Shellac

A lakh is 1,00,000 and that many lac insects are killed for 333 grams of shellac.

Shellac is a refined form of an organic resin derived from an insect indigenous to India and Thailand. It is also produced in Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Although India contributes up to 80% of the global production, its production has been steadily going down. In 2006-07 it was 23,229 tonnes, but in 2009-10 only 16,495 tonnes, with Jharkhand contributing 42% of which 3,145 tonnes was from Simdega district of the state. Chhattisgarh followed with 30 tonnes, Madhya Pradesh with 15 tonnes, West Bengal with 5 tonnes and Maharashtra with 3 tonnes of production. During this period India exported 6,700 tonnes of lac worth Rs 12 crores, and imported non-Indian varieties of lac worth nearly Rs 16 crores.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), the Forest Department, and Tribal Development Department of states have begun promoting the cultivation of lac by spreading awareness about method of lac cultivation, training and field assistance as given by the Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums (IINRG) – formerly the Indian Lac Research Institute at Ranchi.

In February 2021 the Chief Minister of Jharkhand declared that his state government would recognise lac cultivation which was declining gradually, under the farming sector “because lac cultivation is in the blood of the people of Jharkhand” and it would be covered by the MPY (Mukhyamantri Pashudhan Yogana) since only 20,000 tons of lac using 15% capacity was being produced.


The Shellac and Forest Products Export Promotion Council promotes India’s exports of shellac and lac – sticklac, seedlac, hand/machine made lac, de-waxed/de-colourised/bleached lac, gasket lac, button lac, garnet lac, molumba lac, lac dye, aleuritic acid, shellac wax, etc. – as non-toxic, natural and environment-friendly products. Astonishingly, there is a little shellac is almost every item we use, but most people do not know this or even the origin of shellac.

Lac is the only natural resin of animal origin. It is a thick, waxy substance excreted by the Indian female scale insect during development and reproduction. The insects make and live inside a hollow tube of lac sucking out the sap of the host tree. The lac covering protects the insects from rain and predators.


Lac insects (Tachardia lacca, Laccifer lacca and Kerria lacca) alight on certain coniferous trees like palas, ber and kusum, and a foreign-origin tree introduced by the IINRG and during their reproductive cycle suck sap from branches forming a cocoon which incubates the eggs they lay, and they secrete an amber coloured resinous substance called lac. These cocoons consist of resin, part of the twig and insects and are called sticklac having around 150 larvae per square inch of twig and 68% resin (harvested in June-July and October-November and sold for Rs 200 per kg) which on washing and drying are called seedlac (because they look like seeds); then they are further refined to produce the resin from which the amber coloured lac dye is obtained or shellac in flake or liquid/vanish form. Different varieties in colours ranging from light yellow and amber to dark mahogany and black are available. Wax is present in shellac but it gets removed during refining and bleaching to make it light in colour. Bleached / clear / white lac is considered a premium variety. However, de-waxed shellac can only be used for certain applications. For example, polyurethane varnish won’t adhere to waxed shellac.


Lakh is the Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand and that many lac insects are killed for 333 grams of shellac. In other words, 3,00,000 lac-insects are killed for producing 1 kilogram of shellac.


Jewellery

Originally from Rajasthan, but having spread to Bihar and Hyderabad, chunky lac bangles are commonly available and worn in these areas. Other lac jewellery consists of bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces. The resinous lac is melted, rolled and flattened into predetermined shapes. As it cools, craftsmen colour-work by twisting multiple strands of it together, creating inlay patterns, or applying embellishments. For the latter craftsmen curl the lac around a wire bases, pressing small beads or mirrors into the rapidly cooling resin.


To make a multicoloured strand lac bangle, first some lac is melted over a chula while it is smoothed over with the head of a large rolling pin-like tool. Colours are mixed in simultaneously. Twisting the colours round the tool’s head enables the craftsman to create particular patterns. The lac is then rolled off the tool in a skinny strand, twisted around a mould for size and crimped to a wire base to complete the bangle.


The actual process of making lac bangles and jewellery is dangerous for humans and result in breathing problems, skin allergies and deep burns for the craftsmen.


