaxaca, Mexico), has this way of achieving crimson dye been established.
The fascination of the cochineal's vibrant crimson color touched Spanish conquerors and many Europeans as well.
In addition, Britain used this natural dye source for the traditional scarlet color of their military uniforms. And so widespread was its use, that from 1650 to 1860, only silver and gold surpassed it as Mexico's most valuable export!
* From The Plant To Your Cosmetics.
It is interesting to note, that only female cochineals contain the desired red pigment necessary for the vibrant crimson dye used in cosmetics.
And since it is the pregnant cochineals that contain the highest concentration of the desired red pigment, to get the best-quality dye, pregnant cochineals are harvested before they lay their eggs.
The harvesting process is both laborious, and not-so-pleasant:
1.) Using a stiff brush or dull blade, cochineals are brushed or scraped off the prickly pear cactus plant.
2.) Then they are dried, cleaned and pulverized.
3.) Immediately after, the powered insect bodies are processed in an ammonia or sodium carbonate solution.
4.) The remaining solids are removed by filtering, leaving behind the purified liquid.
5.) In some instances, lime may be added in order to produce purple shades.
* The Cochineal's Comeback.
By the mid-19th century, due to the ease in production, superiority in coloring properties, and frugality aspect, the use of synthetic dyes took over natural colorants.
Sadly, with the sharp increase of synthetic dyes in food, drugs and cosmetics, along came an increase in safety concerns.
For instance, studies in the 1970's suggested that certain synthetic colorings might contribute to (or even cause) cancer.
It was at this time that natural dyes such as cochineal began to make a steady comeback.
So much so, that in 2002, the demand for carmine (sometimes labeled as E120) exceeded its availability prompting the government of Mexico to increase it's production.
However, due to social concerns, ethics, or the simple "gross out" factor, some may not be comfortable with the idea of wearing makeup with crushed insects as a major ingredient.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable how vibrant and eye-catching the dye of the cochineal (although a seemingly lowly and insignificant creature) is to both the wearer and the observer. It's a show stopper indeed!