Synthetic Dyes: The Mystery Ingredient

Since starting eMpulse, we have been trying to understand more about synthetic dyes, their impact on the environment, their impact on garment workers, and what “low-impact” claims truly mean for dyes. Dyes are usually not mentioned when brands talk about their eco-friendly designs. While fabric is one of the most impactful choices of a clothing design, there is usually oversight in dye selection and other textile treatments. This oversight of this integral ingredient leaves a gap in brand transparency.

Synthetic dyes are “human made” dyes and are manufactured from organic molecules. Synthetic dyes are essentially the opposite of botanical dyes—plant dyes—which are derived  from natural material. Researching the world of chemistry has been a challenging task for those of us without a background in the field. However, we want to share our findings to the best of our ability so that other conscious fashion lovers can understand what’s up with dyes too!


What Sparked our Curiosity?

When we go grocery shopping, we look for certain ingredients and techniques—possibly organic, grass-fed, gluten-free, refined-sugar free, etc. Much like food, we are curious about what ingredients are in our garments. We seek to understand what is in our clothing before we put it on our skin, and we want to understand how the ingredients could have hurt the environment—or not. As the skin is the largest bodily organ, we are also curious as to what we are actually exposing it too everyday.

We are perplexed about how a huge ingredient of the production process could go unmentioned by brands and the industry as a whole. We have also been curious about the “low impact” labels that some “sustainable” brands are using for their dyes. How could something synthetic not harm the environment or the people handling the dyes? We’ve been DYING to know.

Avoiding Synthetic Dyes

We’ve been avoiding synthetic dyes. We believe in clear transparency here at eMpulse and haven’t felt good about using any harmful dye that could end up in our oceans.

We’ve completely avoided dyes by up-cycling clothing and designing from what we find. We’ve been up-cycling clothes and repurposing fabrics, so that fabric colors that already existed are what you typically see in our designs.

When adding dyes to our clothing, we utilize botanical dyes—derived from natural elements, like plants & bugs. These are safe for the environment because they are grown naturally. The beautiful process of botanical dying unfortunately leaves a higher price point for customers and/or is sometimes not feasible for a design.

We have worked with one innovative domestic production team that grows their own organic cotton and dyes the fabric through a closed loop system—leaving no run-off water. Hopefully this innovative process is the future of synthetic dyes, but high minimums leave us only able to work with them on designs featuring natural or black color ways.

We’ve been holding off on designs which either can’t be up-cycled or that require colors not possible with botanical dyes. When we see other “sustainable” or “low impact” brands using dyes, we wonder, “Are we missing something?” Is there a way to create colors with synthetic dyes that we could feel good about at a lower cost? What are we missing?


Our Research Process

We’ve done research online, virtually, and in person. We’ve talked to chemists over zoom to better understand the chemical make-up of dyes. We’ve talked to a specialist in the San Diego water treatment department to understand how wastewater is treated and where it ends up. We’ve also visited dye houses and tried to talk to workers there, which we will share with you in the next section.

Harmful Effects of Synthetic Dyes

One of the most detrimental impacts of synthetic dyes is the resulting pollution of our waterways. Residual dye and other chemicals from the dye process flow into rivers and waterways near dye houses. Not only is this toxic for the environment, but it is also hazardous to the communities surrounding these facilities and for those that depend on them for essential life functions.

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Most brands responsible for polluting water ways are domestic U.S. brands outsourcing their dye production to other countries, like China or Bangladesh ( According to our wastewater specialist, the U.S—specifically in California—have the strictest water regulations in the world. “In China, over 70% of the rivers are polluted (River Blue Documentary)” ( When brands are producing their product overseas, there are typically minimal to no standards that dye houses must meet, resulting in toxic runoff.

We also have concerns for the health of garment workers who are completing the dye process and are exploited in toxic work conditions. In addition to the concerns from documentaries like “The True Cost,” our concern continued to rise when eMpulse founder—Emily—decided visit dye houses in the Los Angeles. This trip was in the early days of eMpulse. After not finding answers to her questions surrounding dyes and working conditions, Em drove straight into the heart of industrial Los Angeles to see first-hand what was going on. Walking into the first dye house, Emily saw some workers were wearing masks and others were not. After talking to a secretary not wearing any protective gear, Emily left and had a nosebleed 20 minutes later. The workers could not provide information about the type of dyes they used. At dye house number two in Los Angeles, she was not allowed past the front office, but was provided with names of the different dyes they used. The workers insured that the dyes were nontoxic but didn't possess enough information to make Em feel confident. The final dye house, whom Em spoke with over the phone, was contacted a couple years later. This owner said they wanted to change to low impact dyes, but that would require resources and finances not available to them. They also explained that there was a lack of interest in low impact dyes from apparel companies, which did not validate a reason to change operations for such a high cost.

Not only can synthetic dyes be harmful to the environment, the people working with the dyes, and communities around dye facilities, but they are harmful to our skin. One type of dye called Azo dyes can contain carcinogens that can be harmful if they contact our skin, in addition to being hazardous in waterways. We’ll fill you in on other types of dyes, further research, and our conclusions in the following blog post, Synthetic Dyes Part 2: Comprehending & Conclusions.




June 22, 2022 — Emily Karrer