Herbal Dyes for Cigarette Rolling Papers
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Aaron
Posted on: March 24, 2007

What are some herbal dyes that can be used to color rolling papers or smoked and cause minimal health problems and what ones are there that will cause max health problems? Can you please answer in the following format: "what herb yields each dye", "the color that will be yielded from plant", and "if it’s safe to smoke like tobacco or not?".

Because the smoke and gases released by burning are made up of a wide diversity of compounds it is not possible for us to comment unequivocally on the safety of burning and inhaling rolling papers coloured with natural dyes from herbs. Just as tobacco produces a cancer-causing smoke when burned, it is entirely possible that similarly dangerous compounds are emitted by herbal dyes when burned. I don’t think that anyone has studied the safety of herbal dyes in cigarette papers, so we can only provide some best guesses as to how you should approach this subject.

The first thing to discuss is the practice of using mordants when dyeing with natural dyes. Mordants are chemical salts that are commonly used to bind the dyes to fibres. They help to make colours fast or last longer. All books on natural dyeing discuss them and recommend them for dyeing fibres such as wool and linen. Most of these mordants are metal salts such as iron sulfate and tin chloride and they are not safe to ingest. It is possible that these compounds could be attached to the smoke particles and inhaled. Even if they are not liberated by the burning process they could enter the body during contact between the lips and the cigarette paper. Clearly you want to avoid the use of any chemical mordants. The need for a mordant may be irrelevant anyway because, unlike fabrics which must hold their colour after washing, cigarette papers are used only once.

If the fastness of the dye is not an issue, then the range of herbs to try is wide open. That’s not to say though that any herb that works with wool or linen will necessarily work well with paper because the colours produced by many dyes is influenced greatly by the binding bridge that chemical mordants provide. It is possible that a brilliant green produced on wool with mordant will translate to a faint grey on paper without mordant. You will need to experiment.

Although it is probably not possible to make your own papers thin enough for smoking, it may be useful to know a bit about the process of making your own dyed notepaper. Bobbi McCrae’s book, "Colors From Nature: Growing, Collecting & Using Natural Dyes" (Storey Communications, Pownal, Vermont; 1993), describes a method of making paper with a blender to make the pulp and a wire screen to make the mould. There is a step of straining the pulp after it is thoroughly run through the blender a few times and then putting the pulp back into the blender, this time with added dye liquor. The mixture is blended a few seconds until well mixed and then is allowed to soak overnight in a glass jar. The next day this dyed pulp is poured into the mould.

From the foregoing it seems likely that the need for an overnight soak is going to be problematic. If you are planning to dye pre-made papers I am not sure how you will do that. Rolling papers are very thin and may not be easily soaked in a dye bath. Probably you will need to soak the paper overnight in order to get good colour; but will the paper be too fragile to handle?

Where to go from here? It wouldn’t hurt to start with getting a good book on natural dyeing and reading as much as you can about the process. Richters carries two excellent books on natural dyeing: "A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibres" by Rita Buchanan and "Dyes from American Native Plants: A Practical Guide" by Lynne Richards and Ronald J. Tyrl. The Bobbi McCrae book is out-of-print but you may be able to find it in a library or get it from a used book dealer.

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