Disperse dyes were originally developed for the dyeing of cellulose acetate, and are water-insoluble. The dyes are finely ground in the presence of a dispersing agent and sold as a paste, or spray-dried and sold as a powder. Their main use is to dye polyester, but they can also be used to dye nylon, cellulose triacetate, and acrylic fibers. In some cases, a dyeing temperature of 130 °C (266 °F) is required, and a pressurized dyebath is used. The very fine particle size gives a large surface area that aids dissolution to allow uptake by the fiber. The dyeing rate can be significantly influenced by the choice of dispersing agent used during the grinding.
Acid dyes are water-soluble anionic dyes that are applied to fibers such as silk, wool, nylon and modified acrylic fibers using neutral to acid dye baths. Attachment to the fiber is attributed, at least partly, to salt formation between anionic groups in the dyes and cationic groups in the fiber. Acid dyes are not substantive to cellulosic fibers. Most synthetic food colors fall in this category.
Basic dyes are water-soluble cationic dyes that are mainly applied to acrylic fibers, but find some use for wool and silk. Usually acetic acid is added to the dye bath to help the uptake of the dye onto the fiber. Basic dyes are also used in the coloration of paper.
Vat dyes are essentially insoluble in water and incapable of dyeing fibres directly. However, reduction in alkaline liquor produces the water-soluble alkali metal salt of the dye. This form is often colorless, in which case it is referred to as a Leuco dye, and has an affinity for the textile fibre. Subsequent oxidation reforms the original insoluble dye. The color of denim is due to indigo, the original vat dye.
Direct dyes are normally carried out in a neutral or slightly alkaline dye bath, at or near boiling point, with the addition of either sodium chloride (NaCl) or sodium sulfate (Na2SO4) or sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). Direct dyes are used on cotton, paper, leather, wool, silk and nylon. They are also used as pH indicators and as biological stains.
Sulphur dyes are inexpensive dyes used to dye cotton with dark colors. Dyeing is effected by heating the fabric in a solution of an organic compound, typically a nitrophenol derivative, and sulfide or polysulfide. The organic compound reacts with the sulfide source to form dark colors that adhere to the fabric. Sulfur Black 1, the largest selling dye by volume, does not have a well defined chemical structure.