Himalayan Rhubarb Soap Recipe: a Natural Red Soap Colorant
A rhubarb soap recipe that shows how to use Himalayan rhubarb to naturally color soap hot pink to red using the cold-process method
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I share a lot of natural soap recipes, including ways to use natural ingredients to color cold-process soap. While most natural soap colorants yield soft pastel shades, a vivid hot pink or red has been elusive. You can get delicate shades of pink from cochineal or French pink clay, but nothing close to a true red. Then I chanced upon some folks experimenting with using Himalayan rhubarb – an extract used in natural fiber dyeing. I had to give it a whirl too.
Incredibly, the alkaline pH of soap morphs this yellow dye plant into something extraordinary. A stunning deep pink-red that lasts! This Himalayan rhubarb soap recipe will walk you through exactly what I did to create it – everything from sourcing the extract, to infusing it in oil, then using a simple eco-friendly soap recipe to achieve this incredible hue. I guarantee you that you will be overjoyed to see the final results.
Naturally Coloring Cold-Process Soap
Cold-process soap making is arguably the most popular soap-making method we use. You use a from-scratch soap recipe composed of one or more oils/fats and combine them with a strong alkali (lye). The natural chemical reaction that occurs transforms the original ingredients into a new compound – soap! Handmade soap is naturally alkaline, with a pH between 9-10, and so it can be a little troublesome to get plant-based natural colorants to stay.
What can happen in an alkaline environment is that ingredients like beetroot powder or juice turn brown. That’s why beets aren’t a great option for naturally coloring soap red or pink. Sometimes an ingredient can morph into a stunning color in an alkaline pH, though, and that’s the case with Himalayan rhubarb.
Using Rhubarb in Soap Making
Himalayan rhubarb Rheum australe (syn. Rheum emodi) is a plant that grows wild in India and Nepal. It can be challenging to find seeds or plants, but if you can, it will grow in the same conditions as ordinary garden rhubarb Rheum rhabarbarum. The stems of both are edible too, so you could use Himalayan rhubarb for your crumbles and rhubarb wine. Most people who grow Himalayan rhubarb do so because it’s more showy and ornamental than its more cultivated cousin. The flowers bloom as a panicle of reddish-purple spikes and are rather striking.
Though you might think the red stems of rhubarb would be used to make red soap, it’s actually the roots. Try to use the stems, and you’ll end up with brown soap. Instead, infuse the fresh or dried roots into liquid oil and then use it in soap, and you’ll hit those gorgeous rosy colors.
Also, though I’ve not yet tried it, ordinary garden rhubarb roots may be able to give you lovely pink soap too. The final soap color may not be as strong as with Himalayan rhubarb, but if you have some in your garden, why not give it a try? I know that I will once my rhubarb needs redividing. To use fresh rhubarb root, you need only a small piece, perhaps a ratio of 1:10, with light-colored olive oil. Slice finely and infuse for 2-4 weeks or until the color is rich and golden, like the photos below.
Sourcing Himalayan Rhubarb
First and foremost, Himalayan rhubarb is a plant used in natural fiber dyeing. In my book, A Woman’s Garden, I take you through many natural dye plants and show you how to naturally color wool yarn with onion skins. In fiber dyeing, you can achieve some gorgeous golden shades with Himalayan rhubarb, just as as with onion skins.
Though you won’t find the ingredient for sale at many soapmaking suppliers, you can find it through natural dyeing shops and artisans. Online is the best place to search, and the type I’m using comes from the Wonky Weaver in the UK. It comes as a brown powder and is sourced from sustainable and trusted sources.
When you’re looking for Himalayan rhubarb, please be aware that there are over sixty types of rhubarb out there! I cannot guarantee that the shades you’ll get with the others will be as vibrant as with Rheum australe (syn. Rheum emodi) so please be aware. And if you’re new to understanding what Latin names of plants mean, Himalayan rhubarb is known both as Rheum australe and Rheum emodi.
