Fabric Dye Safety

Collection maintained by: Lisa

Original Question:

I would like to start tie-dyeing fabric for clothes for my 7-month old but I see in the Dharma catalog a little warning about procion that reads:

"Pregnant and nursing women need to be particularly careful with all chemicals. Best to discuss the matter with your doctor first."

Since I am still nursing Alex I thought this was good advice but my doctor knows nothing about procion dyes so was no help at all. Do any of you know any thing more about the specific hazards of this dye?

Alex can live without tie-dyed clothing if this is really a serious problem but I would like to know more about the dye. I guess I could just marble the fabric for him since it appears marbling fabric just requires fabric paints - no dire warnings on that page of the catalog even though there are chemicals I know nothing about - like potassium aluminum sulfate, carrageenan, methcel &oxgall. Are these safe? Maybe I should have taken a few chemistry classes in all those years of school.

Has anyone ever tried to marble 100% cotton knit fabrics? Does it work?

New Addition - 9/20/96

From: Laurie D

I was dismayed at the responses in the faq's and thought that I should respond. Remember that all dyeing and textile company's are in the business of selling their product. They are not you or your doctor. They don't care, you are not important to them until there are enough of you dieing to make a beancounter nervous. DO NOT USE ANY DYES OR PAINTS WHILE PREGNANT OR NURSING. YOU WOULDN'T DRINK OR USE DRUGS, THIS FALLS INTO THE SAME AREA. Also NEVER dye in your kitchen. This area is for eating only. You can't clean that area enough to remove all the dyes. NEVER DYE IN YOUR MICROWAVE. Anyone that thinks that they can, should never use it to eat out of again. If you want to use a non-toxic dye then use DEKA dyes. They are accepted dyes in Germany and they (Germans) have been at the forefront of dye technology since before WWII. Even though dyes have been rated as non-toxic today dosen't mean that they will be tomorrow. Also the label on the dye or pigment must have a label that says non-toxic and not safe under normal uses (you would be amazed what some people consider normal). All chemicals, even marbeling chemicals must give the buyer a material safety data sheet when requested. It is against the law not to supply one when asked. You should base information on a product on this information not what some minumum wage person on a phone tells you no matter how nice they are.

The original responses were:


I'm not sure about the other chemicals, but carrageenan is a natural product made out of sea weed, I believe, and is used in some meat products to add bulk without calories. The McLead Delux burgers you get at McDonald's are made from a beef and carrageenan mix.

I've only marbled woven cotton fabric, but I have seen cotton knit t-shirts that look fine. I haven't taken a close look, so I don't know how they look when stretched. The big hit with my teen-age nieces for Christmas this year was marbled cotton sneakers - they looked great!


I am very nervous about all chemicals and I don't trust most of the safety claims. Too many people bought the "better living through chemicals" slogon of the 60s and never learned to question safety claims. Anyway, I'll cut myself off before I get on my soapbox. But, many of my friends who spin their own wool, dye the yarn with Kool Aid. Seems like a good use for the stuff to me! It makes very vibrant colors. I don't think it makes sense to drink it, but it probably won't hurt you to touch it.


Procion dyes (the MX series powdered ones) are dangerous primarily when they are in powder form. The particles are very fine and become airborne as soon as you open the jar. All the dye manuals recommend that you wear a dust mask and rubber gloves (to prevent absorption thru the skin) when measuring and mixing your dyes. Once they are mixed with water, they are not "volatile" any more.

As a long time dyer and mother of three, I would say that as long as you practice safe dyeing techniques (mask and gloves, wear old clothes that you don't wear when nursing the baby, and restricting your dye activities to an area where food is not consumed) you could certainly dye fabric safely while nursing. Your contact time with the dye powder will probably be less than a minute or so. Once the fabric is immersed in the dye you can stir with a stick and wring it out while wearing gloves.

I highly recommend Judy Anne Walter's CREATING COLOR: A dyer's handbook. sShe has a whole section on safety that is excellent, plus lots of exercises for making the colors of your dreams. You might also consider dye PAINTING using Ann Johnston's method (See her excellent book DYE PAINTING published by the American Quilter's Society). Dye painting uses the procion dyes but is safe enough to use with grade school kids.

Marbling compounds (carageenan which is seaweed, and alum) are safe to use even in your kitchen.

