The Danger of Synthetic Dyes and Our Natural Alternatives

Prior to the creation of synthetic dyes in 1856, the only way to add a pop of color to an article of clothing was exclusively through the use of natural dyes, derived from either animals or plants. Today, a majority of garments on the market are colored using synthetic dyes. But at what cost? 

There’s no doubt that the use of synthetic dyes equals egregious amount of energy and water, used in the dyeing and finishing processes. Not to mention the hefty presence of hazardous chemicals in the ink and pigments. This puts the garment worker who is dyeing the clothing, and the consumer (us) at risk. According to sustainable retailer, Reformation, approximately 40% of dyes worldwide contain the cancer causing carcinogen, chlorine. This runoff from synthetic dye houses is pouring toxic chemicals into our waterways. 

It’s time to invest our thought and money, as consumers, into natural dyes. Below I’ll take you through some of the most popular natural dyes and their intriguing histories.


indigo yarns being dyed for jeans
Indigo yarns being dyed for jeans.

This natural dye is a mainstay in the industry, and is in nearly all your trusty pairs of blue jeans. Indigo is extracted from an herb, then submersed in water, and pounded with bamboo to quicken the oxidation process. This changes the tone from a green to a deep navy. Once heated, the substance is filtered and develops into a paste. The manufacturing of the natural form of indigo lasted until the early 1900s, when the synthetic adaptation was invented by the developer of aspirin, Adolf von Baeyer. The scientist was granted the Nobel Prize in 1905 for breaking down the molecular structure of the favored blue dye and producing its artificial substitute. The synthetic version is what is predominantly used today to dye our beloved blue jeans. It’s also responsible for major pollution, water contamination and birth defects of workers who process this dye.


Madder-dyed strips of fabric.
Madder-dyed strips of fabric.

Madder is a plant based dye found within the root of approximately 35 different plant species grown throughout Europe and Asia. The plants are dug up, root and stem are washed, dried, and crushed into a powdery substance. In its day, madder was the go-to source for clothing dye. Alizarian, a pigment derived from madder roots, has been discovered in the cloth of mummies and more specifically, the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt through chemical testing. It is also said to have been the first dye to be used for camouflaging purposes. Madder was the bright and exotic dye to be had until the mid-1800s, when it lost the majority of its value to its artificial counterpart, synthetic dyes.


Tyrian Purple

Strands of Tyrian purple yarn.
Strands of Tyrian purple yarn.

Tyrian Purple is one of the most noteworthy natural dyes to have ever been discovered. According to Greek mythology, Hercules and his sheep dog companion were roaming a beach in Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. The dog bit into a mollusk,  a small snail-like crustacean floating along the shoreline. Once drawing blood from the creature, the dog’s mouth became saturated in a bold, royal purple color. It has been estimated that about 8,500 mollusks equate to a singular gram of dye leading to the product to be priced at an exponential rate. For a period of time it was the most expensive dye on the market, leading to the color to become a defining status symbol, speaking to one’s class rank in life. Even Cleopatra’s barge was in a royal purple, while Julius Caesar proclaimed that this hue be designated to the emperor and his men. 


Different shades of Cochineal yarns.
Different shades of Cochineal yarns setting out to dry.

Cochineal is crimson in tone, obtained from crushed-up cactus insects. It’s been used for hundreds of years, originating  predominantly in South and Central America. The impact of cochineal was so intense, it is said that in the 15th century, Moctezuma, the Aztec monarch, imposed a yearly tribute to the natural dye for more reliant states. The colors it produced; pinks, scarlets, and reds, became synonymous with regality, importance, and wealth. 

After Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors conquered the Aztec empire and seized Mexico for Spain in 1518, the spanish introduced the innovative dye and artists’ pigment to Europe. Due to its incredibly high value, prices rose sky-high. The dye eventually found itself ranked among silver and gold as far as the demand as an export. In Medieval Europe, the color red would command the same amount of royal bestowment as it did to the Aztecs. The dye was even used for the notorious redcoats of the British army. The dye decreased in popularity only after the synthetic version was brought to the market.


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