More Naturally Colored Soap Recipes
- Pink Himalayan Salt Soap Recipe
- How to Naturally Color Soap with Clay
- Pumpkin Spice Soap Recipe
- Blue Indigo Soap Recipe
Himalayan Rhubarb Soap Recipe
- Mason jar
- Stainless steel pan for melting the solid oils
- A large bowl for measuring the liquid oils into
Himalayan Rhubarb Oil Infusion
- 500 g Olive pomace oil 17.64 oz
- 7 g Himalayan rhubarb powder 4 tsp
- 63 g Sodium hydroxide 2.22 oz
- 113 g Distilled water 3.99 oz
- 114 g Coconut oil (refined) 4.01 oz
- 91 g Shea butter 3.21 oz
- 227 g Olive pomace oil 8.02 oz (infused with Himalayan rhubarb)
- 23 g Castor oil 0.8 oz
Make the Himalayan Rhubarb Oil Infusion
- One month before you make this recipe, mix together the olive oil and dried rhubarb root powder in a glass jar. Store it in a dim but warm place to infuse. Give it a shake that day and whenever you can remember. By the end of the month, the infused oil will be yellow.
- When you're ready to make soap, strain the oil through a sieve. It's best to do this when the powder sediment is not agitated so don't shake it beforehand. Bits of the rhubarb powder can cause a speckled effect instead of a homogenous color. Use this strained infused oil as all of the olive oil needed for the soap recipe. You'll have enough oil to make two 1-lb batches.
Prepare to Make Soap
- Prepare your workstation with your tools and equipment. Put on rubber gloves, eye protection, and an apron. Carefully pre-measure the ingredients. The solid oils into the pan, the liquid oils into a jug, the water into another heat-proof jug, and the lye in another container such as a glass jar or ramekin.
Make the Lye Solution
- Next, dissolve the lye (sodium hydroxide) crystals in water. In an airy place, outdoors is best, pour the lye crystals into the water and stir well. There will be a lot of heat and steam so be careful. Try not to breathe it in. Leave outside in a safe place, or in a shallow basin of water (inside or outside) to cool.
Make Cold-Process Soap
- Melt the solid oils in a stainless steel pan on very low heat. When melted, remove from the heat and set on a potholder. Pour in the liquid oils. If you have the olive and castor oils in the same container, stir them together first before pouring into the pan. Castor oil is pretty sticky and it's easier to pour when mixed with a lighter oil.
- Measure the temperatures of the lye solution and the oils. You should aim to cool them both to be about 120°F / 49°C. A digital thermometer is great for soapmaking but an infrared temperature gun is miles better. There's less mess and it's much quicker.
- Pour the lye solution into the pan of oils. I recommend pouring the liquid through a sieve to catch any potential undissolved lye. You're about to see the wonderful transformation of that pot of golden oils transforming into almost crimson!
- Dip your immersion blender into the pan and with it turned off, stir the mixture. Next, bring it to the center of the pan and with both your hands, hold it on the bottom of the pan and blitz it for just a couple seconds. Turn it off and stir the soap batter, using the blender as a spoon. Repeat until the mixture thickens up to 'Trace'. This is when the batter leaves a distinguishable trail on the surface. The consistency will be like thin custard.
- Working quickly, pour the soap into the mold. Give it a tap to settle it.
- For a truly vibrant soap through and through, your soap now needs to be gelled. It can be challenging to gel small batches in cavity molds by insulating with a towel. Instead, place the soap in an oven warmed to about 77°C (170°F) and keep it at that temperature for an hour. Turn the oven off then leave it there overnight.
- The next day, take the soap out of the oven and set someplace to rest for another day. Once 48 hours have passed, you can take the soap out of the mold. You can get around six decent-sized bars of soap from this batch. You will also notice the soap deepen in color after you take it out of the mold and begin to cure it.
- Cure the bars for 28 days. Curing means leaving the bars spaced out on a protected surface out of direct sunlight and in an airy place. This allows the extra water content to fully evaporate out. Here are full instructions on how to cure soap.
- Once made, your soap will have a shelf-life of up to two years. Check the oil bottles that you're using though — the closest best-by date is the best-by date of your soap. If your handmade soap is destined as gifts, check out these eco-friendly soap packaging ideas.
