Toxic Dyes in Clothing: Pollution, Dangers &... Colour to Die For?

Giada Nizzoli

Toxic Dyes in Clothing: Pollution, Dangers &... Colour to Die For?

From shop windows to browsing clothes online, let’s face it: it’s usually a garment’s colour that grabs our attention, like a bright red fast fashion dress. Shame that, once you pre-wash it by hand, it’ll turn your sink into a horror film scene.

That’s because it probably involves toxic dyes… like most fast fashion clothes!

But the real horror is that they’re dangerous for humans and contribute to textile dye pollution

Here’s why—and how you can avoid these toxic dyes.

Are clothing dyes harmful?

Clothing dyes aren’t harmful per se

However, 90% of our clothes are dyed synthetically, using dyes created in labs through chemical processes.

Depending on how they’re created, that’s when clothing dyes can become toxic and harmful.

Example of textile dye

So, what are toxic dyes in fast fashion?

Most toxic dyes are azo dyes, which are also some of the most common toxic chemicals in clothing

They get their name from the French word for nitrogen (“azote”) because they’re created by combining it with carbon atoms.

Not only is the actual process extremely polluting: these cheap and colourful dyes are also… carcinogenic—and the biggest culprit for textile dye pollution.

The itchy—and serious—problems with toxic textile dyes 

Red river due to toxic dye pollutionPhoto credit: I Am Renew

Harmful effects of toxic textile dyes on humans

The toxicity of dyes makes them dangerous for both:

  • You as a consumer 
  • Garment workers

When these dyes are water-soluble, you can absorb them through your skin. As a consequence, they can cause allergic reactions, endocrine disruptions, and even tumour formation, in some cases.

Some of these toxic dyes are considered respiratory sensitisers too, which is especially a problem for garment workers. By breathing them in regularly, they can develop occupational asthma and experience eye irritation, wheezing, and breathlessness.

Harmful effects of toxic textile dyes on the environment

Still, the biggest problem is textile dye water pollution:

  • Even though it’s filled with hazardous chemicals (like the mordants used to bond the dye and fabric together) and heavy metals, most of this wastewater returns to nature!
  • It’s usually dumped directly into waterways, especially in developing countries. Many Asian rivers are literally turning black!

Harmful effects of toxic textile dyes on communities and wildlife

  • More and more people are losing access to clean drinking water
  • Untreated water can cause long-term health effects in animals, too
  • When it enters groundwater sources, even well water becomes dangerous
  • Agricultural land can also be affected by textile dye water pollution
  • Once this toxic dye wastewater reaches the ocean, its chemicals can affect all levels of the food chain. Plus, several fishermen claim they struggle to catch fish due to textile dye pollution

If they’re that bad, why is fashion still using toxic textile dyes for clothes?!

Because AZO dyes are cheap, easy to produce, and result in bright and consistent colours… and fast fashion tends to put low price tags before the environment and humans!

Most toxic azo dyes are actually banned in the EU and several countries.

However, if the garments you buy are produced where azo dyes are not banned, you might still end up “wearing them”. Yuck.

So, are natural textile dyes the obvious solution?

Model wearing garments involving only natural textile dyes

Yes and no.

Don’t get us wrong: natural textile dyes—which can come from plants, minerals, or even animals (like crushed insects)—are definitely better than azo and other toxic dyes

But things are rarely black and white when it comes to sustainability: colourful dyes are no exception.

Ethical pros of natural textile dyes

  • Greener environmental footprint: they come from renewable sources, require fewer and usually non-toxic chemicals, and tend to be biodegradable
  • Lower water usage
  • Not harmful to you and garment workers

Problems with natural textile dyes

  • More likely to fade overtime
  • Not the best solution for polyester and other popular synthetic options: they tend to bond better with natural fabrics
  • While they require less compared to synthetic dyes, they still need plenty of water
  • To bind natural dyes to fabrics, some brands still use toxic mordants

How to avoid toxic dyes in clothing and promote a “brighter” future for fashion 

Organic dress that does not involve any toxic dyes 

1. Choose ethical fashion brands

Fast fashion companies aren’t usually transparent about their supply chain (which often does involve azo dyes). So, ditching them is already a safer step forward!

You can then consider buying from ethical brands that use natural dyes and, most importantly, non-toxic mordants.

2. Look for sustainable fashion certifications (psst: we can help!)

When brands are actively trying to be more eco-friendly, they’re less likely to use toxic dyes. For extra peace of mind, you can look for external certifications:

  • The Bluesign and OEKO-TEX standards, in particular, mean that those clothes don’t involve any hazardous chemicals and substances
  • If you’re vegan and wish to avoid dyes made from crushed insects, look for the PETA certification, too

“But where do I even start?” Right here on Project Cece

We brought together hundreds of fairtrade brands and added filters—including sustainable certificates—to help you narrow down your choices.

3. Support innovative brands using new textile dye solutions

Several brands and designers are coming up with ideas to reduce the harmful effects of dyes on the environment and humans.

For example, some clothes now involve:

  • Dyes made from proteins or bacteria that produce pigments
  • A circular model for wastewater, reusing it instead of dumping it into nature
  • Waterless dyes: bypassing the wastewater issue altogether by relying on CO2 during the dyeing process 

So, if you see that a fashion brand adopted these innovative solutions, consider supporting them: buy their clothes, engage with them on social media to help them reach more people, and recommend them to your friends.

Colourful toxic dyes are a dark chapter for fashion. Hopefully, natural alternatives and new solutions will lead to a brighter one.

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