One of the most famous shades of red is called carmine or crimson.

Carmine, crimson or cochineal is an ancient pigment of organic origin that is obtained from several types of lice, namely females. In the Old World from Kermes vermilio (shade of vermilion) and Porphyrophora hamelii (Armenian cochineal), and in the New World (America) from a related louse that lives on  Opuntia cacti, called Dactylopius coccus.

In the 16th century, Europeans who came to America noticed the tradition of the Aztecs and Mayans in the production of a vibrant red dye that was used to dye textiles. The lipstick for this came from the aforementioned insects.

By the way, these insects are not really red. When workers involved in the production of crimson red remove them from prickly pears, they are whitish, because they are covered with a type of wax. To extract the pigment, the wax must be removed.

Dactyopius coccus, Photo by Vahe Martirosyan

Until the end of the Mexican War (1810-1821), Mexico had a monopoly on the export of cochineal, and no one was disgusted by this substance because it comes from lice. Today, a lot of cochineal/carmine is traditionally produced in Peru and Mexico. Peru is the largest producer of this pigment. About 70,000 insects are needed for about 450 grams of pigment (1 pound).

Attempts to introduce Dactylopius cocci s to other continents were unsuccessful. In the 19th century, it was tried in Australia, cacti and insects were brought in, but the insects did not like it. But that’s why the prickly pear cactus became an invasive species and its abundance was barely regulated at the beginning of the 20th century. Attempts to introduce insects in Ethiopia also failed, so Latin America retained a monopoly over the production of this substance.

In 2018, scientists managed to produce carminic acid in a type of mold through genetic engineering.

As a food additive and pigment in cosmetics, carmine / cochineal is labeled as “cochineal extract”, “crimson varnish” (take a closer look at ingredients list of your blushes, lipsticks, lip glosses), “natural red no 4” and as E120. One of the reasons that this substance (in other words, a form of carminic acid) is used so much as a red color in cosmetics and in food is that it has been shown that synthetic red colors are mostly carcinogenic. As this dye is made from insects and not synthetically, it belongs to the “natural ingredients” and is labeled as such.

Of course, even this organic is not completely harmless. There are people who are allergic to this ingredient. From 1998 to 2006 , 32 people were registered in the world who had allergic reactions (including anaphylactic shock) due to lipstick. I have no data for the number before and after this period at the time of writing this post.

Recently, there has been a frequent occurrence of misinformation about how some products (mainly candies, sweets, etc.) contain insects. This misinformation plays with the fact that some of these products contain lipstick, E120, as a dye. However, they do not contain insects. Every woman who uses lipstick has unknowingly eaten who knows how much lipstick. This substance is safe for human use, except in a small percentage of people who are sensitive to it.

These misinformation and spins became current in 2022 and 2023, because then the idea of ​​reducing the use of meat and replacing red meat with insect proteins became current. Radical circles that deny climate change, began to spin all the news about it and spread how insects are secretly inserted into food, referring not only to lipstick, but also to shellac (E 904), which has also been used for a long time in the food industry. Lists of foods containing E120 are being shared to counter the agenda of forcing people to eat insects. However, this substance has been in use for hundreds of years and no one has complained much about it. If you are not allergic to it, there is no reason to be disgusted and to avoid cosmetics or food with cochineal. Don’t be intimidated.



Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.