Soap making secrets: Where does the natural colorant annatto come from?

Soap making secrets: Annatto seed pods

One of my favorite natural colorants to use in my soap is annatto. I infuse olive oil with annatto seeds to get a rich orange color for my handmade Soap á l’orange. Annatto is a colorant that comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, which is native to tropical countries.

I’ve been using dried annatto seeds since I started making cold process soap.

Dried annatto seeds

In November, I was able to see where those seeds come from during a trip to Costa Rica.

Achiote (annatto) tree

The achiote tree is a relatively short evergreen, growing to around 30 feet at its tallest. It’s easy to see why the achiote is a popular landscaping plant in warm climates, even in the United States.

Achiote flower

It produces beautiful light pink flowers that stand in stark contrast to the bright red spiky seed pods that later develop.

Achiote (annatto) seed pod

Our guide for the day demonstrated how native Costa Ricans cracked the seed pod open and turned the seeds into a bright orange-red paste. With the help of a brave volunteer (who not five minutes earlier also volunteered to eat a termite), he showed us how the paste was used as face paint for certain ceremonies.

Making achiote (annatto) paste

Annatto is extremely versatile and is used to color everything from margarine to paint. Costa Ricans love using it in their most popular dish, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). It gives the rice the same nice yellow tint as saffron at a fraction of the cost.

If you’d like to learn more about how to use annatto as a colorant in soap, check out my easy DIY for infusing olive oil

DIY: How to use annatto seeds to naturally color soap

One of the first batches of soap I made was an orange scented soap called Soap á l’orange. It was my first stab at making soap using a natural colorant and it has become one of my best sellers.

Orange 1

The orange color of this soap comes from using olive oil infused with annatto seeds.

Annatto seeds

Annatto seeds come from the fruit of the achiote tree, which is native to Central and South America. The fruit is inedible but the seeds have been used for thousands of years for making dyes and spices. Annatto is used today as a coloring for many foods.

It couldn’t be easier to infuse a liquid oil with the beautiful orange hue from the seeds. The hardest part is doing the math to figure out how much annatto to use.  For a lighter orange, use 1 tsp of seeds to 16 oz of a liquid oil. For darker color, use 2 tsp of seeds in 16 oz. Scale the amounts up depending on how much oil you want to make. In the instructions that follow, I used 32 ounces of oil and 4 tsp of annatto seed to get a dark rich orange.

Usage rates of the infused oil in your soap recipe can vary depending on the look you are going for. Keep in mind that if you use too much colorant, the final product can stain tubs and wash cloths. Because of this, I use the infused olive oil as only a portion of the total olive oil in my recipe. For example, if my recipe calls of 8 ounces of olive oil, I use 3 ounces of colored oil and 5 ounces of plain olive oil.

Annatto infused olive oil

Here’s what you’ll need to make 32 ounces of dark orange oil:

  • Two large glass canning jars
  • 32 oz olive oil
  • 4 tsp annatto seeds
  • Cheesecloth

Fill a glass jar with the olive oil and add annatto seeds.

Cover the jar with the lid and ring and let the seeds steep for a week or more. Tip the jar occasionally to disperse the color from the seeds throughout the oil.

annatto seeds soaking

When you are pleased with the color, take the ring and lid off the jar and cover the opening with a square of cheesecloth. Replace the ring to hold the cheesecloth in place. The cheesecloth will act as a strainer.

annatto cheesecloth strainer

Pour the oil into the second glass jar. Once all the oil has drained, you can toss the cheesecloth and seeds in the garbage.

annatto oil

Cover the oil and store in a cool dry place until you are ready to use.

Looking to buy naturally colored soap? Check out Soap á l’orange and Citrus Clouds in the Emmet Street Creations Etsy Store.

Have you used natural colorants in your soapy creations? Share your favorite in the comments.