As for dyeing cotton knits, they dye beautifully. You do have to pay attention to their weight and adjust the amount of dye accordingly. Knits are much heavier than regular wovens, so they need more dye to produce the bright colors. Judy Walter's book goes into detail about weight of fabrics vs amount of dye.

Be sure the knits are 100% cotton, otherwise, the polyester content will not take and you will have very pastel-loooking fabric.


I'm not into dyeing but I do have the Dharma catalog and my impression of the warning was to be cautious of inhaling vapors from the dye in liquid form and particulates from the powdered dyes (which are often very fine powders), as well as avoiding skin contact (but then, do you really want green hands???). A good mask and gloves and working in a well-ventilated area should suffice.

But, one thing that might be easier is just to use the tie-dye "ropes" that Dharma also sells--for baby clothes, you can make one set do quite a few pieces of clothing. Just be sure to "set" the dye or it'll run over everything (your clothes, furniture, etc.) if Alex wets or spits up on them.

And you can also call Dharma with your safety questions--I've visited their store and bought from them by mail and they're very helpful people, though they are a small shop so can be quite busy at times.


Cargeenan isn't exactly a chemical. It's a thickener made from a kind of seaweed. Look at your food labels, you are probably eating it on a regular basis.

Oxgall is what it sounds like. A substance made from the gall bladder of an ox. (I did a lot of fabric marbling a few years back and I never saw any difference between the times I used the stuff and the times I didn't.)

Aluminum sulfate is alum. You use it in pickles. It's a mordant.

Methylcel is a cargeenan substitute. Caregeenan works just as well and it's cheaper..

Marbling doesn't involve breathing either particulates or fumes or rinsing a lot of excess dye out of the fabric, therefore it doesn't present the hazards to a pregnant or nursing woman that procion dyeing does.


Carrageenan is safe -- it's seaweed, and one finds it in all kinds of foods, like ice cream and salad dressing. It's used as a thickener. In a book on marbling that I have, the authors recommend that the reader get carrageenan from health food stores.

While you're in one getting carrageenan, you might find someone knowledgeable (the managaer?) who might be able to tell you about the other chemicals.


I read the information that you were sent on the public section of the board and have to agree with most of it. I am the costume shop supervisor at Dartmouth college and the safety officer for my area of the building. This means that I have access to all of the latest information on dyes and dying and all of the ensuing osha safety regulations. I agree that the cotton dyes are most problematic in powder form, but we require respirators with particulate filters, not dust masks, for any one who is working with the dyes. The respirators are not recommended for pregnant women, because they lower the volume of oxygen in the blood. Not enough to be a problem for women who are pregnant, but might harm the baby.

Several things,
-Never use silk dyes while nursing. The glacial acetic acid that some folks call "activator" is easily absorbed through mucus membranes and can cause all sorts of problems. We use a separate type of respirator for those. (think of it as paint thinner for your lungs) Any sort of annaline dye should be avoided like the plague. There are so many scene painters who have died-literally-from cancer caused by these agents that we have lost almost a generation of brilliant artists before their time. -I think that cotton dying with gloves and a dust mask in a discrete area is fine, I've done it with no consequences. Make sure that you rinse the fabric really well so that some of the dye molecules don't crock off and are absorbed by your baby through the skin. This sort of thing happens all of the time with commercially prepared fabric (that's why my partner has all of that pink underwear when I dye red sweaters) but why add an additional insult to that very tiny liver?
-There is no force on the face of this earth that could have forced me to use any sort of yellow dye while I was nursing. Ever. Yellow is achieved through the use of Chrome in some sort of concentration or another, this heavy metal has disasterous effects much like lead only more insideous. It is passed in the same manner, through particulate respiration, direct ingestion, and through milk. Any other color of cotton dye should be fine. Take your precautions and have a great time. Alex should look great in all of those colors. I think you should investigate the Aljo dye company in New York City. Their cotton dyes are incredibly intense and very very clear. (they unfortunately say "aniline" dye on the lable, but I have investigated and they are not the coal tar derivitive that is causing the problems)


