The Making of a Red Soap

Red is the ultimate primal colour. It’s a carnal colour. Our associations with the color red seem especially ancient and deeply rooted: fire, blood and food. Did you know that red is the first color a baby can see? That women wearing red are perceived as more sexually attractive? That red makes us hungry? martyrdom-of-st-lucy-jacobelli

In my last post I explored the idea of the color red having a scent. Of course, this whole thing started with me wanting to make a red soap and to match that color with a red scent. So let’s start with the colorants.

Natural Red Colorants

At this moment, I know of only two natural red soap colorants: red clay and madder root. I’ve also used iron oxide, which is technically natural, in that it exists in nature. But the kind you buy is made in a lab (using natural clays and heat) in order to be consistent and skin safe. Oxide wasn’t an option here, as the challenge I set for myself was to make an all natural soap. I have already tried clay, and it is very satisfactory, plus it adds an extra cleansing quality and a slip that can be very enjoyable. But it yields more of an earthy tone, so not quite the red I was looking for. I have also tried paprika, which can yield an orange-y hue, but it is not a stable colorant.

Madder root is very stable, long-lasting and effective in soap, but as with any botanical you may get different results depending on the batch, and the type of extraction you use.

220px-Rubia_tinctorum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-123The first time I used madder was in in this “Victorian Rose” soap. In that soap I used powdered root which I ground myself, and then infused in olive oil. The oil was indeed very colorful, but alas I used iron red oxide in this soap as well, so I didn’t really have a good idea of what a full madder soap would look like (sorry about the quality of this pic).

Victorian-Rose-cp-soap-cut-MarsBalms (3)

Victorian Rose soap

My overall impression is that madder does better being hydrolyzed first, or you need a powdered extract, which I just happened to have on hand. I decided to add the madder extract to the distilled water. Here below you can see what it looks like before I added the lye.


After adding the lye, the solution turns almost purple:


All botanical extracts will jump a few shades on the color spectrum when they encounter a strong alkaline solution.


Freshly poured madder soap

Finding a Red Scent

All synesthetic impressions aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of our ideas about what smells “red” are probably purely associative, but that this interweaving of associations is no less wondrous. Also, these ideas are the result of a mixture of things that may often be contradictory or, in the very least, complex.

The conundrum of matching a scent to a specific shade of red is what prompted the original meandering exploration into the scent-color red. If I had my choice of compounds and extracts I would probably end up with something resembling Red Musk by Body Shop (does anyone else remember that one?), or Red Door.

But formulating scents for soap is a whole other ballgame. There are other considerations at play here too: which scents and notes will last, which will burn off, which will morph. Also, what is a reasonable additive for soap? For example, no fool would use a rose absolute in soap. At least, not this fool… 

In my previously red-themed soaps, Australian Red Clay and Pink Marble, I used blends of palmarosa, rose geranium, black pepper, anise and lemongrass. So that was my starting point. I could have used an aromatic essence of rose… some almond essence… the labels say they are natural, but it is of unknown composition, and so the essences are out. I don’t have rosewood. And it’s sister scent, ho wood, smells blue to me.

Here I learned my lesson in making too complex blends for soap. So in the end I decided to go with a single scent and a single color. I narrowed my choice down to oils I have and that are also reasonable for cold processed soap:

  1. Rose Geranium
  2. Palmarosa
  3. Black Pepper
  4. Clove
  5. Cinnamon
  6. Star anise

Right off the bat, for a single-note, cold processed soap, clove, cinnamon and anise are out. They would work in a scent combination, but not as single notes representing red. Black pepper doesn’t quite carry and is too dull a note to stand on its own. So the choice was really between rose geranium and palmarosa. At first I was leaning towards palmarosa just because it smells pinkish to me, like an earthy rose color. But in the end I choose rose geranium. It smells stronger, which is important because saponification has a way of challenging the sustain of natural fragrances. And I’m glad I did, because the rose accents really stand out in the end product, with the soap toning down some of the herbaceous, more lemony notes of the geranium.

Here are the results. I think the earthy rosy scent perfectly complements this shade of burgundy pink.

Of course, as soon as I had the idea of making a red monochromatic soap I knew I would have to continue the challenge with other colors. What started as an idea for a red soap, became a triptych of natural colors. madder-alkanet-indigo-soaps-Flora-&-Pomona

Natural colors, or botanical dye extracts, have a vibrancy and frequency of their own, The shades you obtain from them in soap is particular to the alkaline environment, and so it is appropriate that they are named simply by the plants’ names: madder, indigo, alkanet. madder-alkanet-indigo-soaps-labels-Flora-&-Pomona

Although I went through a similar thought process with the scent-colors of blue and purple, I never dove deeply into the question, the way I did with the color red. I don’t know what it is about the colour red that has occupied my mind for so long. It is odd, because blue is my favourite colour. What can I say? There’s just something about red.

I started this post over three months ago, when the world was a different place. Things have changed… The way I make soap may change, if indeed I am able to continue doing so. In some way, I’m sure my explorations into color and scent will continue. I just don’t know when. I do have some ideas of what to try next; I have some madder seeds for a dye garden I was planning… Sometimes that’s all you can do. Plant some seeds and wait.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you are all keeping well and staying safe. 


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