The textile dyeing industry has been in existence for over 4,000 years. Yet, textile dyes and their chemicals used in clothing manufacturing remain overlooked, as well as their negative impacts on people and the environment.
Synthetic dyes not only harm your health but also destroy ecosystems and the planet. They produce toxic chemical waste that ends up in rivers and water sources and causes a lot of harm.
Particularly in Asian countries like India, China, and Bangladesh, textile manufacturing factories produce and use dyes in harmful ways due to a severe lack of regulations.
Their protections for workers and the environment are weak. So fashion companies can produce their clothes, shoes, and accessories as cheaply as possible, disregarding environmental and health protection.
Here is everything you need to know about the harmful effects of textile dyes on the environment and human health.
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What's Wrong With Toxic Dyes
Most dyes used for textile manufacturing, processing, washing, bleaching, dyeing, and garment finishing are toxic. Textile dyes often contain hazardous compounds that put the environment and your skin at risk.
Unfortunately, consumers have very low awareness of the impact of toxic dyes in the textile industry and their harmful effects on our health and environment.
Toxic chemicals in dyes and fabric treatments poison the air, drinking water, and soil used for agriculture. They are very damaging to ecosystems and human health.
The textile industry is responsible for discharging dyes along with a large number of industrial pollutants into the environment, which constitute 80% of the total emissions produced by this industry, as reported by the State University of Maringá.
Although dyes have been known to mankind since ancient times, it was not until the late nineteenth century that synthetic forms began to be manufactured, which are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic.
Synthetic dyes used in textile and clothing manufacturing not only harm consumers but also farming communities and workers in garment-producing factories.
These factories are often placed next to large waterways such as rivers or lakes because the production of textile dyes and their use in clothing manufacturing requires a lot of water.
The textile processing, dyeing, and treatment of clothes use tons of water and chemicals. And manufacturers discharge millions of gallons of chemically infected water into waterways every year.
Apparel and textile products require 100 billion cubic meters of water annually for farming and manufacturing processes, as reported by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
And a single fabric mill can use up to 200 tons of fresh water to dye one ton of fabric. Wastewater charged with harmful chemicals is often released untreated into nearby rivers, eventually spreading into the sea.
Polluted water is unsuitable for drinking and growing food. But the people and animals that live near the factories end up being sick from drinking the poisoned water or eating food grown from polluted soil.
Toxic Chemicals in Textile Dyes
Toxic chemicals found in textile dyes include formaldehyde-based resins, ammonia, acetic acid, shrink-resist chemicals, optical whiteners, soda ash, caustic soda, and bleach.
Nearly 800,000 tons of dyes are produced every year in the world, as reported by the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries. And it represents only a small part of the overall chemical industry.
However, synthetic dyes are very valuable and used in numerous industries such as textile, paper printing, food, pharmaceutical, leather, and cosmetics. The largest consumer of these dyes is by far the textile industry.
More than 10,000 different dyes are used in textile manufacturing alone. Unfortunately, nearly 70% of them are azo dyes, which are complex in structure and synthetic in nature with carcinogenic evidence.
The chemical classes of dyes frequently used on an industrial scale are azo, anthraquinone, indigoid, xanthene, arylmethane, and phthalocyanine derivatives. Still, the overwhelming majority of synthetic dyes in current use are azo derivatives.
They can be grouped in different classes: acid, basic, direct, disperse, metallic, mordant, pigment, reactive, solvent, sulfur, and vat dyes, which reflects their macroscopic behavior and also their prevailing functionalities.
Reactive dyes are by far the most commonly used in textile manufacturing since they can be applied to both natural (cotton, linen, wool) and synthetic (polyester, nylon, acrylic) fibers.
The Impact of Dyes on The Environment
An estimated 280,000 tons of textile dyes are discharged in nearby industrial water globally every year, as reported by the University of Minho.
The large-scale production and extensive application of synthetic dyes cause considerable environmental pollution, making it a serious public concern.
Toxic textile dyes are one of the major causes of altering physical and chemical properties of soil, deteriorating water bodies, and causing harm to the flora and fauna in the environment.
