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Is scarlet and crimson the same color?

Colors can be tricky. While some shades seem obviously distinct, like blue and yellow, others appear deceptively similar. Such is the case with scarlet and crimson – two deep reds that share a close relationship. Though easy to confuse, scarlet and crimson have distinct histories, technical definitions, cultural associations, and aesthetic impacts. Here, we unravel the similarities and differences between these two popular red hues.

Defining Scarlet and Crimson

Scarlet and crimson belong to the red color family. But what distinguishes one red from another? Color can be described using three dimensions:

  • Hue – The pigment or dominant wavelength
  • Saturation – The intensity or purity of color
  • Brightness – The lightness or darkness of color

Both scarlet and crimson share a similar hue, falling in the blue-red to yellow-red range. But they differ primarily in saturation and brightness:

Color Hue Saturation Brightness
Scarlet Blue-red to yellow-red High Bright
Crimson Blue-red to yellow-red Moderate to high Dark, slightly desaturated

As this table illustrates, scarlet is a brighter, more saturated red, while crimson is darker and more muted.

The Origins of Scarlet and Crimson

The distinct histories of scarlet and crimson also provide insight into their divergent identities. Let’s look at each color’s origins:


  • First recorded use in the 1300s
  • Stems from the Persian word “saqirlāt” referring to imported cloth dyed with kermes
  • Kermes dyes came from small scale insects and produced a brighter red hue
  • Associated with vivacity and vibrancy due to its ties to clothing of nobility and clergy


  • First recorded use in the 1550s
  • Comes from Old Spanish “cremesín” derived from the Arabic term “qirmiz”
  • Qirmiz referred to the kermes insect used to dye vibrant red cloth
  • Over time, crimson became associated with deeper, richer reds like those found in blood

Scarlet’s legacy is one of radiance and luxury, while crimson calls to mind intensity and darkness. Both owe their existence to the kermes dye, but their divergent etymology helped shape distinctive identities.

Cultural Associations

Scarlet and crimson also cultivate different symbolic meanings and cultural associations:


  • Associated with sin and scandal in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”
  • Connected to vibrancy and vanity in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Orczy
  • Represents luxury and privilege as the color of royal and ecclesiastical robes
  • Symbolizes passion and romance in phrases like “scarlet woman”


  • Represents courage and sacrifice as the color of blood
  • Signals prosperity and celebration in Chinese culture
  • Denotes prestige and pedigree as the color of Harvard and other elite universities
  • Conjures images of the dark force in the “Crimson King” of Stephen King’s novels

Scarlet elicits ideas of vanity, sexuality, and opulence. Crimson conjures notions of blood, darkness, and privilege. Their cultural baggage differs in line with their distinct personalities.

Aesthetic Impact

When used in design, scarlet and crimson produce unique aesthetic experiences:


  • Bold, bright, energetic
  • Pops against darker shades
  • Grabs attention and livens up a space
  • Can overwhelm softer schemes


  • Rich, elegant, intense
  • Stands out against light backgrounds
  • Adds sophistication and gravitas
  • May seem ominous or oppressive if overused

Both scarlet and crimson make dramatic statements. But scarlet energizes with its vividness, while crimson smolders with its depth.

Distinguishing Scarlet and Crimson

So how can you reliably tell these two shades apart? Here are some tips:

  • Compare brightness – Scarlet is lighter while crimson is darker
  • Assess saturation – Scarlet is more saturated than the slightly muted crimson
  • View in context – Scarlet often has an orange undertone while crimson leans more blue or purple
  • Refer to color tools – Scarlet is close to RAL 3024 while crimson is nearer to RAL 3003

When viewed side by side, the liveliness of scarlet stands out from the brooding richness of crimson. Trust your eyes, and the distinction will become clear.

Scarlet and Crimson in Action

How do scarlet and crimson look when put into practice? Here are some examples across different mediums:

Medium Scarlet Crimson
Paint Scarlet paint chip Crimson paint chip
Fabric Scarlet fabric Crimson fabric
Makeup Model wearing scarlet lipstick Model wearing crimson lipstick

You can clearly see scarlet’s vibrancy in the paint chip, fabric, and lipstick example. Crimson appears darker and richer across the same mediums.


Though closely related, scarlet and crimson have distinct personalities all their own. Scarlet trends brighter and more saturated, with energy and flamboyance. Crimson skews darker and more muted, with sophistication and intensity. Their origins, cultural associations, aesthetic impacts all align with this contrast.

So next time you wish to add a pop of red, consider whether scarlet or crimson better suits your needs. Keep in mind their subtle differences, and you can confidently apply just the right shade of rich, complex red.