Vegetable dyes: the blue of Cockaigne, the land of plenty

The history of cosmetics goes hand in hand with the history of humanity.

The ancient Egyptians were masters of cosmetology, and some of their recipes are still used today. The Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Ancient Greeks also took an interest in the health and beauty of their skin. We could even speak at length about the techniques for body care and decoration in Africa or from the Native Americans, but that would take us on too much of a tangent.

Instead, what we want to tell you about is the history of the blue colour, and how there are different ways to deal with and evaluate the substances and products we use every day.

The origin of one of the most famous vegetable dyes

In ancient times, only natural dyes were used. Synthetic ones didn’t exist yet, and would only appear a great many years later. The history of blue dye is particularly interesting.

In France, there is an area near Toulouse, where until 1750 they cultivated “Pastel”, a plant with the botanical name Isatis tintorea. The main derivative of this plant, mixed with beeswax, created a tool for writing and colouring: this is the origin of the name “pastel”, still used now. Pastel, or “Woad” in English, was not grown for writing with: its main use was to provide the raw material for dyeing cloth.

The dyers who worked with this plant collected the straws of pure colour that floated to the surface during the cloth dyeing process. The pure colour extracted this way was used by the great painters of the time for the magnificent blue vaults that embellish our cathedrals. When you visit an ancient church and admire the deep blue of the various decorations, remember that it comes from a simple shrub that grows in our own country too.

After the cultivation of the Pastel, it was harvested. The herb was then packed into balls with a diameter of approximately ten centimetres, and placed on special shelves to ferment. Merchants from all over the world came to this area to buy the blue dye. It was a trade that made the country very rich. The balls of Pastel were called “Cocagne”, and the pilgrims that passed through the south of France on their way to Santiago de Compostela spoke of having passed through Cockaigne, or the “land of plenty”, a region where they lacked for nothing. Food in abundance, beautiful houses, happy people: this is the origin of the name Cockaigne for the mythical land of plenty.

Pastel blue today

The cultivation of Pastel suffered a sudden collapse, however, due to imports of another of the most famous vegetable dyes: Indigo. As indicated by its name, this product was produced in India, and it was fierce competition for the French blue, marking the gradual abandonment of the latter.

So? Does the story end here? Of course not! A few years ago, a conference was held in Toulouse, dedicated to vegetable dyes, and in particular, Pastel. This event had the effect of relaunching the product, to the extent that Missoni, Naj Oleari, Nina Ricci and many other influential stylists chose to use only vegetable dyes on their clothing after the conference.

This is all very well, but what do we do about the market and its unpredictable demands? Indeed, a kilogram of vegetable dye costs 100 times a kilogram of synthetic dye. And the industry has no doubts: use the synthetic.

Vegetable dyes vs. synthetic dyes

All things considered, it seems much more convenient to use synthetic dyes, doesn’t it? But here is what a dyer told us at the conference:

“when I was using synthetic blue dyes, my hands and arms were covered in eczema up to the elbows, but since I have been working with vegetable dyes, my eczema has disappeared”.

Lets also consider the point of view of the World Health Organisation, then: one kilo of synthetic dye costs society 100 times what vegetable dye costs. This is because vegetable dyes reduce cases of eczema and use of medication, as well as total working days lost to illness. Furthermore, the agricultural system at the base of the production of blue dye stops the desertification of the countryside, guarantees less social spending on unemployment, and creates thousands of days of work.

Synthetic dyes are substances that encourage the onset of allergies, without having any utility in terms of how effective a product is, whether used for cosmetics or detergents. A green or red shampoo washes no better than a colour-free shampoo. Maybe it will be more attractive to look at, but we need to be aware that for fleeting visual pleasure we are risking our health.

SIDAPA, the association of clinical dermatologists, maintains that around  23%  of women and  13.8%  of men have complained of an adverse reaction to cosmetics within the last year.

How can we recognise synthetic dyes, and how can we avoid them?

Simple: for every cosmetic, it is possible to consult the INCI composition of its formula. In this composition, all dyes are preceded by “CI” (Colour Index). Here is a list of the least hazardous dyes currently available on the market:

 table containing an index of the least hazardous dyes on the market

In conclusion, it is better to buy products containing no dyes, or those coloured using these pigments. Otherwise… better to avoid them!







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