Natural Colorants for Soap & Cosmetics

For most people making and selling handcrafted soap and/or cosmetics “natural colorants” means ingredients such as herbs and spices that will change the color of your product.  If you do a Google search for “natural colorants” you will find articles, posts, messages, books, webinars and more detailing the many ways you can make beautiful and colorful products without the use of chemical or synthetic dyes, micas or pigments.

Is using natural colorants legal?

The simple answers … Cosmetics: No.  Soap: Yes (sometimes, maybe).

Of course, the actuality is a bit more complex.

Is it a Soap or Cosmetic?

I’ve been over this point more than once, but to recap:


(1) articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body or any part thereof for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance, and (2) articles intended for use as a component of any such articles; except that such term shall not include soap.121 USC  321 (i)

In order be exempt from the definition of a cosmetic (what I tend to call “true soap”) the soap must meet the following requirements:


(1) The bulk of the nonvolatile matter in the product consists of an alkali salt of fatty acids and the detergent properties of the article are due to the alkali-fatty acid compounds; and
(2) The product is labeled, sold and represented only as soap.221 CFR 701.20(a)

In order to meet this definition of “soap” the product can only be marketed as “soap.” That means that you can’t say it will do anything other than clean … moisturizing, soothing, deep cleaning, shampoo, etc all turn the soap into a cosmetic.

The FDA regulates cosmetics, as well as color additives for food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees the safety of soap; the Federal Trade Commission oversees the labeling of soap.

Color Additives

As noted above, the FDA regulates color additives that may be used in food, drugs or cosmetics. In fact, color additives are the only products which the FDA tests and certifies before they can be placed on the market.

Color Additive:

Any material … that, when added or applied to a food, drug, or cosmetic or to the human body or any part thereof, is capable … of imparting a color thereto.321 CFR 70.3(f)

By that definition, any material that is capable of imparting a color to a cosmetic is a color additive.

[x_icon type=”warning”]  IMPORTANT!  That means  “natural colorants” ARE color additives.

Why is that important?

Because only FDA approved color additives may be used in cosmetics.

Using an unapproved color additive causes the product to be “adulterated” (and therefore illegal to sell).

Used for Some Other Reason

When I wrote the first edition of my book (back in 2008), I read the definition of a “color additive” to mean that if the ingredient or material was intended to be used for some other purpose and “happened” to change the color of the product, then it wasn’t a color additive per the definition. After further study, I’ve come to realize that  I was wrong.

The only way an ingredient that changes the color of the product is NOT a color additive is if the change in color is clearly unimportant to the value, marketablilty or consumer perception of the product.

If you use “natural colorants” to make a rainbow soap, the color is definitely part of the value of the product — so all those natural colorants ARE color additives. If the soap is marketed as a cosmetic, then it contains unapproved color additives and is in non-compliance with the law and FDA regulations.

Can You Use Natural Colorants? – Revisited


The ONLY color additives that may be used in cosmetics are color additives that are known to be safe and are approved for use in cosmetics, and then only for the use(s) for which they are approved.  There are some “natural colorants” allowed in cosmetics, but not many. There is a full list of color additives approved for cosmetics on the FDA website.

Soap (that is not a cosmetic)

There is nothing preventing the use of “natural colorants” in soap  that is exempt from the definition of a cosmetic. You are, of course, responsible for ensuring that any ingredients used in your soap are safe.

Soap (that IS a cosmetic)

It’s a cosmetic — so see above.

Personal Use Only

These laws and regulations apply to soap and cosmetics that are being marketed and sold.

If you are making the soap for yourself or your family, and are not selling the product, then you can color your products however you want.

My advice, however, would be to use the laws and regulations as a guide to what is safe, and stick to ingredients and color additives that have been proven safe.

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1 21 USC  321 (i)
2 21 CFR 701.20(a)
3 21 CFR 70.3(f)


13 responses to “Natural Colorants for Soap & Cosmetics”

  1. Sarah

    If my true soap – that I intend to sell and represent only as soap – contains a natural colorant (such as calendula or annatto), and I want to label it with a full ingredient list in order to highlight my quality ingredients, my understanding has always been that I have to do so in compliance with cosmetics labeling laws (list all ingredients in descending order, list each essential oil individually, colorants can go at the end, etc.) First, is that correct (or is the labeling less restrictive)? And second, does that MAKE the soap a cosmetic? Because if it does, then that would mean I’m using a non-approved natural colorant in a cosmetic, and it’s adulterated (=illegal!) Unless labeling true soap in the same way as a cosmetic does not *make* it a cosmetic.
    Thanks for all your amazing guidance!

    1. Marie Gale

      A soap doesn’t become a cosmetic because it has an ingredient declaration that follows the regulations for a cosmetic.

      The determining factor is whether or not the soap is a cosmetic of it if qualifies as being exempt from the definition of a cosmetic. To be exempt, the soap must be:

      • the alkali salt of fatty acids
      • labeled and maraketed as “soap”
      • only claim to clean

      Note that the determination for the last two is based not only on the LABEL, but on the LABELING which is everything that accompanies the product including brochures, signage and website copy.

      If the soap IS exempt from the definition of a cosmetic, the cosmetic regulations don’t apply. Technically, you could write down the ingredients however you want – including the same way as for cosemtics.

      That said, where the ingredient declaration is NOT defined by regulation (as in when the soap is exempt from the cosmetic regulations), the guiding principle becomes whether you are being truthful or are being “false and misleading” in your statements about the product.

