Natural pigments? Think ink.

The Common Cuttlefish. Photographer David Nicholson, Copyright Marine Biological Association of the UK

Meet Sepia officinalis, the cuttlefish, who may well be making a surprisingly hefty contribution to your makeup bag in the near future, according to this paper from Coloration Technology. But what could possibly connect these true molluscs (not fish, despite the name) that, let’s face it, are certainly more Davy Jones than Grace Jones, with the ever-glamorous cosmetics industry?

Mascara seems to hold a very special place in our hearts, and has done so for thousands of years. Eye makeup, be it mascara or eye shadow, has been used throughout Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome and beyond, and is now a hallmark of anybody’s cosmetic bag. In fact, a survey from last year hailed it “the most important makeup product for women”.

Cuttlefish are known as the chameleons of the sea – they can blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, even if they’ve never seen them before. Besides being the deep sea masters of disguise, they’re also known for being producers of an ink, used to protect them from predators, in exactly the same way as octopuses and squid do. You can see them in action in the clip below. In terms of colour, it’s incredibly dark, which comes as a result of its main constituent: melanin. We humans are no strangers to melanin: it is, after all, the primary determinant of our hair, skin and eye colour.

But what do these marine molluscs have to do with mascara? The small, but ever-growing, market for natural products in the cosmetic industry means that manufacturers are constantly seeking out alternatives to replace the synthetic pigments used in most products. That’s where cuttlefish come in. The study was looking at potential avenues to obtain natural black dyes, an essential addition to a multitude of makeup items, and found that the ink that cuttlefish produce might just do the job. Colours have proven to play an instrumental role in the commercial success of cosmetics; cosmetics, after all, is a huge industry, now everywhere and constantly expanding (quite worryingly, in my opinion) into younger territory. Any progress in the development of new pigments will therefore be a huge boost for the natural cosmetic market.

This natural black, sepia black ink, seems like a perfect candidate: the presence of melanin means that it should be compatible with our own colouring, and the processing of cuttlefish generates lots of waste, including the ink sacs we’re interested in here.

How does it perform? The pigment showed good results when tested for the basics: texture, colour and covering capacity all proved effective, and the fact that it’s odourless makes it an especially worthy candidate. However, as well as being a good performer, any potential pigment must of course pass through a series of rigorous safety testing. A primary concern is the growth of bacteria, but the use of sepicide (a preservative used for the ink) was shown to keep this at bay; in fact, sepia ink itself was shown to possess antibacterial and antiseptic properties itself – most definitely an added bonus.

So while these deep-sea creatures certainly don’t look the most glamorous, they may well be the makeup’s next big thing.


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