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You are here: Home > All About Hand Dyeing > FAQ > safety > all-purpose dye



All Purpose Dyes

Rit Dye Liquid 8 Ounce-Black

Rit Dye Liquid

Rit Liquid Dye is an all-purpose dye that works on cotton, nylon, and wool, but not polyester or acrylic. Use a cationic dye fixative to stop the dye from running in the laundry

Fiber Reactive Dye

Procion mx fiber reactive cold water dye

Procion MX Dye

When mixed with soda ash, Procion dyes are permanent, colorfast, and very washable. You can easily create a palette of brilliant colors ranging from light pastels to deep, vibrant hues. Stays bright much longer than all-purpose dye


Is all-purpose dye safe to use? Is it safer than fiber reactive dye?

All-purpose dye, like fiber reactive dye, is safe to use with appropriate precautions. Do not get the dye on your skin (wear gloves!), and do not allow it to splash into your eyes (wear safety glasses!). If you do get dye on your hands, wash it off. Allow any impossible-to-remove dye stains to wear off with time and repeated washings: do not use chlorine bleach on your skin. Do not eat while using dyes; if you smoke, avoid adding to that danger by washing your hands before doing so. Do not plan to reuse a cooking pot for food after it has been used for dyeing. The only dye that can safely be used in your cooking pots is food coloring.

Sometimes I see someone claim that all-purpose dye, such as Rit® brand all-purpose dye, is safer than fiber reactive dye, such as Procion MX type dye, apparently for no better reason than that Rit has been sold in US grocery stores for decades. However, there is no basis for this claim. All purpose dyes such as Rit® used to be more toxic than they are now, but that does not mean that they are now safer than fiber reactive dyes.

All-purpose dyes are a mixture of direct dyes for cellulose fibers and acid leveling dyes for protein fibers. Up until the 1980s, the all-purpose dyes that are so readily found in grocery stores almost everywhere used to contain some direct dyes that were based on benzidine or o-dianisidine, which are known carcinogens. See the US government document, Health Hazard Alert--Benzidine-, o-Tolidine-, and o-Dianisidine- Based Dyes [PDF]. All-purpose dyes such as Rit® used to contain a carcinogenic direct black dye, for example, according to Deborah M. Dryden's book, Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre; as she wrote, we do not know for certain what all-purpose dyes now contain, because the manufacturers do not list the chemical contents on their packages. Some dyes are still sold in the US that contain direct dyes based on o-dianisidine, but the MSDS information for Rit® dyes does not mention them, so we can hope that this is no longer a problem with them.

Unlike direct dyes, there are no fiber reactive dyes based on benzidine or o-dianisidine. As a result, we know that fiber reactive dyes such as Procion MX are much safer than many types of dyes, but, like all dye powders, they should still not be eaten or breathed. They should not be given to children to use until the children are beyond the stage of foolishly putting such things in their mouths, and adults should always supervise children closely while they are using dyes (as is necessary to prevent accidental damage to the decor, as well).

There is one type of dye that is safer than any other type of dyes: FD & C certified food colorings. These dyes have been tested for safety when used in foods, which is far more stringent than the testing for any art material. Art materials marked "non-toxic" are not considered safe to eat, as a rule. It is possible to use food colorings as dyes for some fabrics and yarns. They will wash out of cotton and other plant fibers, but will be okay if the item made is never washed, as in the case of some ephemeral children's art projects, and they are good dyes for animal fibers, such as wool, when used with an appropriate acid, such as vinegar, and the right amount of heat.

There are many dyes which are much less safe than fiber reactive dyes, including basic dye for acrylic and naphthol dyes for cotton. Greater care must be taken in their use. I recommend against home use of napthol dyes and some basic dyes.

Some acid dyes are possible or probable carcinogens. It is best to patronize dye suppliers that will specify which dyes they use by the generic Colour Index names; though you cannot expect them to tell you which dyes they use in any particular color blend, they should be willing to give you the entire list of dyes that they may use in their mixtures. For example, see the lists of dyes in my FAQ, such as Which Wash Fast Acid dyes are pure, rather than mixtures?, and Which Procion MX dyes are pure, and which are mixtures?. Once you have a generic Colour Index name, you can search for more information about the safety of a particular dye, so that you do not have to blindly trust in one company's claims in an MSDS.

Always be careful to avoid breathing any powder, including all dye powders, and avoid eating anything which may have been contaminated with even minute amounts of any dye other than safe food coloring.

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Page created: August 11, 2002
Last updated: May 30, 2008
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