- Lastly, store this soap out of direct sunlight. Light can morph the vivid color to a less vibrant plum color. It might be a shade that you like though so you could always set a single bar out in a bright place for a couple of days and see what shade you end up with!
Thank you so much Tanya…followed your recipe but just using the root from my very ordinary garden rhubarb, and am delighted that my soap batter looks very similar to yours when just poured…have put it into a warmed oven to force gel phase, and now waiting impatiently til morning to see how it turns out when solidified. Lorraine
That is excellent to hear! I have some oil infusing with garden rhubarb root right now, and I can’t wait to try myself. Fantastic!
I just stumbled upon your blog, thank you for the info. I am getting away from micas and going back to using natural plant colorings. My order from Anne George just arrived so I am searching for info on how much of the powder to mix with oil for the infusion. I can’t wait to play with this gorgeous rhubarb!
You’ll find that info in this recipe :) Have fun naturally coloring soap!
Hey Tanya! Love your website! I was looking forward to try this one. But at the end my soap turn out to be a pail pink and only in the outlines (all the middle is yellow). Any idea what went wrong? I didnt put it in the oven and i used orange essential oil. Maybe that the reason? Thanks!
Hi Maya, did you use a loaf mold and cut your bars? Also, when working with herbal/plant material, the potency can vary from batch to batch and from supplier to supplier. You might just need to use more if you want to stick with the Himalayan rhubarb powder that you have now.
My soap came out the same beautiful colour as yours. Thank you for sharing! Such a beautiful colour from natural sources – wonderful to add to my natural soaps.
My pleasure and really great to hear of your success, Liz :)
I purchased what I thought was Himalayan Rhubarb root powder from Amazon. When it arrived, the package didn’t actually state that it was the Himalayan variety. But I was excited about using it and made the soap anyway. I can confirm your theory that regular rhubarb does indeed turn soap brown. That said, the soap was lovely, and I’ll be checking my labels more carefully after this! LOL! Thanks for your awesome recipes and hard work. :)
That’s really interesting, Lisa. You think that it was ordinary rhubarb powder in the end or something else entirely?
Does the red stain a washcloth or towel once it’s cured?
Hi Rose, and no, it doesn’t stain from what I can see. The lather is also white, not pink or red.
Thank you! My new supplies just arrived (including the Himalayan Rhubarb), and I’m so excited to try your recipe! (Now to be patient for a month for the infusion)
I’ve been wanting to move over to soap making without Palm oil. How is the process different with palm-free soap recipes? I haven’t worked with castor oil before. (I guess I am just a bit nervous about stepping away from the tried-and-true recipes I am used to, but palm oil is ethically questionable.)
Hi Cathie, making palm-oil-free soap is no different from making soap with palm oil. Only the oils change :) Castor oil at around 5% gives stability to your lather, which is why it’s used in soap recipes. It stops bubbles from collapsing and disintegrating once you’ve built up a lather. You can browse palm-oil-free soap recipes here if you’d like.
Thankyou for your lovely recipes. Is there any reason why you specify Pommace olive oil? Is it ok to use ordinary olive oil?
It should be light-colored olive oil, and pomace fits the bill. You can use another olive oil but avoid using extra virgin olive oil. Its color will affect the color of this soap.
I was thinking of getting this powder but I read it can contain lead and to wear gloves and mask and do not inhale and use in well ventilated area. So do you think it safe to use in soap? I love the color but worried about it’s safety.
Hi Sheila, you should buy pure Himalayan rhubarb powder to use in soapmaking. It does not contain anything other than powdered plant root.
Can you please tell me where you purchased the Himalayan rhubarb root extract. I look up the Wonky Weaver and it say it will be a yellow Brown color. I want the bright red that you got in your recipe :) Thank you in advance
Hi Jackie, my Himalayan rhubarb is from the Wonky Weaver. The color that you get from it in fiber dyeing is different to soapmaking :)
Hi. Can you confirm the amount of rhubarb powder? A top is about 4 grams, so the 5 grams or 4 teaspoons has me confused about the amount. Thank you! I love your recipes!