I have a six month old baby and recently made tie dyed pants for him. I used Dylon dyes which are recommended for home use and use in the microwave.I used gloves, put the stuff in a plastic bowl (which I threw away afterwards) and put the bowl in an oven bag as well. I'm breast feeding as well and will be for ages as Christopher is allergic to both coes milk and soy formula. I know that I really shouldn't do any dyeing whilst I am feeding him myself but I couldn't resist as I promised to teach our mothers support group how to tie dye and they were very keenn. I think that probably the best / safest thing to use would be heatset screenprinting inks. They are recommended as non-toxic for schools. They float O.K. on carageen (which is actually edible as its a type of tea) and wall paper paste which is non-toxic if it is the type that they use in schools(no fungicide added). Contact me if you need help with either screenprinting or marbling as I've done both on cotton. A friend and I made marbled t-shirts a few years ago. They didn't sell!!!!!
Dylon Cold water dyes we buy from the chemist (pharmacy). I'm not sure but I think they may be procion based. Procions are supposed to irritate your lungs if you breathe in the powder and have been implicated in cancer formation. Basically I try to avoid all dyes/inks as far as possible and am slowly learning to piece quilts from my stash of materials until I can dye my own again , hopefully in about 6 months time.


I think most of the danger is to you as you work with the dyes and chemicals (and to Alex if he plays around them and if you've absorbed so much that the chemicals are in your milk).

I've got some info at home, pretty basic, as well as resources, and I'll look them up tonight. With a bit of care, care that you should use anyway, you can tie-dye.


When I was using Procion in art school we were told that it is absorbed right into your skin and can affect your liver. (This was to encourage us to keep our rubber gloves on while dyeing.) I would think that if you are very careful not to get any of the liquid on your skin, and if you rinse everything thoroughly, there should be no risk to the baby. You also have to be careful with the dye powder: dispense it outdoors or somewhere where it won't land on your cooking and eating surfaces, and be careful not to get a lot of the powder flying around. Use separate pots for the dyebaths, not pots you use for cooking. I had some big aluminum soup pots that I used to use; they weren't very expensive. To be extra careful you can wear a mask over your nose and mouth. In other words, treat it like a toxic substance while you're using it. But once fabric has been dyed, rinsed, and dried, it should pose no danger.

You could also call Pro Chemical and Dye Company. I think they are good about dispensing safety information. They advertise in all the magazines, I believe.


I do not have scientific evidence but I would like to suggest that you do NOT use Procion dyes on clothing for babies. I suspect you should not use the dyes/paints that are typically used for marbleing either ...... it's the dyes/paints I would be concerned about more than the ?carragean? solution.

The following comments are based on what the person who taught me dyeing said. I really do not have the chemistry background to check all of this out, but I think I would hesitate..... In particular, one way to "set" Procion dyes is to use a solution that includes ureic acid ..... the same stuff as in urine. For example, the most common way of using Procion dyes for painting uses a paint-mix that contains ureic (?sp?) acid. You can find info on this in the tons of info available from Pro Chemical &Dye. Additionally, no matter how hard you rinse, it can be difficult to get ALL of the dye out of hand-dyed fabrics. I often find that some of the hand dyed fabrics DO still bleed ------ some colors are worse than others of course.

Based on these two facts I would suspect that the combination of loose dyes on fabric, babies that are often slightly wet with urine (at least one mother told me it can be impossible to keep a child *really* dry) and contact with skin just does not sound like a good idea. Additionally children often chew on their clothing.

With adult clothing you find: little contact with urine, seldom placed within the mouth, often worn over other garments and lower "dye to body weight" ratios.

My personal suggestion would be that you avoid dyed ---- and probably marbled ----- clothing for Alex. If you chose to marble the clothing, check what's going into the dyes and what sorts of things can be used to fix them. I did find that marbled cloth seemed to wash-out much cleaner than dyed fabrics and the marbling is only on one side ........ that may suggest that it's somewhat safer than dyed cloth.

Note of course that the Procion dyes are NOT considered toxic. However they DO have lots of warnings about using them carefully and being sure not to ingest them (e.g. not to contaminate food vessels). I suspect that a couple of shirts worn infrequently would be no problem whatsoever. You'll have to judge what sorts of "risks" you want to consider.........


But, there is a Center for Safety in the Arts, 5 Beekman Street, Suite 1030, NY NY 10038 212-227-6220, which has arts hazards publications and is a clearinghouse for research and education on hazards in the arts.

The address and phone are from a 1988 listing, but I am quite certain it's still in existence.

If you want to do lots of research, you can find out what the components of the materials are and go to the library and look them up in handbooks of hazardous materials (of course some, like carragheenan, won't be listed probably, because they aren't hazardous -- carragheenan is a seaweed derivative and is used in foods).


