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Close up image of carmine powder.

Why Companies Are Ditching Carmine

Even if bugs don’t gross you out, you probably aren’t actively attempting to spread their guts on your body parts—especially not your lips. However, it turns out your most beloved shade of kiss-me red might just be colored with—you guessed it—bug guts

Carmine, a cosmetic industry favorite, is a red colorant extracted from the crushed shells of the female cochineal insect, an insect native to Mexico, South America, and the Canary Islands. 

Incidentally, the food industry likes to use carmine, too. 

Here’s why many companies are ditching carmine and opting for plant-based dyes in their products instead.

What is carmine?

Crushed bugs. 

More specifically, the crushed shells of cochineal scale bugs that thrive on prickly pear cacti. The female beetles excrete a compound called carminic acid that turns their shells red, and can be used as a dye to prepare products with red coloring. Male cochineal insects need not apply.

Carminic acid is found in the shells of other scale insects, but the cochineal bug has an abundance of this compound, making for more bang for each bug. 

Using cochineal insects for their red coloring isn’t new; historical records show that the Aztecs used the bugs to paint and dye fabrics. Since then, the cochineal beetle has been specifically raised to be boiled, crushed, and added to foods, clothing, and personal care products. 

How is carmine prepared?

The preparation of carmine is brutal to the insects involved. Female insects are collected and crushed into a fine powder. The scales are separated from the rest of their bodies through a process that involves boiling them in ammonia. 

The ammonia separates the solids (shells) from the liquids (guts). The solution is then treated with alum to bring out the red color. At this point, the solution is ready to be used for various red pigments. 

Carmine can also be used for deep purples with a little lime added to the solution. 

The problem with carmine, aside from the fact that it’s just plain cruel to the insects, is the sheer volume of insects it takes to prepare even one pound of dye—which is 70,000 female cochineal bugs, by the way. 

Seventy. 

THOUSAND. 

What is carmine used for in cosmetics?

Carmine is used in cosmetics to pigment them with red and purple hues. Nailpolish, blush, and lipstick are all products that can be colored with carmine. But it isn’t just cosmetic companies that include carmine in their products; food and beverage companies frequently use it to color their products, too. 

Candy, juices, yogurt, and the strawberries used in strawberry ice cream flavors are all products that can conceal crushed bugs in their ingredients list. 

Vegans have brought awareness to the use of insect bodies in products, which has resulted in some companies, like Starbucks, eliminating these ingredients from their products. (Starbucks also offers a ton of vegan options, so win-win.)

Three cheers for beverages without beetles! 

Is carmine safe?

The use of carmine to dye products isn’t just stomach-churning; it’s also unsafe. Carmine dye has been shown to cause severe allergic reactions in some users and even trigger asthma attacks in others. 

While cases of anaphylactic shock are rare, the inclusion of carmine in a product is risky and wholly unnecessary, as there are alternatives to this dye that are equally as effective and don’t involve the use of crushing and boiling insects. 

So, you want to avoid bug guts in your products? Seems easy, right? Wrong. It’s not so simple. 

It goes without saying a company probably won’t sell many products by including “bug parts” on their labels, so instead, they use carmine code names.

How can I tell if there’s carmine in my products?

Carmine goes by many names, but sometimes, you’ll just see it listed on your label as cochineal or cochineal extract. If you aren’t familiar with the insect name, you wouldn’t know that’s what cochineal is. 

To find out if carmine exists in your products, look for these names:

  • Cochineal
  • Cochineal extract
  • Carmine
  • Crimson lake
  • Natural red 4
  • C.I. 75470
  • E120
  • Carmine lake

Still, you may not know if carmine is in your product. Companies may simply use “natural colors” to label red dye ingredients in their products. 

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not strictly regulate ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. As long as an ingredient isn’t synthetic, a company can place “natural colors” on the label.

What are safe alternatives to carmine?

As more and more companies ditch carmine, alternative red and purple ingredients have become popular so we can still keep the beautiful red hues we love, without risking our health or destroying insect populations—what a beautiful balance.  

Here are some of the most popular, plant-based ingredients that produce beautiful shades of red. 

Anthocyanins

These fruit-based compounds are what give those deep, beautiful hues to fruits and vegetables like berries, eggplants, grapes, and tropical fruits. This ingredient can be extracted from plants and added to products to give them rich shades of red and purple. 

Using this ingredient also comes with the bonus of being able to come from discarded plant parts leftover from the food industry, making it an environmentally conscious choice, too. 

Beetroot

If you’ve ever stained your teeth or fingers while eating or preparing beets, you know how strong the red color of beets can be. Beetroot can be extracted and added to products to color them with plant-based reds and purples. 

Cruelty-free brands often use this extract to give products brilliant shades of red and purple, and it’s inexpensive and generally recognized as safe. That means you can use it without worrying whether or not you’ll develop a skin sensitivity to it. 

Lycopene

The same nutrient that gives tomatoes their beautiful red color can also be extracted from the vegetable and used in cosmetics and personal care products for a beautiful red hue. 

These ingredients are not only plant-based and safe for animals and the environment, they’re also better for your skin and body. Lycopene is a safe ingredient that can be used as an alternative in food, cosmetics, and even clothing dyes. 

Paint the town red

You don’t have to straight up avoid using the shades you love in your lipstick, blush, and other makeup products. Knowing how to spot carmine in your products can help you avoid using the products that contain it, and ensure you’re doing your part to keep the animal population safe while using higher-quality ingredients in your cosmetics. 

The Kinder Beauty blog is your go-to source for information about animal-based ingredients. We’ve got all the information you need to stay up-to-date, like how some companies are using alternative, plant-based ingredients. 

If you want to give up-and-coming cruelty-free brands a chance to earn your business, sign up for The Kinder Beauty Box and get cruelty-free products shipped to your door every month. It’s the easiest way to learn about safer, kinder products

With Kinder Beauty, you can keep painting the town red, sans insects. 

Sign up for your Kinder Beauty Box today.

 

Sources:

Does Your Red Lipstick Contain Carmine (Dead Bugs)? | PETA.org 

Asthma and allergy due to carmine dye | PubMed 

Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling | FDA.gov

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