      If you have an ingredient declaration on your soap that LOOKS like a cosmetic ingredient declaration, the consumer is likely to assume that it IS the same and that it includes all of the ingredients. If you do list all of the ingredients, then it not false or misleading.

      But lets say you make your soap with lard and you don’t want to say that on the label because you think it will be bad marketing. Then you put an ingredient declaration on your soap that LOOKS like a cosmetic ingredient declaration (so the consumer assumes it includes all the ingredients) and you leave off the lard. TECHNICALLY, the cosmetic ingredient labeling regulations don’t apply and so the ingredient declaration doesn’t break any FDA regulations about what how the ingredients have to be listed. BUT, you have been false and misleading by making it LOOK like you were being complete with the ingredients when you were actually trying to slip past the fact that there is lard in the soap. You may be okay with the FDA, but yhou’ve violated a law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission

  2. Terry

    Oh, one other question. If we aren’t set up as a actual business, just sell occasionally at holiday craft fair or something, do all these rules still apply? Thank you.

    1. Marie Gale

      Yes – these rules for labeling apply to all products that are sold to consumers.

      In fact, most of the actual citations and warnings I’ve heard of come from inspectors at small venues like farmers markets where an inspector was going through looking around (especially for food stuff).

  3. Terry

    If I add silk to all of my soaps, is it a NO NO to call it Silk Soap on the packaging? Thank you for all your guidance.

    1. Marie Gale

      Generally speaking, yes. It’s a no-no.

      You can say that it has silk in it, but for cosmetics you can’t put an ingredient (“silk”) in the name, and for soap that is exempt from the definition of a cosmetic, you can’t put an ingredient in the identity (what it is) unless it’s present at “significant and functional” amounts.

      I recommend not putting the ingredient in either the name or identity (avoids any potential problems) …. just put the fact that it contains silk somewhere on the package as part of the marketing text.

  4. Mark

    Thanks for the info – How does Activated Charcoal as an ingredient fit into all this? By your definition I would have to conclude that it falls under the “color additive” category – are all the activated charcoal products on the market technically in violation?
    I am in the process of using your book to re-work all my labels and I had decided to follow the guidelines for Cosmetics on all my soaps (I like to talk about the moisturizing properties etc) just to be on the safe side, but since I use things like AC, indigo, and calendula for color I’m thinking that may not be the best option. Hoping that I’m wrong or missing a loophole…

    1. Marie Gale

      Since activated charcoal, indigo or calendula CAN change the color of the soap, they would technically be color additives (unapproved color additives, since they is not on the list for cosmetics). So any cosmetic they are used in would be adulterated (by virtue of the use of an unapproved color additive).

      UNLESS — the ingredient is included for some other purpose AND the color imparted is clearly UNIMPORTANT to the perceived value of the soap. A decent yardstick would be if the soap was white or some other random color — would the soap have the same value to the consumer. For example, if the soap was a “rainbow” soap and the colors were integral to the rainbow, then it obviously would have less value if it were white. But if the calendula was included for some other purpose, and the color didn’t make a difference, then it would probably (PROBABLY – not definitely!) be acceptable.

      On the other hand, if the soap is exempt from the definition of a cosmetic (that is, no cosmetic claims are made), then there are no restrictions on what can be used for color.

  5. Jessie

    If I understand all this correctly, meaning the labeling of soap, it all depends on what you call it.
    If you just call it “soap”, then you don’t NEED to add all the ingredients, just “soap, heaven scent (as an example), my name and where I’m located”.
    However, if I’m going to say, “soap with activated charcoal for problem skin”, then I DO have to put the ingredients on the label, and worry about what other ingredients (colorants, scent additives, etc.) I’m adding besides the type of lye and oils.
    Do I have it generally right?
    Don’t want to forget to say THANK YOU, for all the great guidance!!

    1. Marie Gale

      Yes, that’s basically right. If it’s exempt from the definition of a cosmetic, then you don’t need to list the ingredients. You still need the identity (what it is … soap), the net weight and the business name and address.

      If the intended use is as a cosmetic, you need the same information PLUS the ingredient declaration. You can legally make a cosmetic without any prior approval.

      If the product or its ingredients are intended to treat, mitigate or prevent disease (“activated charcoal for problem skin” is borderline) the it’s an unapproved new drug – and illegal. The dividing line here is whether you intend for the product to just make the consumer LOOK better — or if it will actually do something “under the hood” so to speak.

  6. Dawn

    Thank you so much for making this information so easy to understand! I’ve worked in regulatory for some time with food, but am new to the cosmetic regulations. Where would you see infused oils fitting into the regulations on colorants? For example, I see that annatto is authorized for use as a cosmetic colorant. The way I read the regulations, I can use annatto infused oils (labeling the annatto and oil components). However, other ingredient commonly used to give an oil infusion color are not authorized for use in cosmetics. For me, this means that these infused oils are not authorized for use in cosmetics. Soap, yes. Cosmetics, no. Very interested in your thoughts on this!

    1. Marie Gale

      Yes, you have it correctly. If you are using infused oils to create a color additive for cosmetics, then the color component must be an approved color additive (such as annatto).

      And, as you noted, they may be used in soap – provided the soap meets are the requirements to be exempt from the definition of a cosmetic.

  7. Marty Webster

    GREAT INFORMATION!!!!! Thanks for all that you do to help us all understand the rules.

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