5 Riveting Facts About the Color Red

Coffee and Milk Via Getty Images
Coffee and Milk Via Getty Images / Coffee and Milk Via Getty Images

Abstract painter Josef Albers once said, “If one says ‘red’—the name of color—and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.” Featured on everything from the soles of Christian Louboutin’s popular shoes to London's famed telephone booths and beyond, red is a powerful, dynamic color that's pervasive throughout world culture. Here are five facts about this shade that you may not have known.

1. Red is one of the oldest colors still in use.

Red ocher, originally employed in prehistoric cave drawing, is still used today. The pigment is made from clay that turns red after a reaction to the mineral hematite. About 73,000 years ago, human ancestors in what is now South Africa painted red ocher on a stone flake; this drawing is considered the oldest known artwork. In the Ardales Cave in southern Spain, Neanderthals decorated parts of the cave with red ocher approximately 65,000 years ago. And around 33,000 years ago, people in Paleolithic Wales coated a human skeleton in red ocher before ceremonially burying it.

A deep red ochre called sinopia (named for Sinope, the ancient Greek city where it was mined) became a valuable and expensive pigment synonymous with power and victory in Classical times. Women in Egypt used sinopia in makeup. During and after the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, and many other artists used the color in their masterpieces.

2. If you like red velvet cupcakes, you might be eating beetles.

Have you ever thought about where red dye comes from? Sorry if you’re a little squeamish: Cochineals are tiny insects native to the Americas that are ground up to make the red dye used in natural food coloring. The dye has appeared in a wide range of items, including your favorite red velvet cupcakes, yogurt, fruit juices, makeup, and more. Farmers scrape the bugs off cacti leaves (the insects' natural habitat) and crush them into the pigment. It takes approximately 70,000 individuals to make a pound of dye.

Since it's made out of bugs, the dye isn't vegan, and members of some religions abstain from consuming foods containing it. In 2012, after an uproar, Starbucks phased it out of several of their items, including the popular strawberry Frappuccino, according to CBS. The Food and Drug Administration states that the dye is safe for consumption, but companies must include it on their product labels (often listed as carminic acid or E120). To be fair, the FDA approves bug parts in a lot of food, including chocolate.

3. It's a myth that bulls see red.

You've probably heard the story that bulls will charge when someone waves red in front of them. This isn't true: Bulls don't have an aversion to the color red—in fact, they can’t even see it. In Improving Animal Welfare, author Temple Grandin explains that cattle are partially colorblind and have the receptors to see four colors: green, blue, violet, and yellow. Some scientists think that the red capes actually appear to be a dark yellowish color to the animals, but that doesn't mean they have a vendetta against yellow. It's the movement of the cape that agitates bulls into charging at bullfighters, not the color. You could technically put any color cape in front of a bull and it won’t charge until you move it. In 2007, the television show MythBusters demonstrated just that, when the bull charged at every flying cape, no matter the color.

As for why bullfighters wave red capes? It's just to hide all the bloodstains.

4. Wearing red might make you more attractive.

Got a hot date? Or scheming to make an ex feel jealous? Try wearing red. A small study [PDF] of 27 male college students found that they reacted more strongly to a red-bordered photo of a woman compared to a white-bordered photo of the same woman. The University of Rochester researchers behind the study called this the "red effect" and noted the popular association of the color red with sex across cultures, religions, and a little-known holiday called Valentine’s Day. In another study, the same researchers found a similar effect among women when they looked at a red- versus white-framed image of a man.

While societal influences definitely play a role, preference for red may also be biological and not unique to humans. The researchers suggest other primates also tend to be partial to the color red. During an experiment, they discovered that female rhesus monkeys felt the need to fan themselves when photos of male rhesus monkeys’ hindquarters were surrounded by a red border. Unfortunately, as Bustle reports, the red effect may not translate to redheads.

5. Seeing red can make you stronger and faster.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the effects of your brain when you see the color red! A 2011 study found that humans’ reactions are more forceful and faster when they see red compared to other colors. This may be because red is often a cue for danger, a phenomenon deeply rooted in evolution. As the study explains, in nonhuman primates it usually means an attack is about to happen. So if you ever need to intimidate your competition, add red to your wardrobe.