What Parents need to Know about Azo Dyes (+ How to Choose Azo Free Dyes)

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Azo dyes are one of those under the radar harmful chemicals when it comes to baby gear, which is why it’s up to parents to educate themselves on the benefits of azo free dyes.

In an ideal world, parents would have the information we need to choose products that use azo free dyes, at our finger tips, without much effort.

In the real world, it’s currently up to individuals to seek out this information, which is why I wrote this guide.

Below, I’ve tried to cover the following information:

  • The difference between azo vs azo free dyes.
  • Why you might want to buy baby and kids products that use azo free dyes.
  • What different governments have found about the safety of azo dyes.
  • Which companies use azo free dyes when making products for our families.
Image of scientist wearing PPE examining water contaminated with toxic chemicals. Text beside the image says How to Choose Azo Free Dyes for Your Kids and the Planet

What are Azo Dyes?

Azo dyes are a type of synthetic dye or colorant. The food, cosmetics, and textile industries use azo dyes extensively (source).

“Azo dyes are by far the most important class of dye, accounting for over 50% of world annual production.” (source)

Other sources put the prevalence of azo dyes even higher – as much as 60% or 70% of all dyes used.

In other words? They’re everywhere.

Cheaper, easier to use from a manufacturing point of view than other dyes, and capable of offering vibrant and wide ranging colors that don’t run when washed, it’s easy to understand the appeal of azo dyes.

Unfortunately, they come with rather significant downsides.

What’s Wrong with Azo Dyes?

When it comes to azo dyes, the downsides come down to human health and the environment.

Human Health

Research has linked azo dyes to a wide range of human health issues.

This relates to both the dyes themselves, as well as the metabolites formed when azo dyes break down.

When some types of azo dyes break down, they form a metabolite called aromatic amines. We can absorb these aromatic amines through our skin. And unfortunately for us, they are bad news for our health. Research has linked aromatic amine exposure to a number of cancers, including bladder, liver, and breast cancers. Some are also allergenic.

Many azo dyes and their reductively cleaved products as well as chemically related aromatic amines are reported to affect human health, causing allergies and other human maladies” (source)

The health issues with azo dyes doesn’t stop at the aromatic amines. Indeed:

“Some azo dyes can be carcinogenic without being cleaved into aromatic amines.” (source)

The TLDR here is azo dyes aren’t really something I want anywhere near my kid’s skin – or mine, for that matter.

Far From Eco Friendly

From an environmental perspective, it’s not any better. In fact, there are a number of issues with these dyes.

For one, many azo dyes use crude oil in their formulation.

Beyond that, azo dyes “resist” natural breakdown, meaning they don’t biodegrade and require intensive intervention to remove them from our environment.

During production, about 10% to 15% of azo dyes run off into wastewater, where it’s difficult to treat and effects aquatic life (source).

What Sort of Regulation Oversees Azo Dyes in the Textile Industry?

While some governments regulate azo dyes, others have concluded they aren’t cause for concern at the concentrations consumers are exposed to them.

In 2017, Canada assessed 74 different azo dyes that Canadians are exposed to. It concluded that 73 of the dyes “are not harmful to human health or the environment at levels of exposure considered in the assessment.” (bolding mine)

The EU, as another example, has restricted some azo dyes.

Unfortunately, there are gaps that make the regulations less than 100% effective. Some research has found a number of unregulated azo dyes that are problematic.

Complicating efforts to regulate is the fact that azo dyes are a large, diverse group of dyes. Certainly, there are some health-harming characteristics common to many azo dyes. However, it’s hard to generalize across the entire category. Rather, each azo dye needs to be studied one at a time to really understand the consequences.

In 2012, Greenpeace purchased clothing from 20 global fashion retailers, and found azo-related amines in 2 of 141 pieces purchased. Not terrible, but not awesome either.

Looking Beyond Regulation

As regulation is, in my opinion, lacking with regard to azo dyes, I think it’s reasonable to also consider some of the best-available third party and independent certification processes and standards, such as the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX® and MADE SAFE®.

STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification doesn’t directly measure use of azo dyes.

However, it does measure the harmful arylamines that azo dyes break down into, as well as dyestuffs categorized as allergenic and carcinogenic. This includes regulated azo-dyes used in the textile industry, “but also other textile-relevant azo-dyes that might have harmful effects on the human body or the environment. This list is updated at least once every year with new relevant chemicals.” (source: personal email communication from OEKO-TEX®).

You can learn more about the specific chemicals in Annex 5 of the Criteria Catalogue.

MADE SAFE® is a certification/seal for products that assures products are “made with safe ingredients not known or suspected to harm human health.”

While I was unable to find specific reference to azo dyes on the MADE SAFE® website, the organization does include artificial colors and dyes on their hazard list. I have reached out for clarification.

List of Baby Products with Azo Free Dyes

If you’d like to purchase items that use azo free dyes for your baby, you can look to third party verifications, including MADE SAFE® and OEKO-TEX® to point you in the right direction.

However, you can also look to the companies themselves.

As I’ve become more informed about the importance of azo free dyes in the products I buy for my family, I have become aware of more and more companies that are committed to azo free dyes.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t specifically come out and say they use azo free, which means it’s up to consumers to reach out directly and ask.

Below, you’ll find a list of the companies I’ve confirmed so far. I’ll update this list as I hear back from more companies.

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