Harmful dyes cause death to the soil microorganisms, which affect agricultural productivity. Azo dyes, in particular, are also highly poisonous to the ecosystem.
They are mutagens which means they have acute to chronic effects upon organisms, depending on the exposure time and azo dye concentration.
Dyes are, in general, stable organic pollutants that persist in the environment and cause an increased biochemical oxygen demand. So they negatively affect living creatures in the long term in the discharged water.
Textile dyes are indeed created with a high fixation degree to fiber and fastness (i.e. high stability in light and washing) and are resistant to microbial attack.
So they are designed to resist very harsh conditions, making it extremely difficult to remove from textile wastewaters by the conventional wastewater treatments.
The UNESCO reports that only 20% of globally produced wastewater receives proper treatment worldwide. It's time to prioritize water quality, reducing pollution, eliminating dumping, and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials.
Many dyes found in polluted wastewater have been linked to bladder cancer, splenic sarcomas, and hepatocarcinoma, producing nuclear anomalies in animals and chromosomal aberrations in mammalian cells.
Contaminated rivers become lifeless, all the fish are left to die and water turns to sludge. Polluted water, lack of algae, and chemical toxicity cause the death of aquatic life, ruins the soil and poison drinking water.
How Toxic Dyes Affect People
Long-term or accidental overexposure to toxic chemical dyes is also risky to human health. And the levels of exposure that workers generally face in the factories are unhealthy, to say the least.
Water pollution causes both environmental damage and diseases throughout local communities in developing countries. Many rivers are too polluted for any direct human contact.
Toxic chemicals in textile dyes cause most of the health problems related to dyeing and finishing processes. Synthetic reactive dyes are health hazards and cause respiratory issues due to the inhalation of dye particles.
They also affect the immune system and cause symptoms including itching, watery eyes, allergic reaction, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing, leading to illnesses such as asthma, dermatitis, and respiratory diseases.
Some trace metals found in dyes such as Cr, As, Cu and Zn cause several health problems, including hemorrhage, skin ulceration, nausea, and severe skin irritation.
Synthetic dyes are non-biodegradable and carcinogenic and pose a major threat to health and the environment. People living near rivers turning into different colors have reported health problems due to polluted water and food grown in nearby fields.
One of the better ways to make textile products without harming our environment is to use closed-loop manufacturing processes. They deploy closed water systems and recycle wastewater to protect the planet and save resources.
Sustainable production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals with closed-loop processes. They are more environmentally responsible and promote high resource efficiency.
Technology innovation allows more than 99 percent of the solvent to be recovered in a closed chemical loop and then fed back into the production process.
While harmful chemicals are still used in these manufacturing facilities, they aren't released into the environment and don't negatively impact ecosystems as much.
A great way consumers can help and do their part to prevent the overutilization of dangerous chemicals in dyes is to look for certification standards like Bluesign or Oeko-Tex.
They guarantee sustainable production processes as well as high levels of safety both for human beings and the environment. Audits from third-party organizations confirm fibers' quality, safety, and eco-friendliness.
Some of the most environmentally friendly, socially conscious clothing items are Bluesign certified. Eco-conscious consumers looking for greener products of every kind can trust the Bluesign certification.
Bluesign is a sustainability standard that guarantees the highest level of security for consumers. It considers especially the chemical composition of textile products to ensure healthy and safe materials.
The Oeko-Tex certification is one of the world's best-known labels for textiles tested for harmful substances. It certifies high product safety and is widely used in the global apparel and footwear industry.
The Oeko-Tex certification guarantees that products are harmless to the human environment. It takes into account many regulated and non-regulated substances, which may be harmful to human health.
Washing Clothes Before Wearing
New clothes can be highly dangerous to your skin, especially when they receive chemical treatments to make them more colorful, flexible, soft, or water repellant.
Don't wear regular clothes without washing them. Thoroughly cleaning new fashion items you just bought helps remove a lot of toxic chemicals textile fibers have stored during production.
Pay particular attention to young children and baby clothing as they tend to have sensitive skin. Buying organic baby clothing is still one of the best things you can do as a parent.
