Annatto Seed, a Natural Soap Colorant

By Beth Ann Weber, appalachianheritagesoaps Beth has chosen to share her technique for extracting dye from annatto seeds with the Artfire community. Beth uses the dye for her soap products. As she explains, the dye has had other uses historically in cultures radically different from our own: Hello! My name is Beth Ann Weber. I’m a wife, mother, and soapmaker. Soapmaking is my way of preserving the herbal, cultural, and personal heritage of Appalachia. For over 8 years I’ve been making soap and old-time salves in northern Appalachia. I also love to collect folk remedies and anecdotes from my region. The quart jar of oil and annatto seeds in my kitchen window is turning nicely orange. Annatto seeds are so fun and easy to use as a soapmaker. I always find it fascinating to know about the process and ingredients of handmade products. I assume you do too.   Annatto seeds are pretty big, as seeds go. They’re a dark orange-red and triangular shaped. They’re one of my favorite herbs to see in a jar. I just love the sound of pouring them, the sounds as I rattle the jar, the look of them in the jar. Does everyone get such pleasure out of things stored in quart jars? If not, please humor me.     The annatto seed has a covering that is oil soluble. As a soapmaker, when I soak these seeds in a jar of oil I’m making my own colorant. No need for synthetics or micas! That’s always my goal. The seed gives off color almost immediately in the oil. When I soak overnight, I use about 18% of annatto-olive oil in my recipe, strained of course. If I’ve got a nice mature jar, which I prefer, I use about 4%.     I’m typically going for an orange which is off-set by the colors of my essential oils, but annatto seeds will make anything from a pale yellow to a bright orange, even a velveeta cheese color if you so desire. I’m most proud of the brick red I make with annatto oil, madder root-lye paste, and brown essential oils.     Annatto seeds, sadly, are not native to Appalachia. Though they’ve been used in this region for over a century to color butter and cheese. The seeds come from the achiote tree which is native to tropical regions of South America. The seed was used as war paint by the Aztecs and for various medicinal uses. Today the seed is most commonly used as a natural food colorant and as a ground spice in tropical cultures.     Below are the soaps in which I use annatto seed oil. You can see the various effects I get with it. Allergies to the seed are low and I have really good results with it. If you find me at a show this fall, ask me if I have some annatto seed on my herb shelf so you can get a good look at it. And prove to yourself how fun it is to shake it in a quart canning jar.  

3 Comments

  • Reply September 13, 2011

    Bridget from Refined Vintage

    Beth , Thanks for sharing that with us, I learned something new today! I wonder does it have a scent?

  • Reply September 17, 2011

    Karen Ultis

    I love this article. I’ve always wondered how handcrafted soaps could be colored. The annatto seed is an amazing ingredient. Thank you for sharing this process in this article. Even though this seed is not native to Appalachia, are you able to cultivate this plant in your area?

  • Reply October 7, 2012

    Irena aka soapbuddy

    What nice photos and thank you for sharing. My annatto infused soap always turns yellow, but I don’t use any other color with it.

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