The Thing about Natural Color (Part One)

Many commercial skin care products contain nasty ingredients we'd rather avoid. Couple this with widespread environmental awareness, many customers are deeply motivated to support sustainable businesses. I've used the most "natural" ingredients possible in my products, but after much research, found it was not the either/or decision you'd think.

For the purposes of this blog series, I'm going to limit the discussion to the color I use for my products: cosmetic micas, plant powders (either added at trace, added at the lye stage, or added as an infusion), and mineral color (clays, titanium dioxide). A few points to start with:

First: For all the talk about natural color, people really seem to like bright, fade-proof, cosmetic mica hues.

Second: as an artist, I want as many options as possible. Natural color has a fair amount of latitude within the yellow/orange/red/brown/purple spectrum, but elusive with decent blues and greens.

Third: as a business owner, mica color is less expensive to use, more predictable in outcome, and requires far less labor/prep time (partly why it's less expensive to use), which plays a factor in pricing.

Forth: Anytime you use a mineral-based color (micas/oxides/clays) they've been processed to remove heavy metals, as required by law (a good thing). Cosmetic mica is colored with lab-made, synthetic oxides - the ones I use are FDA lip, skin and eye safe (these colors are used for cosmetics, after all).

Fifth: Achieving those cool, infused, plant-based colors in the following examples is quite a time-consuming undertaking involving measuring plants/oils, heating in a crockpot (or allowing to sit for 2 months), straining out plant bits + cleaning greasy jars, taking copious notes + lots and lots of experimentation. 

Let's just do a side-by-side comparison of my Sunset Soap Series, as they share a similar palette but are created using different methods of coloring:

Three sunset soaps

These three soaps are colored as follows:
- Upper Left (Tequila SunSET soap): (yellow, orange, red purple)
Mica colorsColor: cosmetic micas added at trace. This means that I divided the raw, uncolored, slightly thickened soap into four separate containers, then added mica (dispersed in a small bit of oil) straight in.

This method is very WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) - if you compare the finished soap to the raw soap (R), you'll see little, if any, color difference. Adding straight mica color is both time efficient + the color itself is smooth. 

- Upper Right (Sahara Sunset soap): (yellow, orange, mauve, red purple)
Color: a combination of plant powders (safflower/paprika/madder root/sandalwood) added at trace with alkanet root infusion also added at trace.
Notice how speckled many colors look on the finished soap. The flecks (especially of the paprika + sandalwood) add a mild scrub, for those who like a bit of texture to their soap.

2020 Plant powder colorThe method: I divided out 2 oz of the recipe's olive oil into each of my containers - one of those containers used two oz of my infused alkanet OO oil, the other containers were regular olive oil that I added plant powders to. The OO amount used had to add up to the amount required by the recipe. Any additional OO needed was incorporated into my other melted oils/lye water, then poured evenly into the colored OO containers (math was involved).

If I hadn't used one of my colors as an infusion (ie: just used ALL plant powders dispersed in OO), this would have been as easy as adding the mica color and far less math.

So - why not just add the alkanet root at trace, too? Alas, not all plant color works well as a powdered colorant - alkanet (as well as indigo, woad, and others) is best used as an infusion or during the lye stage (a process I won't go into here). Yes - natural color use has a lot of little tricks to keep track of.

pitchers of plant powdered soapI also labeled the containers - colors can look really similar to each other in raw soap and/or shift after cure due to PH changes. For example, the safflower (far L) looks more pale peach-y as uncured soap, but is a lovely yellow after cure. Compare the colors of uncured soap with the cured soap in the photo and judge for yourself.

(Understand why micas/oxide color is so much simpler than natural, plant-based color? Hang on - it gets more complicated...)
Lower Center (SUNSET of the PATRIARCHY soap): (calendula, paprika, sandlewood + alkanet infusions w/added madder root powder).
Notice how the color is much smoother than the Sahara Sunrise (UR) sample - when you use infusions, the plant powder is mostly strained out.

Tiger soap Now we're getting into WAY more math, though. For intense color, I wanted to use a 15% infused color for each of my three initial containers (calendula, paprika, and sandalwood/alkanet combo), so I divided out the specific infused oils, mixed my remaining soap oils/lye water, and added a third of that mix to each of my containers to create the three base colors with the proper ratio of oils/lye.

THEN, to create a forth, redder color, I combined 100g ea of the paprika and sandalwood/alkanet mixes in a different container, and added madder root powder.
Why not just have a forth container to begin with? For this particular recipe, there was just enough olive oil required to divide into the 3 containers for a 15% infused color. If I had to do a forth container that kept the amounts even, the color would have been less intense. A trade-off to consider with multiple color, infused-oil soap. 

Alas, the calendula-infused oil didn't seem to produce much color at all, so I'll have to experiment with how much more of the flowers to add to the next infusion. You can see from the blog post pix, that the oil itself looks very yellow in the photo but there you have it: the vagaries of natural color at work.

I'll end this post with what has worked best for me in most cases - a hybrid of plant infusion, plant powder, mineral-based, and/or mica color. 

Alkanet Reign

For Alkanet Reign* (above) I simply colored the entire soap using 15% infused alkanet root oil in my soap base, then divided out about 12% of the raw batter for each added, powdered color: titanium dioxide (mineral-based white), activated charcoal (plant-based black) and raspberry (cosmetic mica).

Working with a combination of added colors seemed to work best for this soap design (and, tbh, for my sanity).

BTW - another consideration with achieving more intense plant-based color in CP soap: you have to force gel (ie: super insulate your molded soap after pour or CPOP: process it overnight in a warmed - then turned-off - oven) during the initial saponification stage to get better color saturation.

Oh, and did I mention that you should keep cured, plant-colored soap out of sunlight to preserve the color as long as possible? Yeah, that's because plant color fades over time (mica colors do not). You know - nature. It's fleeting.

Despite the unpredictability, ephemeral nature of color longevity, and extra work, I'm actually kinda delighted with my natural color experiments and plan to keep at it. 

My next post will explore my experiments with the blue/green spectrum of natural color, but truthfully, I'm still trying to crack those colors so it could be another month or more. 

Hope you found this informative and at least a little entertaining. If you're a soap client/appreciator, what do you think of micas vs plant-based colors? If you're a soap maker who has worked with natural colors, would love to hear any insights you can add (below in the comments).

Thanks - 


*(It was suggested I call this soap Purple Rain, which would have been clever but let's not get into copyright infringement.)

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