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Synthetic Dyes vs. Natural Dyes

by Millicent Hofung |

What are clothing dyes made of? What is the difference between natural dyes and synthetic dyes? What clothing dyes are sustainable? It can be difficult to know how and what was used to dye fashion products, unlike food, there’s no ingredients or materials label attached to clothing and textiles. Take a look in your closet, around your home and even in your linen closet – most likely the fabrics have been colored by synthetic dyes. But what’s the difference between the two?

 

What are synthetic dyes?

Synthetic dyes are made from chemical compounds such as mercury, lead, chromium, copper, sodium chloride, toluene, or benzene. These are proven to be harmful to humans, especially those that work with them in production. They can also have a devastating impact on the environment – untreated dye that is dumped directly into waterways leads to water pollution. Plus, during the coloration process, a large percentage (10-15%) of dye used is released into the environment. When it gets into the water system of neighboring communities, it can pollute with toxic chemicals that can cause health problems, kill aquatic organisms and create concerns for surrounding farms.

 

DID YOU KNOW?

The first synthetic dye, mauveine (a purple hue) was accidentally created by William Henry Perkin in 1856.

 

 Advantages of synthetic dyes Disadvantages of synthetic dyes
  • Consistent and reliable color results
  • Achieve any color of your choice
  • Cheaper to formulate than natural dyes
  • Do not require the use of a mordant
  • Contain harmful chemicals and carcinogenic components
  • Can be absorbed into the skin and body and cause significant health issues – potentially leading to skin allergies and respiratory diseases
  • Most are petroleum-based, making it difficult for wastewater from the dyeing process to be treated
  • End up in oceans and water supplies through toxic runoff and residues from textile manufacturing and dyeing processes
  • Cause harm to those that are involved in the production process and their surrounding communities

 

 

What are natural dyes?

Natural dyes are colorants that are derived from plants, animals, fruits, insects, minerals, and other biological sources. They were initially popular in our history, but eventually synthetic dyes were favored due to their ease of use and color variability.

 

 Avocado dye from Rebecca Desnos

Image obtained from Rebecca Desnos.

 

Mordants and Fixatives

The natural coloration process can involve mordants and fixatives.

Some natural dyes require a mordant to adhere the dye to the fiber to prevent it from washing right out or fading away too soon. The use of a mordant will depend on the dye materials, fiber being dyed, and the length of time it takes for the dye to set.

However, mordants are solutions that can contain dissolved metal oxides and since they are toxic, if not properly handled they can harm the dyer’s health. The good news is that the use of copper, iron, tin, and chrome mordants have decreased over the years due to increased environmental awareness and health consciousness. Plus, certain mordants that are derived from plant sources (including oak galls and acorns) can work just as well on fibers. Alum, one of the most popular mordants used in the natural dyeing process, is one of the safest options.

Plant-based textiles (cotton, linens, etc.) may also require a fixative to help set the dye. Common fixatives are luckily natural materials, including salt, tannins, vinegar, and baking soda.

 

Advantages of natural dyes  Disadvantages of natural dyes
  • Preserve the environment and are better for human health
  • Lower human dependence on harmful products
  • Biodegradable, compostable and degrade and decompose easily
  • Non-toxic and hypoallergenic
  • Contain antimicrobial properties
  • Easy to extract natural color from plants, fruits, and flowers
  • Higher UV absorption in fabrics they are used on – making them more protective for the skin from the sun’s harmful rays
  • Made from renewable resources
  • More expensive than synthetic dyes – due to the source material and increased production time
  • Color results can vary, depending on the fabrics and from crop season to crop season (but that’s the beauty of nature!)
  • Recipe standardization is difficult because color development depends on materials, colors and time
  • Clothing may change color slightly when exposed to sun, sweat or air …. BUT this can also happen with synthetically-dyed products as well

 

 Plant based dyes from Wild Pigment Project

Image obtained from Wild Pigment Project.

 

Why are natural dyes sustainable

The fibers that make up our clothes as well as the detergent we use to wash them with are just as important as the dyes they are colored with. It’s no surprise that we’re big fans of going natural (plant-based, renewable resources that are also compostable and can return to earth as a resource): natural dyes, natural fabrics, natural detergents, natural elastics and more. Read more about…

 

And if you’re interested in trying out some natural dyeing projects at home, here’s some tutorials we recommend following:

 

Red onion skins dye from Rebecca DesnosImage obtained from Rebecca Desnos.

 

We would love to see your naturally dyed creations! If you do plan on trying these fun activities, share with us on Instagram @wearkent.