Carmine Color in Cosmetics – A Natural Colorant?

Carmine is perhaps one of the most interesting pigments used in cosmetics because of its origin and history. If anyone would like a deeper dive into the history, just let me know and I’ll create another post, it’s probably too much to cover here.

What is Carmine?

Carmine is a bright red pigment based on carminic acid. Carminic acid is derived from the dried bodies of adult female insects and their eggs. Specifically, adult female cochineal (Dactylopius coccus costa) insects. These organisms are almost always sessile and remain on the plants they parasitize, a specific species of cactus (Nopalea coccinelliferna). 

On the plant, they secret a waxy coating resembling reptile scales. The similarity to reptile scales is responsible for the fact that these insects are referred to as scale insects. The insects are harvested by hand and dried in the sun or ovens. One source suggests that some 70,000 hand harvested insects are needed to make one pound cochineal extract!

Carmine in cosmetics

The use of carmine is limited due to its high cost and variability in supply. But it is often used in products for the eye area where it is the only bright red pigment allowed by the FDA. Carmine is also used in natural formulations, but it’s worth remembering that cosmetic carmine is laked so it is not 100% natural. While carmine must be a minimum of 50% carminic acid per FDA regulations, it is combined with aluminum or calcium-aluminum to make a lake of carminic acid. Dyes are soluble in the medium they are used in, typically this means water. To take on the characteristics of a pigment, becoming insoluble and opaque to give payoff in cosmetics, a dye is extended onto an insoluble substrate.

Carmine certification

While carmine is not a certifiable, meaning every batch does not need to be tested by FDA laboratories for compliance to regulations, FDA mandates that carmine is free from salmonella because it’s susceptible to microbial contamination. So carmine must undergo pasteurization. The manufacturer is responsible for testing carmine against FDA specifications. Carmine is also not considered vegan because of its source.

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