Which is a Better Choice: Synthetic or Natural Dyes

bathroom bedroom building materials children interior design overview textiles Mar 27, 2018

by Angela Cummings and Sophia Ruan Gushée


Let's consider the dyes used in textiles, which are part of our furniture, drapes, carpets, area rugs, bedding, towels, clothes, bags, backpacks, toys, and more.

These dyes can be made of natural and/or synthetic ingredients, but be aware that they can influence indoor air quality and our health.

In this article, we'll explore the advantages and disadvantages of natural and synthetic dyes.

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are made from plants, animals, or minerals. Nature is the dye source and is often considered less toxic than synthetic dyes. However, that’s not always true.

Canaigre Dock, a desert plant used in dying, can cause pain and swelling when it touches the skin. (1)

Other plants have been identified as toxic when used medicinally, but have not been identified as toxic when used as a dye.

Bloodroot, for example, has been used to dye clothing, stain wood, and as medicine. While it has been classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an unsafe herb for medicinal use, the Department of Agriculture does not address the toxicity of bloodroot as a dye. (2)

Some types of textiles can be dyed by simply dipping the material in the dye. Others require that a mordant be used. (3)

Mordants are water-soluble and create a bond between the dye and fiber. (4) A mordant can be a salt fixative, plant fixative, or mineral fixatives, such as iron, copper, tin, alum, or chrome. (5)  

Of the mineral mordants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified chrome as “highly toxic,” and advises that it not be used for dying. (6)

Synthetic Dyes

Synthetic dyes, made from over 7,000 different color-providing chemicals, were created as a less-expensive, long-lasting alternative to coloring textiles and other materials. (7)(8)

The majority of synthetic dyes are created from coal tar and contain chemicals, like benzene, toluene (9), naphthalene, 1-methylnaphthalene, and 2-methylnaphthalene. (10) These chemicals can contribute to cancer, damage chromosomes (cells) (11), affect the nervous system (brain and nerves), contribute to headaches, dizziness, cognitive impairment, and may include immune, kidney, liver, and reproductive damage. (12)

For synthetic dyes to adhere to a material, heavy metals—like cadmium, cobalt, and antimony trioxide—are often used. (13) These materials can damage the brain and nervous system. (14)

What’s a Better Choice?

Most natural dyes are not harmful to health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service lists over 50 types of plants in their 2010 publication, “Culturally Significant Plants,” which includes plants used for dying textiles. (15) Of those listed, only three have been identified as toxic.

When deciding between synthetic dyes vs. natural dyes, natural dyes tend to be safer. Consider buying from companies that are conscious of people’s health. This way you’re more likely to buy furniture made with fewer toxins.



(1)(4)(6)  USDA – Native Plant Dyes

(2)(15) USDA Culturally Significant Plants

(3)(7) Florida State University – The Synthetic Dye Collection

(5) Pioneer Thinking – Making Natural Dyes from Plants

(8) National Science Foundation – Synthetic Dye

(9)(12) ATSDR- Toluene

(10) ATSDR – Naphthalene, 1-Methylnaphthalene, 2-Methylnaphthalene

(11)(13)(14) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 2

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Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

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