(Drawing on professional training and all of that)

All of the dyes have componets which can be transferred across the placenta, some have components which could also be transfered to breast milk. (Expecting flack from some others - the same is true of a number of the so-called natural dyes - just because it is found in nature does not mean that it is safe - plants are a great source of poison and many of the mordants are cancer producing)

You have a couple of options

1)forget it untill done being pregnant/nursing

2) use all the appropriate protective equipment, follow all safety proceedures to the absolute letter, making sure to NEVER have the baby around and to keep all dye activities completely seperate from food preparation. The risk to your child is either contamination of YOU (not good for you either) or c contamination of the house (not good for ANYONE living there)

< 3) use RIT liquid dyes (not as neat - but one of the big risks - handling of powdered dye is elimiated.

4) convince a friend to do the dyeing for you.

There have been some good articles in the fiber magizines in the last couple of years on dyes and safety.

Bottom line is that - unless approved by the FDA for human consumption - all dyes (powder, liquid, plant, etc) carry some risk.

BTW - cotton knits do tie dye well, but with three kids ages four and under (youngest being two weeks) I am hanging up the dyeing for a couple of years.


Nothing particularly unnatural about seaweed. :-)

(Besides, marbling is fun! Look for Marbling on Fabric by Daniel and Paula Cohen. $12.95 from interweave Press. ISBN 0-93426-54-8. Simple steps for the instructions impaired.


IMHO this is a classic case of CYA publishing. NOBODY should inhale (or ingest) fiber-reactive dye powders. The other 'chemicals' you would work with are NaCl (table salt) NaCO (washing soda - you may not have any experience with this, but you grandmother washed all her white clothes in it) and Urea. Oh, yes, and Synthrapol detergent, which contains small amounts of formaldahyde and alcohol. Urea, if you are unaware, is the main substance dissolved in water in all those wet diapers you have been changing for the past seven months. So, wear a dust mask when measuring out the dye powders, after you have wetted them down, there is no inhaling hazard. The biggest precaution is to do this FAR AWAY from your son and clean up throughly afterwards. Basically, these are household chemicals like you use the wash clothes, dishes and floors. Enjoy your tie-dyed baby. FYI, I am a Certified Nurse-Midwife and I believe that you can live an active, creative life and (safely) nurse your baby.


As you recall, I received some comments about the possiblity of dyes containing heavy metals and was a little concerned. My husband, a Chem. E. with work experience in environmental health and safety, told me to call the dye company and ask for the Material Safety Data Sheets for all the dyes I ordered. These sheets are required by law to list hazards and precautions for any chemicals. They're a little hard for the lay person to interpret, but helped set my mind at ease that I did not have to worry about the presence of any heavy metals and that the commonly recommended safety procedures are more than adequate. Here are some more details.....

I got the material data safety sheets from the dye company for all the stuff I ordered. Each procion dye color has it's own sheet, but for the most part, the data was essentially the same. From the sheets, the major warning was with regard to the dust, pretty much the same info. as every dye catalog and dye instructions carry....wear a mask while measuring. They did say that reactions to even the dust were uncommon....occasional reactions under heavy commercial usage....or something like that. Best to be safe though. None of the dyes were considered to be able to be absorbed through the skin (crummy grammar on my part!), although a couple warned of minor skin irritation in bunny tests. A few warned about eye irritation with direct contact.

All dyes that I ordered had a note under ingestion that they were not considered toxic and that ingestion of a small amount was not considered harmful, i.e., don't go running to the doctor unless you feel bad.

A few of the dyes are required by California law to carry a warning thatt some substances in them are known to cause cancer. I take this with a very large hunk of salt, since it is my humble opinion (although I don't live in CA) that this law is so wide-sweeping that huge numbers of things we use everyday also carry the warning. Not to mention, it can't cause cancer if you don't breath, eat, or otherwise absorb it into your system! Some blue dyes were listed to contain 2.5% copper compounds, which my husband says are one of the latest things to come under question that might be harmful. So far, no real conclusions on that though.

Anyhow, I was greatly relieved after reading these sheets, and for myself have decided that normal safety procedures are more thaan enough. And now my husband will let me do this in the kitchen again! Naturally, each person needs to make their own decisions on whether the info. presented above qualifies these products as "safe enough." For anyone wanting more info., I would be glad to talk via email about what I know, or they can obtain these sheets themselves directly from the dye companies (I think the companies are required by law to provide them on request.). Anyhow, I hope this helps anyone trying to make an informed decision.
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