Hi Monica, 4 teaspoons is what I used for the infused oil :) I’ve measured again on my micro-scale and it’s closer to 7g actually.
You are such a big inspiration in soap makers’ world:)
Do you have somewhere photo how color changes when soap is aging?
Best wishes, Lita
I could show you a photo of what this soap looks like now (very good!), but soap colors in general age differently. Some are far more robust! Others fade at the slightest exposure to sunlight.
Thank you for this.
Can the powder be added directly to oils kind of like with indigo powder?
Yes, although the color will likely not have the same consistency and vibrance.
Wow! I was inspired by this and decided to try it but in a 10″ mold. I infused 6 tsp for a couple weeks then remembered I had no chill so I put it in the Instant Pot for 2hrs on low then keep warm for a 3 more hrs. (I also used the Instant Pot with your annatto recipe and it was a gorgeous orange without the wait!) I placed a small cooler over the top of the mold overnight in our warm house. The color after 24hrs is a dark rhubarb red and when I cut the bars, the inside was slightly orange other than the outside edges. After only 2hrs, the sides of the bars are nearly the same color as the edges. I am so excited to see what they end up looking like after curing! Thank you for posting this recipe/blog!
Thanks so much for sharing, Cindy! So excited that you got a brilliant red too…isn’t it just amazing? Photos don’t do Himalayan rhubarb soap justice :)
Hi Tanya…was measuring oil and rhubarb powder, got confused with measurement .
we have to mix 5gm or 4 tsp ( 4 teaspoons = 16.7g) in 500gm olive oil,
Hi Tanya..much gratitude for telling us about such a lovely ingredient…. please tell me, will it give the same feel, texture and the the colour if we add few grams of Himalayan rhubarb powder at the time of tracing instead of infusing it in an oil for a month… thanks ?
Hi Shikha and great question! I’ve not tried it that way but suspect that you won’t get the same vivid color as you would with an infusion. I’ve seen someone mix it with other powders and the result is a deeper, less vibrant shade. Burgundy rather than magenta red.
Hi I have just purchased the Himalayan rhubarb powder from wonky weaver but it’s a yellow brown powder. Is that correct does it become red when later in the process?
Loving your book and newsletters.
hi tanya where can i get the himalayan rhubarb ?love your soaps.Bought the new book a few weeks ago ,love it
hi tanya where can i get the himalayan rhubarb ?love your soaps.Bought the new book a few weeks ago ,love it
Hi Magdalena and you can get himalayan rhubarb from natural dye supply shops online. Try doing a search to find a shop in your region/country :)
Can one used chopped rhubarb to infuse instead of powdered? Thank you for this, anxious to try it!
Hi Trish, chopped stems of rhubarb will not give you anything other than brown soap. Fresh garden rhubarb root does work from what I understand, but I’ve not yet tried it. The shades are more of a lighter pink?
Tanya, such a gorgeous colour…I must try making this with garden rhubarb as have some that need dividing, and shall share the results. Thank you so much for your newsletter…always something there to capture my imagination. Take care and stay safe. Lorraine
You’re very welcome Lorraine and I’ll be trying garden rhubarb too this year. I’ll update this piece when I have some results :)
Why infuse 500 grams of olive oil, then use only 227 grams olive oil?
So that you can make another batch if you’d like or if you screw up.
Hello, love you site. Do you know if this method work in hot process soap making? I tried getting a purple color with infused alkanet root and it turned brown. Thank you
Hi Monica and thank you :) I’ve not used it in hot process yet, but suspect that it would work. If I make a batch of HP, I’ll update this piece with the results!
What would this be like as a crock pot hot process soap?
Honestly, I’ve not tried it using hot process yet, but I think it would work too.
HiTanya, The Himalayan Rhubarb soap is marvelous.
Is the scent strong or gentle. I’m very sensitive to strong scents. Thank you.
Hi Barbara, I’ve not included any additional scent in the recipe but you may do so using this essential oil guide. On it’s own, without added scent, the soap does not have a scent other than that of natural soap.