Goldsmiths sometimes use lac to fill the hollow centres of jewellery pieces like beads. Kundan (gold foil in setting), jadoo (stone setting) and meena (enamel) jewellery could also have been made using lac.


Boxes (for jewellery, trinkets and pills) show pieces, ash trays, coasters, napkin holders, glasses, mirrors, picture frames, key-chains, pens, and many other fancy and decorative items contain shellac.


Shellac is an Ingredient of an Unimaginable Number of Products

The lac resin (consisting of lac larvae, insects’ parts and wings) apart from the commonly known red sealing wax used on letters and parcels, among its myriad other uses, is utilised in the manufacture of 78 rpm gramophone records, electrical insulation, bulb capping cement, abrasives, adhesives, pastes, gasket cements (to make petrol and gas tight seals in engines), rubber compounds, flexographic & other printing inks, paints, dyes for textiles, varnishes, polishes (for wood, floor and shoes), leather & footwear, coating of mirrors, coating on certain wallpapers, pyrotechnics or fireworks, crayons, optical frames, dental plates, grease-proof paper, jewellery settings, coating of urea, confectionery, fizzy drinks, etc.

Shellac or lac is permitted as an ingredient in foods and cosmetics, whereas the use of cochineal (also of insect origin) is banned in India. Shellac is often used as a glazing agent (E number E904) to create a high gloss surface shine and a thin protective coating on candies, confectionery, dried fruits, etc. It could be a common animal ingredient in chocolate such as gems, buttons and nutties. Certain chewing gums are also surface coated with confectioner’s glaze (usually shellac, rarely zein made from corn) or beeswax. Some times apples and oranges are coated with shellac too in order to increase their shelf life and look shiny. Shellac goes by many names such as confectioner’s/resinous/pure food/natural/ pharmaceutical glaze and beetle juice. Other glazing agents utilised by the food industry are Beeswax – white and yellow (E901), Carnauba palm wax (E903), Mineral oil – white (E905a) and Petrolatum (905b) used alone or in combination.

Interestingly, Cadbury Gems no longer list “Shellac” as an ingredient, but in its place “Glazing Agent (E903)” i.e. Carnauba wax. This reminded us of the time when in the late 1970s BWC created public awareness (mainly among Jains in Mumbai) that egg was an ingredient of Bournvita and therefore non-veg. As it resulted in a drop in sales of Bournvita, Cadbury India re-formulated its recipe without egg as an ingredient.

Some tablets and all time-release pills are coated with shellac to prevent them dissolving quickly. (They are called enteric coatings which can be of shellac, fatty acids, waxes, plastics or plant fibres.) Shellac is also used in dentistry for denture production. India has been using lac since Vedic times and lac resin and dye are still used extensively in Ayurveda and Siddha systems of medicines.

Aleuritic acid is a yellow solid obtained from shellac used in perfumes. And shellac is used as an additive which acts as a kind of glue in certain lipsticks, make-up products and hair sprays. A shellac manicure involves nails painted with polish containing shellac which remains intact for a fortnight.

Kolhapuri shellac-filled gold beads form part of Maharashtrian traditional jewellery. In fact, shellac goes into the making of a lot of semi-precious and precious jewellery the most common being beads and bangles, handicraft items like boxes and marble vases with shellac embossed designs, and accessories such as decorative buttons, clips, pins and cuff-links are lacquered/shellac coated. Channapatna in Karnataka is famous for lacquered wooden toys.

Shellac is used as a stiffener for brims and hoods of felt hats which are treated or hat-proofed with a solution of shellac.

Some ceramics, pottery, crockery and tiles are lacquered. Floor and wood polishes, vanishes and waxes can contain shellac, especially the no-rub floor polish. French polish used for wood is a solution of shellac dissolved in methanol. Paints like those used for road marking may contain shellac. Shellac pigmented with white titanium dioxide is widely used by painters as a stain sealer, wall board primer and knot and sap sealer on wood.

As shellac bonds glass and metal well it is used for electrical work. Shellac mixed with marble dust is used by lamp manufacturers to glue the metal base to glass incandescent bulbs. It is also used in the making of electrical insulation called micanite which is made from fine mica lamaelle/splittings and shellac as a bonding agent.

