The Lipstick Tree

Bixa orellana blossom

Bixa orellana blossom

Annatto. Achiote. 160b. Natural Orange 4. CI 75120. These are all names for the coloring agent derived from the ground seeds of Bixa orellana. This shrub is native to the tropical Americas but is now cultivated in other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia. 

As you might guess from the common name, the Lipstick Tree has long been used in cosmetic applications.

The spiny lipstick-red fruits were used by the indigenous people of Mexico and South America to make a body paint, pigmentation for mural painting, and an ink (Davidow 1999)

while others simmered the seeds in water or oil to extract the color for use as a hair dye.

Medicinally, it has been used to treat skin diseases (including herpes outbreaks) and vaginal infections in Central America by applying the paste directly to the site (Quiros-Moran 1998). Modern experiments have shown that extracts of the seeds and leaves have “broad spectrum antimicrobial activity” (Fleischer, et al. 2003) so it seems there is some sound science behind this folk medicine. Current experiments are being conducted to test its efficacy as a UV block for skin and as an insect repellent as well.

However, you’re likely most familiar with this plant as part of your diet. No, it’s not a supplement or new weight loss miracle. What it is is a food dye, derived from the seeds of the plant, used to impart that golden orange color to a wide variety of foods, from cheddar cheese to artificial crab meat, from mustards to the “cheese” dust on cheetos. It’s probably in your pantry right now. Read the label on that box of Mac N Cheese. Or the box of Spanish Rice (for that price, you know they are not really using saffron). Basically anything edible in that warm orange color tone could contain annatto. This is especially true if you shop more “health conscious” brands, as it generally used as a “natural” alternative to the synthesized artificial food dyes.

Seeds in ripe pods

Seeds in ripe pods

Yet, the history of the plant as a cosmetic is slowly becoming in vogue. According to data obtained from the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database which analyzes the risk factors for individual ingredients in cosmetic formulations there are 66 products currently on the market that list annatto seed extract as an ingredient, another 6 that list CI 75120, and yet another 4 that use Bixa orellana extract. These are all formulations that have come out since 2008 which shows the slow but growing popularity of the ingredient.

Gifts From the Lipstick Tree

Gifts From the Lipstick Tree

One such product was released by the cosmetic company Tarte in 2012 as a collection called “The Gifts of the Lipstick Tree.” It was a collection of a lipstick, a gloss, and blush that was marketed as:

 a healthy dose of color… infused with pigments and ingredients derived from the Amazon. Tarte’s most recent finding from their rainforest travels is achiote, a secret amongst Brazil’s beautiful women,  known for the honeysuckle shade produced from the seeds of the fruit it bears. With natural pigments derived from this “lipstick tree,” the warm, shimmering golden pink shade is universally flattering

The collection quickly sold out. Currently on the market is a body bronzer that utilizes the coloring agents of annatto to “tan” the skin when lightly applied.

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