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red and blue sugar skull drawing

The Complete Guide to Sugar Skulls

Sugar skulls are a large part of Mexican culture and are often used to decorate homes and altars during the Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations. Though they may look scary at first glance, sugar skulls are actually a symbol of joy and celebration.

In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at sugar skulls, their history, how to make your own, and even how to apply your own sugar skull makeup!

Disclaimer: We have provided links to some harder-to-find items in the "how to" sections of this post. As an Amazon Affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases if you click on these links and make a purchase, at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

Let's get on to what you're here for - learning all about sugar skulls!

Significance in Mexican Culture

sugar skulls and candles on ofrenda

Sugar skulls, known in Spanish as Calavera de Azúcar, are a traditional part of Mexican culture. They are often used to decorate altars and graves during the Day of the Dead holiday, also known as Día de Los Muertos.

Día de Los Muertos is a time to remember and honor loved ones who have died. Families decorate altars with photos, flowers, candles, and favorite foods of the deceased. They also make sugar skulls to place on altars that represent the loved one's spirit.

Sugar skulls represent the departed souls of loved ones and are meant to help guide them on their journey to the afterlife. The skulls are decorated with bright colors and often have intricate designs. Many people also write the name of the deceased on the forehead of the skull.

Though mostly made from sugar, these skulls are not meant to be eaten! Doing so would be considered extremely disrespectful.

Significance of the Design and Colors

sugar skull and flowers

Designs & Decorations

The decorations on sugar skulls can vary, but they often represent aspects of the deceased person’s life. For example, a skull with a beard might represent a grandfather, while one with braided hair might represent a young girl.

Additionally, they are often decorated with personal belongings or keepsakes such as jewelry. These items are meant to represent the hobbies or interests of the deceased. Other decorative elements include things like colored foil, gems, and royal icing for patterns and colors.

You'll also notice that the eyes and mouth are emphasized in the design. The eyes are often surrounded with colorful shapes that resemble petals, hearts or dots. The mouth typically shows teeth and is often open wide in a smiling expression.

This design is not accidental; it’s meant to represent the connection between the living and the dead. The eyes are a gateway to the soul, while the mouth is a symbol of communication.

No matter how they are decorated, the end result should be a fun, personal design that serves to honor the person the skull was created for!


The colors used on sugar skulls are also significant. Keep in mind that sugar skulls are created to represent unique individuals and are very personal by design. That means the colors chosen in the design of the skull can be for many different reasons.

For example, the color orange on a sugar skull generally symbolizes the light from the sun, but it could also be used because it was the favorite color of the loved one that it represents.

Keeping that in mind, here are some of the traditional colors used in the design of sugar skulls and during the celebration of Día de Los Muertos.


Red symbolizes blood and life. Blood is the source of life and is essential for survival, and red on a sugar skull celebrates its significance in a very literal way. Religious or Christian families celebrating Day of the Dead can also use red to represent the blood of Christ.


Yellow symbolizes light and happiness and is also the color of marigolds, a traditional flower used in Day of the Dead celebrations. Marigold petals are often placed in a trail starting at the entrance to the house and leading to an altar or "ofrenda".

The idea behind an ofrenda is to create a space where the dead can feel welcome and comfortable. An ofrenda typically includes pictures of the deceased, as well as items that were important to them in life.

Other items placed on the altar include food, flowers, and candles. By creating an altar and making offerings, it is believed that the dead will be able to visit their loved ones in the spirit world.


Similar to yellow, the color orange symbolizes light. This can be interpreted as the orange light of the sun or as a particular shade of marigolds. Whether orange represents the sun or a trail of orange marigolds, the overall symbolism is still to light the way to the altars to help the deceased find them and join their family in celebration.


Pink represents joy and hope, and is seen often in skull makeup, clothing and accessories worn in Day of the Dead celebrations.


A stark contrast to pink, purple symbolizes pain and mourning. It is used to decorate skulls that represent loved ones who have suffered a tragedy or passed away suddenly. Purple candles are often lit and placed on altars for the deceased.


Like much of the world, black symbolizes death but can also be used as a base color on the white sugar skulls to make other colors pop and become more noticeable.


White symbolizes purity and innocence. It is also used as the primary base color in skull makeup, in which other colors are layered on top for the actual design.

How to Make Sugar Skulls

sugar skull decorated with purple icing and foil

Sugar skulls are typically made from of a type of sugar called piloncillo. To make the sugar into a skull shape, it is first melted and then poured into a mold. Once it has hardened, the sugar skull is ready to decorate!

Remember, these are intended to be used as decorations or as part of an altar, not as food. As such, they are not edible sugar skulls.

Sugar skulls can last for years if stored properly. They should be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. If you're planning on displaying them on an altar long-term, it's a good idea to put them in a covered box or container to protect them from the elements.

The core ingredients needed to make sugar skulls are:

  1. Royal icing
  2. Food coloring
  3. Meringue powder
  4. Granulated sugar
  5. Powdered sugar
  6. Sugar skull mold
  7. Parchment paper and cardboard

If you're interested in making your own, check out one of our favorite sugar skull molds on Amazon. These can be hard to find locally, but craft stores such as Michaels or Hobby Lobby occasionally have these in stock.

Ready to start? Here's a great video from Denver Botanic Gardens on the full process.


How to Apply Sugar Skull Makeup

mexican woman with face painted like a sugar skull

Sugar skull makeup is a popular way to celebrate Day of the Dead. It involves painting your face like a skull, using bright colors and often ornate designs. Sugar skull makeup can be as simple or as elaborate as you want.

To apply sugar skull makeup, you will need:

  • Makeup primer
  • Washable glue stick
  • Eyebrow brush
  • A white basecoat (this can be achieved with white face paint, concealer, or foundation)
  • Black face paint
  • Variety of concealer brushes (fine-tipped, medium and blending)
  • Angled eyeliner brush
  • Eyeshadow palette in bright colors
  • Liquid lipstick (matching the color you choose for your eyes)

Optional (for finishing touches)

  • Foil highlighter
  • Wig or floral headband
  • Fake eyelashes (you can also curl your lashes or use mascara)
  • Face gems or jewels

You might be able to find wigs, floral headbands or gems at a large party store if you have one in your area. If you don't have any luck, Amazon has some great floral headbands that are well-priced and will take your look to the next level.

Once you have all of your supplies, you can start painting your face!

If you've never applied this style of makeup before, we recommend watching a few YouTube tutorials to get an idea of the process. Here's a great video tutorial from Beautification by Marta that outlines the entire process in under 10 minutes!

A Sweet Ending

We hope after reading this article you now know a little bit more about the meaning behind sugar skulls and feel inspired to celebrate Day of the Dead in your own special way!

Whether you make sugar skulls, paint your face with a sugar skull makeup design, or simply light a candle in honor of your ancestors, remember to have fun and enjoy this festive holiday.

Feliz Día de los Muertos!

For Our Fans

If you're looking for a truly unique Day of the Dead accessory, be sure to check out our sugar skull ring below!

Mexican Sugar Skull Ring

sugar skull ring cast in stainless steel


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