Shellac is utilised in the making of some artists paint brushes and other brushes. It is used to mask or block out parts of the design that are not to be printed during the process of silk screen painting of posters and banners – the kind which are put up in public places for cinema hoardings, political campaigns, and as advertisements.

The binder in India/black indelible ink is shellac. A unique violet indelible ink used to mark the voters’ fingers (it turns black on drying) made for the Election Commission of India is a mix of shellac, dyes, chemicals, aromatic material, biocide and silver nitrate. Manufactured by the Mysore Paints and Varnish (earlier known as Mysore Lac and Paints) the formula is a closely guarded secret. India ink is also commonly used for tattooing.

Shellac could be used for preparing dry mounting paper and also for photo engraving and etching. Simulated engraving for letter heads, visiting cards and greeting cards could involve the use of shellac. Flexographic and some other printing inks may contain shellac. Filter/tea-bags’ paper is treated with wet strength resin: if melamine and formaldehyde are used they are of non-animal origin, moreover are sometimes mixed with a small amount of shellac. Some paper varnishes applied to labels and display cards are made from shellac. Metallised papers are prepared by coating cellophane with shellac and then electrically spattering with aluminium.

The glossy, silky finish on high class playing cards is very likely obtained by a coat of shellac. Poker chips, dominoes, dice and draughts may be coated with shellac. Racquets for badminton, squash and tennis are now mostly made of tough nylon string but whatever the game, wooden racquets could have shellac in the polish used. It is also used as a finish for bowling alleys as the weight of the ball dropping on the shellac does not make it crack. Some handlebar tapes are shellac-coated and shellac is used as a hard-drying adhesive for tubular cycle tyres for track racing.

Shellac is used in the manufacture of grinding wheels as it allows the abrasive particles to break off at the low heat generated by the grinding process.


Gulal gotas are made of lac and filled with gullal. Although rubber and water balloons are now used in most places, Jaipur is the city where these cannonballs are made and sold for the Holi festival.


Lacquer can be coloured or pigmented: usually red or black depending on the oxide utilised. Some lacquers like that which is used for the Japanese makie decorative technique, contain silver or gold powders and flakes. Deer horn or ceramic powder is added for more strength when lacquering the Chinese musical instrument called guqin.

The application of liquid shellac with brushes made of skunk hair with badger hair on the outside are considered most suitable.

Chinese insect/tree wax or simply Chinese wax from scale insects – same family as lac insects – is also available and used chiefly in the manufacture of polishes, candles and ointments.


Urushiol-based lacquers utilised in China and Japan, are derived from a tree. Upon contact the fresh urushiol resin is highly allergenic; however, thitsi the Burmese lacquer-yielding tree from which thitsiol and laccol are made does not cause such allergic reactions.

Despite vegetable, mineral and petroleum based waxes being readily available, wax from insects is utilised in many applications. A corn protein called zein can be used as a good substitute where high gloss is desired. Nitrocellulose and acrylic lacquers are also alternatives.

Glass sheets that are coloured or opaque are called lacquered glass. To give this effect, prior to baking, a coating of lacquer is deposited on one side of clear float glass. The lacquers generally used for glass are acrylic based and contain organic solvents such as Nitrocellulose, Butyl Acetate and Xylene (all 3 of plant origin) and Toluene (petrochemical). Aqueous polyurethane lacquers (polymers) are also used. (However, the calcium oxide and calcium carbonate used by the glass industry could be of shell, although generally is of limestone origin.)


Although Beauty Without Cruelty considers the Government of India having made the affixing of the veg/non-veg symbol mandatory on all packaged foods as one of its major achievements since it helps vegetarian consumers and empowers us significantly by giving us the right to question any ingredient whose origin we find doubtful, it has its flaws in as much that Beauty Without Cruelty’s definition of the word vegetarian is not the same as the Government’s. Beauty Without Cruelty would expect to see shellac/lac, honey/bee products, choona/lime and varkh/silver foil to be included in the non-vegetarian category.

Page last updated on 08/12/21