Sulfur dyes are the most commonly used dyes manufactured for cotton in terms of volume. They are inexpensive, generally have good wash-fastness, and are easy to apply. Sulfur dyes are predominantly black, brown, and dark blue. Red sulfur dyes are unknown, although a pink or lighter scarlet color is available.
Sulfur dyes are water-insoluble. In the presence of a reducing agent and at alkali pH's at elevated temperature of around 80 °C, the dye particles disintegrate, which then becomes water-soluble and hence can be absorbed by the fabric. Sodium sulfide or sodium hydrosulfide are suitable reducing agents. Common salt facilitates the absorption. After the fabric is removed from the dye solution, it is allowed to stand in air whereupon the dye is regenerated by oxidation. The regenerated parent dye is insoluble in water. Oxidation can also be effected in air or by hydrogen peroxide or sodium bromate in a mildly acidic solution.
The low water solubility is the basis of the good wash-fastness of these dyed fabrics. These dyes have good all round fastness except to chlorine bleaches. Because the dye is water-insoluble, it will not bleed when washed in water and will not stain other clothes. The dye, however, may have poor fastness to rubbing. The dyes are bleached by hypochlorite bleach.