Dyes, Pigments and Inks



powder paint

Dyes—coloring materials that are applied as a solution and cling to whatever they are applied to (e.g., textiles, hair, wood, food)—can be used for decorative, aesthetic, and artistic purposes. They can also be used as identifiers, like the purple dye that some countries use to mark voters' fingers during an election or the wool dyes that sheep herders use to mark the sheep in their flocks. Fluorescent brightening dyes improve the appearance of textiles and paper. Contrast agents and fluorescent dyes make selected cells and organs stand out for biological and medical imaging. Dye-based lasers are not only powerful, but they also emit laser light over a range of wavelengths, producing "tunable" laser beams for manufacturing, medical applications, astronomical research, and spectroscopy. Dye laser beams can even be used to vaporize tattoo inks.

Pigments are used for artists' paints, car finishes, and light-reflecting signs. They are insoluble materials that have to be mixed with binders or vehicles to attach them to a substrate. Pigments are often derived from minerals, but they can also be made synthetically. Pigments are used in paints, inks, plastics, fabrics, cosmetics, and food, to name a few examples. They are often better than dyes at keeping their color for many centuries and for withstanding high heat, intense light, and exposure to weather or chemical agents.  

Inks are liquids or pastes that contain dyes or pigments, and they are used for writing pens, printing, and tattoos. Anti-counterfeiting inks, including gel inks, some fountain pen inks, and inks used for paper currency, react with the cellulose in paper to produce a permanent color change.

Although they are not strictly inks, liquids used for inkjet technologies like microcircuitry fabrication and 3D printing benefit from much of the same research used to develop more conventional inks: consistency and flow properties, electrostatic properties, adhesion to a substrate, resistance to bleeding and spreading, solvent compatibility properties, and resolution and stability of the resulting patterns or 3D structures.

The field of 3D printing materials has largely been the domain of experimenters and do-it-yourselfers, but the demand for reliable commercial products is increasing. Companies now use this method for small- and medium-scale production of customized machine parts, gourmet food items, and even customized artificial body parts. However, major manufacturing companies are looking into 3D printing for large-scale production of machine parts, toys, and consumer electronics. Cutting-edge industries are currently using 3D printing for making prototype reactors and systems, including "printing" living cells onto a substrate for use in drug discovery research.

Chemists who work with dyes, pigments, and inks develop new formulations that use less expensive ingredients or hold their colors better. They may develop new formulations that avoid heavy metals and volatile organic compounds or that use sustainable resources like vegetable oils. They may also develop new products with better flow properties, greater stability, or better interactions with the materials with which they come into contact.

Museum workers analyze the pigments and dyes in historical artifacts and works of art to authenticate them and identify their age and place of origin. These workers look for materials that are compatible with older dyes and pigments to preserve and restore valuable objects. Forensic chemists analyze evidence, including car paint or cosmetics residues, for criminal or civil court cases.

Typical work duties include the following:

  • Synthesize and characterize new products, components, and formulations
  • Develop new applications for existing products
  • Develop and provide marketing support for commercial products
  • Provide customer support and troubleshooting assistance in the application of commercial products
  • Study and improve health, safety, and environmental properties
  • Analyze pigments and dyes from historical artifacts, works of art, or crime scene evidence
  • Teach courses and train students
  • Communicate with funding agencies, regulatory agencies, and the general public
Related Fields
  • Synthetic chemistry
  • Analytical chemistry
  • Materials science
  • Chemistry in the arts
  • Chemical engineering
  • Forensic chemistry
  • Formulations chemistry
  • Environmental chemistry
  • Product development and support
  • Health and Safety
  • Organic chemistry
  • Polymer chemistry



Dye, pigment, and ink chemists require a solid background in chemistry or a related scientific field. Research and academic positions usually require a Ph.D. and possibly one or more postdoctoral fellowships. Research assistants and technicians may decide to stop with a bachelor's or master's degree, or they may return to school to earn a doctorate after gaining some work experience. Instrument specialists, chemical engineers, and persons working in marketing or customer service may have master's degrees. Some managerial and administrative jobs may require master's degrees, but research director positions generally require a science Ph.D.



