Hesperian Health Guides

Treating cloth with dyes and chemicals

In this chapter:

Before it gets to garment workers, cloth is often treated with different chemicals that give the fabric color, fire resistance, permanent press, or other qualities. Bleach makes the fabric white and easier to dye. Dyes give the fabric specific colors. Mordants improve how color sticks to the fabric. Sealers and fixers prevent dyes from washing off with water or sweat.

The chemicals stay on the fabric. If you get rashes when working with cloth, it might be caused by the dyes or chemicals used to make it.


Dyes and chemicals can irritate your skin and cause rashes, allergies, or breathing problems.

Cleaning your hands with solvents after working with dyes also can cause rashes, allergies, and breathing problems. Stay away from benzene or chemicals that smell sweet or pleasant. These chemicals, called aromatic hydrocarbons, are breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Some of them cause cancer.

Alcohols (such as isopropanol, IPA) are less dangerous but they still irritate your skin. Even though it may take longer to get the dye off, wash your hands with water and soap instead.

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The dyed cloth color sometimes helps us know what dyes we are working with.
red, orange, yellow = azo dyes
bright colors = triarylmethane dyes
black = sulfur dyes
blue jeans = indigo dyes
Some azo dyes are banned because they can cause cancer and are very harmful to your health. See Dyes in the Chemical Charts.

Permanent press and waterproofing

Formaldehyde is added to fabric to make it smooth and less likely to wrinkle or crease. Workers dip the fabric in formaldehyde baths, or put fabric in large chambers filled with formaldehyde gas. Workers in this part of the process are exposed to the most formaldehyde, although without good ventilation, all workers in the shop will be exposed to an unhealthy amount.

Formaldehyde irritates the skin, making it red and itchy. Breathing the fumes harms the nose, throat, and lungs. Formaldehyde causes asthma and cancer.

Fire resistant chemicals

Fire resistant chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants, make clothing less likely to burn. However, these chemicals can harm the reproductive system and cause cancer.

Antibacterial treatments

Garments are dipped in baths containing silver, triclosan, or trichlocarban. These keep bacteria from growing in the garments and make them less likely to smell. Workers add the chemicals in liquid, powder, or pellet form into baths which are then heated. Antibacterial chemicals gradually wash out when the clothing is washed at home.

Silver is particularly dangerous because it does not break down. It accumulates in and poisons people, animals, water, and land.


Some chemicals are used in a form called nanoparticles, which means they have been made to be very, very small. Nanoparticles can be spun into fibers or coated on them after the cloth is made. Cloth is treated with a variety of chemical nanoparticles to make it sturdier, to fight bacteria, to resist stains and repel water, to protect against the sun’s rays and against fire, and for other uses.

Nanoparticles are so tiny that they can easily pass through skin and into our blood and internal organs. Workers should be extremely careful working with nanoparticles and demand that all safety systems – enclosures, ventilation, and others – be in good working order. If you handle nanoparticles, wearing a double set of nitrile gloves is recommended, but no one really knows if they protect enough.

Keep chemicals out of your body

Reduce the amount of chemicals that get on and inside your body.

  • Wash your hands often, especially before eating, drinking, or smoking. This can stop chemicals from going into your mouth.
  • Wash your hands only with water and soap. Avoid using solvents to clean your hands.
  • Use skin lotion or hand cream on your hands after washing to prevent skin from drying. Healthy skin keeps out chemicals better than cracked, red skin.
  • Wear long sleeves to protect your arms.
  • Wear the right kind of protective gloves, especially if you add chemicals to the fabric. See Gloves.
  • Wear a mask. If you can see, smell, or feel the effects of a chemical, the ventilation is probably not working or not strong enough to keep these chemicals away from your nose and mouth. See Masks and respirators, and Chapter 17: Ventilation.
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  • Tell your employer which fabrics cause rashes or breathing problems. Get him to change the fabric to one that does not cause rashes or other health problems.

Materials besides cloth can also cause allergies and rashes, such as nickel in rivets.

If you get a rash, learn how to reduce the discomforts of a rash and watch for signs of other health problems.

Organize to demand that your employer:

  • Label chemicals in the language workers speak and share Safety Data Sheets (SDS) with workers.
  • Train all workers on safe chemical handling.
  • Improve machines and ventilation before trying to solve the problem with personal protective equipment.
  • Respect your country’s laws on chemicals at work.

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Keep information about your rashes or breathing problems in a health notebook.

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This page was updated:25 Sep 2023