The production of new clothes requires a lot of chemicals and raw materials, often made from non-renewable resources. The fashion industry causes tremendous amounts of air, land, and water pollution due to the overutilization of hazardous chemicals.
20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Chemicals used in the production processes for fibers and textiles, such as dyes or finishing treatments, account for a significant amount of resource use, around 43 million tons in total.
Make sure to wash the clothes you buy before wearing them. Doing so will remove a lot of the harmful substances that stick to clothing during manufacturing.
Natural Dye Alternatives
Natural, biodegradable dyes are the better alternatives for the environment and human health. They are non-toxic, low-allergenic, and free from any hidden nasties like lead, bleach, or nitrogen.
They are sourced from natural plant and biological materials for a muted, earthy-colored fabric, less vibrant and bright but more natural in appearance.
Each color dye is produced from a different plant. For example, red dyes can be made from beets or berries, black dyes from fruits of the Terminalia Cherbula tree, and brown dyes from cutch wood, bark, or roots.
There are already many farmers and dye artists all over the world that make naturally dyed clothing. They promote transparency and human responsibility by working on family farms with localized manufacturing.
Non-toxic, natural, vegetable dyes are healthy and safe and focus on quality, not quantity. They promote ethical consumerism and care for the well-being of garment workers and the environment.
Natural Dye Clothing Brands
The best clothing brands make organic essentials sustainably with non-toxic and natural dyes. They keep the people working in the supply chain and the products they sell safely.
One of the best ways to protect the environment and your skin is to buy and wear clothing made from non-toxic and natural dyes. Natural dyes made from plants, algae, fungi, or bacteria are eco-friendly bio-based alternatives.
Many ethical clothing brands create affordable and sustainable clothes in a fair and resource-efficient manner with non-toxic, natural dyes and organic materials.
They avoid most chemicals used for textile manufacturing, washing, bleaching, and dyeing that are harmful to the environment, your skin, and the health of garment factory workers.
Check out our selection of the best organic fashion brands that make non-toxic clothing with natural, plant-based dyes.
Expert Opinion on Natural Dyes For Textiles
Here is what the experts have to say about the potential use of natural dyes in a new eco-friendly textile industry instead of harmful synthetics:
"Natural dyes are among the promising options for developing a greener textile dyeing process and such interest is reflected to the increased number of recent publications. Plant leaves are potential sources of natural dyes because of their easy availability and abundant nature."
- Mohammad Gias Uddin, Textile Engineer
"There has been a revival of interest in natural dyes in the global arena due to their non-polluting, non-carcinogenic and eco-friendly nature. [...] Natural dyes are biodegradable and do not cause any health hazards and hence they can be easily used without much environment concerns."
- Jyoti Arora, Prerna Agarwal, Gunjan Gupta, Research Engineer
"Nowadays natural dyes are one of the main areas of textile researches and important in terms of sustainable and ecological textiles, niche market and value-added unique textiles. [...] Especially wastes/by-products from food and beverage industries and agriculture are becoming increasingly popular as alternative and novel natural dye sources."
- Özlenen Erdem İşmal, Prof. Dr. PhD Textile Engineer
"For successful commercial use of natural dyes for any particular fibres, the appropriate and standardized techniques for dyeing for that particular fibre-natural dye system need to be adopted. Therefore to obtain newer shade with acceptable colour fastness behaviour and reproducible colour yield, appropriate scientific dyeing techniques/procedures are to be
- Ashis Kumar Samanta, Prof. Department of Jute and Fibre Technology
"Textile industries are very useful for human being but these are destroying eco system because of generation of huge wastewater containing toxic substances. Prime reason of toxicity is use of synthetic dyes. To save our environment there is no alternative of natural dye."
- Arun Kanti Guha, Textile Engineer
"Many ancient cultures, such as ancient Peruvian cultures, used several types of natural organic dyes like indigo and carminic acid, to create highly complex ornamental patterns in their textiles, which reveals the knowledge of a wide range of skills to extract and to process natural dyes from plants and animals."
- Kramell, A.E., García-Altares, M., Pötsch, M. et al., Scientific Researcher
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