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‘Seemingly unconquerable’: Unilever to open-source vegan replacement for carmine red

By Kacey Culliney contact

- Last updated on GMT

After three years of collaborative research and development work, Unilever and its Hourglass brand have produced a vegan blend to replace carmine - widely used in the colour cosmetics market (Getty Images)
After three years of collaborative research and development work, Unilever and its Hourglass brand have produced a vegan blend to replace carmine - widely used in the colour cosmetics market (Getty Images)

Related tags: Unilever, Prestige beauty, vegan beauty, carmine, beauty 4.0, ethical beauty, Colour cosmetics, Lipstick, Makeup

Unilever and its prestige brand Hourglass have developed a vegan carmine alternative after years of supplier collaboration – a patent-pending innovation it plans to open-source in the coming year, says the global vice president of R&D for prestige.

Unilever’s LA-headquartered prestige cosmetics brand Hourglass, acquired in 2017​, had now transformed its entire colour cosmetics and skin care portfolio to vegan, following the final push on reformulating its red lipstick. The most complex change in the portfolio, Unilever and Hourglass had spent three years working to refine a blend made from existing ingredients that could replace industry’s timeless vibrant red that had traditionally been made from carmine – crushed female cochineal insects. For every pound of carmine, 70,000 insects were used; translating to around 1,000 per single lipstick.

Jason Harcup, global vice president of R&D for the prestige division at Unilever, said plenty of attempts had been made on non-animal carmine alternatives but all had fallen short on vibrancy.

“This [ingredient] has been around for a very long time; it’s been around for centuries as a dye. So, for a very long time, people have tried to produce it and create it and they haven’t been able to,”​ Harcup told CosmeticsDesign-Europe. 

Jason Harcup, global vice president of R&D for the prestige division at Unilever
Jason Harcup, global vice president of R&D for the prestige division at Unilever

“…The fact is, [replacing carmine] is something that has been so coveted for so long, and seemingly unconquerable, but you can if you use good old science and technology. I think that’s a learning and inspiration for us and other people as well,”​ he said.

Computational work and ‘glorified upcycling’ for a 95%+ colour match

So, how exactly had the teams created a blend that matched carmine?

Unilever had opted to refine a combination of existing ingredients, rather than synthetically replicate carmine with a new ingredient or molecule, which Harcup said would typically result in the wastage of around 99% of materials used to make the lab-alternative.

“You don’t have to invent a new-to-the-world molecule,” ​he said. “So, the whole basis here was using new technology to find novel combinations of things that are good for everybody and the planet. And you get a much better solution. It’s a glorified upcycling.”

The Hourglass 'Confession Lipstick Red O' (Image: Hourglass/Unilever)
The Hourglass 'Confession Lipstick Red O' (Image: Hourglass/Unilever)

“…There was a hell of a lot of computational work,”​ he said. Various technologies had been used to better analyse and digitally define carmine red, firstly, he said – including reflectance spectroscopy that gave a digitised version of human vision for every colour of the visible spectrum. Once the true colour signature of carmine red had been defined, he said the teams then went ahead on trying to match it by more than 95%.

The resulting blend, finalised with around 175 non-digital experiments after the raft of computerised work, was a potent combination of ingredients that offered more than 97% of a performance match to carmine, Harcup said. And, importantly, this had been achieved thanks to extensive collaboration with more than 30 suppliers across the computational, experimentation, screening, development and ingredient fields.

‘This is something that we want everybody to use’

Asked if Unilever planned to share this innovative blend with wider industry, given how complex it had been to create, Harcup said: “Red O is a patent-pending ingredient which we plan to open-source in the coming year.”

Because it had been so “technically complicated”​ to replace carmine with a vegan alternative – far more complex than replacing other beauty and personal care ingredients – he said the teams had carefully discussed the importance of making the ingredient more widely available.

“We said: ‘hang on a second, this is something that we want everybody to use’. So, it is being made available.”

And Harcup said given that 18-20% of all colour cosmetics contained carmine red and more than 10,000 product launches containing the ingredient happened in the last five years alone, there was certainly an important “scale”​ in terms of the potential a vegan alternative could offer the market. And, he said carmine was not just used in coloured cosmetics – appearing in a plethora of other personal care products too.

Carisa Janes, founder of Hourglass and the driving force behind the vegan replacement project, said: “Carmine is everywhere, from food and alcohol to paint, medication and lipstick. Creating a vegan alternative felt like an impossible feat at times, but it was such an important step – we need to move away from treating living beings as expendable. We’re excited to introduce the new ingredient in such an iconic shade of lipstick, a symbol of our commitment to animal welfare.”

Harcup said Unilever was also excited about incorporating the ingredient into wider parts of its portfolio over time, particularly given vegan beauty and personal care opportunity. “We definitely have that ‘let’s spread the love here and get this out as far as we can’ mentality. And one of the positives about the job I have, is I don’t have any barriers doing that.”

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