Cochineal – Genuine Bug’s Blood!


My late grandfather was a stern but lovable man with some very firm opinions. Even now, some 35 years after his death, he is still fondly remembered for referring to insurance salesmen as “death hunters” and lipstick as “bug’s blood”. I wonder how he’d feel about that last point if I were to tell him that he was, in fact, dead right.

Until the advent of safe synthetic dyes which could be used in makeup, the red of lipstick was formed using greater or lesser amounts of cochineal, which comes from the crushed bodies of a South American beetle similar to the cockroach. Cochineal can still be found today as a food colouring – check those labels when you’re out shopping if you don’t believe me – although it is rarely used in makeup for a pure red shade of lipstick.

A book I have been reading recently called “Travels through the Paintbox” gives a very good description of the lifecycle of the cochineal beetle. It is bred on the leaves of a particular type of cactus (and interestingly, appears as white blotches on the leaves) which are then harvested and the insects are then crushed, boiled and treated to create the dye. As with silk manufacture, a certain number of insects need to be retained to breed to ensure future harvests, so something like one in fifty beetles will be kept aside for this purpose.

So it seems Granddad was right. Lipstick really is bug’s blood. I’m just pleased I don’t wear it anymore!


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