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Natural Dyes as Medicinal Color

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

You might have come across natural dyers referring to natural dyes as medicinal color. This isn't random - many dye plants are also used in herbal medicine and studies suggest that our skin can absorb the medicinal properties through the dye. Plus, plants in general have a positive impact on our mental health, and they are a non-toxic alternative to synthetic dyes.

Rosemary dye bath

In an emotional sense, the dynamic living pigments bring peace of mind. Each person develops their own relationship with natural colors - a sort of intuitive natural color therapy. For me, natural colors are very calming, inspire awareness of my surroundings, ground me in place, and allow reconnection to the child inside that would play with the flowers and run with bare feet.

There are many reasons why natural dyes are important (I might even write an article about it eventually), but there is also a practical health reason for wearing natural dyes. The physical benefits of wearing natural color includes:

Woad seedlings
  1. Natural color provides a non-toxic alternative to synthetic dyes. Our skin is our largest organ and it is extremely porous. Research shows that our skin absorbs toxins from our environment, including our clothing. Not only are synthetic dyes polluting to our planet, daily exposure to carcinogenic or allergy-producing dyes can lead to many health problems.

  2. Through these same properties, the skin has the ability to absorb the therapeutic effect of medicinal plants. A lot of natural dye sources are also medicinal. The red color of Madder roots, for example, comes from an anthraquinone. Anthraquinone derivatives are used in antiinflammatory, antimicrobic, antibacterial, and anti-diuretic drugs. Chamomile, yarrow, wormwood, woad, turmeric, goldenrod, rosemary and marigolds are just a few examples of medicinal plants that are also used as natural dyes.

  3. Many plant dyes have also been found to have incredible antimicrobial properties due to the presence of phenol, tannin, and quinone. Pomegranate skins and eucalyptus, for example, have a high concentration of tannins. Additionally, any naturally dyed vegetable fabric mordanted with the alum method will also contain tannins. Most Wear Tinctoria garments benefit from these antimicrobial properties and the bamboo silk facemasks even have the inside fabric dyed with eucalyptus bark, acorns, and red pine extract - all materials that are high in tannins.

  4. Tannins are also able to absorb UV light. Fabrics pre-treated in a tannin solution (as is common practice when mordanting with alum) will make the dyes more resistant to fading. When worn, they also protect the skin from the sun. This means that thin cotton or linen shirts that don't offer much protection from UV rays absorb a lot more light when treated with tannins.

  5. As a side note, it has been observed that alum-mordanted fabrics also have deodorizing and insect repelling effects (due to their antimicrobial properties).

Natural dyeing is a beautiful art form, artisanal craft, and personal expression. It's also a practical skill with application in every day life. Wearing and being around natural dyes has both direct benefits to your health and mental well-being. But it also affects larger issues of sustainability.

Now I'm curious though, what do you think of when you read 'natural dyes as medicinal color'?

Mullein plant in Sintra, Portugal

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