Be forewarned: today we’re delving into our first creepy crawly topic, and, oh yes, there will be pics. Sorry if that bugs you. Heh heh. Bugs. Get it? Because we’re learning about cochineal scale insects.
Carmine is the dye derived from cochineal. It can be found in a variety of foods, hair and skin care products, lipsticks, eye shadows, and blushes. Basically, in anything pink or red. Cochineal refers to the insects themselves. They are true bugs, of the order hemiptera, which means they have piercing, sucking mouthparts. Don’t panic. They only use their terrifying beak-things to drink from prickly pear cactus pads. They’re herbivores.
I am so sorry if all of this leads to nightmares. I just… I am not good at not being creepy when it comes to insects. I’m way too entranced by them.
The chemical extract we so value exists in the female cochineals as an ant repellant. It is not poisonous and neither is the eventual dye. So much misinformation exists on the internet about these little guys and I don’t know why. Are you all really that skeeved out about insects? Is that it? Because they’re fine, I promise. They won’t ever even come in contact with you while they’re alive unless you make a habit of sleeping outdoors in the Mexican desert on a bed of cacti, in which case bugs can’t possibly be at the top of your list of concerns.
Cochineal (oh by the way, it’s pronounced either coach-ih-neel or cotch-ih-neel, whichever feels right to you) was first used by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a fabric dye. Colonization by Spain brought the dye to Europe for the first time in the 1500s, where it became highly coveted and pricy, replacing many older red dye sources due to its colorfastness and vibrancy. For 300 years the bugs reigned supreme. Then science happened, as it so often does. In 1863, Alizarin crimson became the first natural pigment to be reproduced synthetically, using coal tar. It was cheap. It was mass-producible. It was awesome. It was hugely popular. Also, like almost everything else in the 1800s, it was carcinogenic.
Cochineal production ground almost to a halt, existing only for the sake of tradition (Thanks, stubborn elderly people!) until the second half of the 20th century, when we began to question the effects the synthetic alternatives were having on our health. Again, refined coal tar. On our faces. All the time. Nowadays, if you’re using cochineal products, you’re likely supporting small scale farmers in Peru, the Canary Islands, and Mexico, helping them to make a living farming the bugs. As with jojoba, this all occurs in a desert landscape, sustainably and with little agricultural water use. Because we’re working with bugs here, pest control measures (to protect the cacti and the cochineal bugs from predators) must take care to not prematurely kill off the cash crop, so these farms aren’t producing many excess toxins. It’s a great set-up.
Oh, and many products still use coal tar or petroleum derivatives for red hues in lieu of carmine. For real. Natural is usually a better alternative than those options.
On the flipside, these are tiny living animals. For the purposes of this blog (and because they’re neat and tie dye is fun), I ordered a jar of dried cochineal. I’ve dyed a tank top with these before, but I had forgotten how smelly they are in their raw form. I’ll show you the results in a separate post, since this one is once again soooo long. It’s undeniable when you’re working closely with them that these are dead things. It’s harsh. It’s unpleasant. It’s obviously not vegan or kosher or halal friendly.
Cochineal dyes also cause an allergic reaction in a small subset of the population. That’s why, in 2009, the FDA mandated that cochineal be explicitly listed on ingredient labels rather than vaguely hidden behind the label “natural color”. Depending on where you are and where your makeup comes from, however, you might still see it listed as cochineal extract, carmine, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. If you’re allergic to shrimp and shellfish, you might want to get tested for carmine/cochineal allergies as well, since carmine dye is used in everything from yogurt to lunch meat and could be angering your intestines as we speak. Any time you’re unsure of how you’ll react to a new product, swatch a tiny bit on the back of your hand before you buy. As someone with ultra-sensitive skin, I can’t stress that enough. Swatch and wait. Hang around Ulta until you’re fairly certain nothing is happening. Better au naturale than au bleeding, cracking, clown-lipped. That’s what I… sometimes… say.
If you are allergic and scrutinizing labels, always scan the actual ingredient list. Front of the label buzzwords are largely meaningless. Just because a company doesn’t test on animals, that does not mean they refrain from using beeswax, shellac, cochineal, or squalene as ingredients. Even companies that advertise as hypoallergenic may still use cochineal in some products.
That said, let’s wrap up with a few carmine-free recommendations, shall we?
First off, E.L.F. cosmetics are as cheap as it gets and, save for one of their brush lines (which is made with horsehair), they are vegan. I’m loving their HD blush in headliner and their matte lip color in praline.
Some NYX products are carmine-free, while others aren’t. Up there you’ll see a nice matte red, called Alabama, which claims to contain no carmine. For an at least semi-complete listing on their products go here. I, personally, love their matte lipstick line. The colors are amazing, the matte isn’t super-drying, and it’s super affordable ($4 each, I believe?).
As far as prestige brands go, I’m having wintery fun with this Butter London Lippy in Ruby Murray (Scored at half price. Holla at the Ulta clearance aisle!). For Butter London’s vegan product list head over here. I’m also indulging in Tarte’s Tartelette lipstick in ethereal pink, which is a new release that is perfect for spring. It’s a rich neutral staple (trendy!), it’s made with clay pigments, and it’s a little bit minty. Both of these are carmine-free, but may contain beeswax. Tarte does carry some vegan products, labeled helpfully with a green V on the product pages of their website (it will be to the left of the ‘add to bag’ button) if you’re interested.
Coming up: a dyeing experience, as well as our first toxic baddie. Hopefully those two will be unrelated and completely separate.