The Cochineal—A Very Special Insect
BY AWAKE! WRITERS IN MEXICO AND PERU
HOW do we get the bright-red colors in some lipsticks and other cosmetic products? It might surprise you to know that the crimson dye found in some blush and lipstick products comes from the cochineal, a scale insect that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. Let’s take a closer look at this very special insect.
Harmful or Helpful?
The adult female cochineal measures about one eighth of an inch [one third of a centimeter] in length, which is about the size of a match head. Male cochineals are only about half the size of the female. But do not let the size of cochineals fool you. One reference work says: “They are among the most destructive insects.” Despite this reputation, however, some farmers actually cultivate them. Why? In order to obtain carmine, a beautiful red dye that is derived from the dried, crushed bodies of female cochineals.
Since the days of the ancient Mixtec population, who lived in the modern-day state of Oaxaca, Mexico, cochineals have been used for dyestuffs. Spanish conquerors were fascinated by the cochineal’s crimson color, and soon many Europeans indulged their taste for rich tints with this natural dye. Britain used to use cochineal for the traditional scarlet color of military uniforms. The use of cochineal was so widespread that from about 1650 to 1860, only gold and silver surpassed it as Mexico’s most valuable export.
Disappearance and Recovery
By the mid-19th century, synthetic dyes began to replace natural colorants. Many factors contributed to this. John Henkel of FDA Consumer magazine explains: “Chemically synthesized colors simply were easier to produce, less expensive, and superior in coloring properties.” Thus, within a short period of time, synthetic colors took over the market for color additives in food, drugs, and cosmetics. “But,” says Henkel, “as their use grew, so did safety concerns.”
Studies in the 1970’s suggested that certain synthetic colorings might cause cancer. As these potential health hazards became known, natural dyes began making a comeback. The nation of Peru, for instance, now produces some 85 percent of the world’s supply of cochineal. The Canary Islands are known for their cochineal harvest, as are southern Spain, Algeria, and countries in Central and South America. However, the present-day demand for carmine exceeds its availability, so the government of Mexico is attempting to increase its production.
How Carmine Dye Is Produced
The cochineal spends its entire life on the pads of the prickly pear cactus. It protects itself from predators by secreting a powdery, waxlike substance. This fluffy material encapsulates the insect and serves as its home. But it also makes the insect easy to locate at harvesttime.
Only female cochineals contain the red pigment, carminic acid. Pregnant cochineals contain the highest concentration of it. Thus, in order to obtain the best-quality dye, workers take special care to harvest pregnant cochineals just before they lay their eggs. In the Andes of Peru, the harvesting takes place about three times within a seven-month period. Cochineals are brushed off the plant using a stiff brush or are scraped off with a dull blade. After they are dried, cleaned, and pulverized, the powdered insect bodies are processed in ammonia or sodium carbonate solution. Insect solids are removed by filtering, leaving the remaining liquid purified. Lime may also be added in order to produce purple shades.
While the thought of applying makeup produced from insects may not sound very appealing, you can rest assured that natural “color additives are among the most scrutinized,” says Henkel. “Those colors have been studied, studied, and restudied, sometimes dozens of times.” So if you receive a compliment about how radiant you look, it may be due in part to the cochineal, a very special insect!
[Pictures on page 23]
1. Cochineals on a cactus pad
2. Close-up of pregnant females
3. Dried cochineals
4. Processing of liquid used in cosmetics
Page 23 photos: #1: The Living Desert, Palm Desert, CA; #3 and products: Cortesía del Centro de Investigaciones Económicas, Sociales y Tecnológicas para la Agroindustria y la Agricultura Mundial, Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo, fotografía de Macario Cruz; #4: David McLain/AURORA
[Picture on page 23]
Products made with the dye