Licenses are not generally required for dye, pigment, and ink chemists.



Dye, pigment, and ink chemists often work in academic, industrial, or government laboratories. They generally work regular hours, unless an experiment or a project deadline requires working overtime.

Industrial chemists may work in factories or production plants. They may travel to customer sites to advise and train customers or to troubleshoot processes or equipment. Academic chemists may teach classes and confer with students during office hours, as well as supervise student researchers.

Environmental chemists may work in factory settings or in the field, collecting and analyzing samples to monitor levels of chemicals released into the air or water. They may also work with production plants to improve manufacturing processes and monitor compliance with regulations.

Chemists in any of these areas may present their work at conferences and symposia, and they may publish their work in scientific journals or general-audience publications. They or their employers may apply for patents on new ingredients, formulations, or applications.



Technical Skills

Dye, pigment, and ink chemistry work takes many forms. Each type of job function requires its own set of skills, and no one position requires a person to be good at everything.

Analytical   Communication Background knowledge
  • Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving applied research problems
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills to design experiments, troubleshoot processes, and analyze data
  • Attention to detail in synthesis and characterization work
  • Ability to think in terms of customer satisfaction and customer requirements
  • Written and oral communication skills to explain findings and share results with scientists and nonscientists
  • Synthetic and/or analytical chemistry skills, including competence with laboratory instruments
  • Knowledge of and diligent attention to federal and local regulatory constraints
  • Computer skills, including familiarity with computer modeling and data analysis


Career Path

Careers in dyes, pigments, and inks offer a wide variety of entry points, including basic or applied research, product development, customer support, product quality control, health and safety, environmental regulatory compliance, and sustainable manufacturing practices.

Analytical chemists in this field may work with museums and universities to authenticate historical artifacts or works of art, or they may analyze evidence for a variety of law enforcement agencies. Formulations chemists may work in industrial or academic labs to develop new food colorings, inks that are not easily counterfeited, or the latest colors for fashion, cars, and home decorating. Chemists in industrial, academic, or government laboratories may develop new liquids for fabricating circuit boards using inkjet technology or polymers that form artificial organs using 3D printing techniques.

Students and recent graduates may pursue internships in industrial, academic, or government laboratories to see if this field is a good fit and to help with deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree.

Program management or administration is an option for experienced chemists. As with any manufacturing sector, careers in public policy and government affairs are an option, as well as legal careers in patent law and intellectual property. Chemists with experience in this industry sector may go into sales and marketing.


Car wash

Future Employment Trends

Global demand for pigments is expected to grow slowly, but steadily, through at least 2020. The largest market for pigments is the construction industry, which uses them for paints, varnishes, plastics, and construction materials. Paints and varnishes account for more than 43% of global demand for pigments, and 27% of demand is for plastics colorants. (Ceresana, 2013)

The demand for magazines and printed packaging will drive a strong demand for printing inks, but inks are usually purchased in the same countries that produce the final products. Demand from the textile and paper industries is not expected to be as strong. The greatest opportunities are expected to arise in the areas between raw pigments and the final products, including dispersants, quality control, additives, and surface treatments. (Ceresana, 2013; Houlton, 2009)

Niche markets are expected to thrive, including photochromic colorants, medical dyes, and infrared dyes for applications including security markings. Emerging markets are also creating new opportunities; for example, European, African, and Asian hair all take up hair dyes differently, and products must be tailored for the needs of these diverse customers. (Houlton, 2009)

High-tech applications, including inkjet microfabrication and 3D printing, are largely in the developmental stage. Most jobs are expected to be in the research field, although opportunities in product development may increase as these methods are more widely applied for commercial products.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Product development research requires a practical frame of mind and close attention to customer needs, manufacturing processes and economics, and regulatory restrictions. Chemists may work closely with plant engineers, patent lawyers, and customers to ensure that new products are not only innovative but are useful, affordable, safe, and non-polluting. Chemists who develop products for food or medical applications must comply with regulations specific to these areas and may collaborate with biomedical researchers.

Chemists who work with consumer products must be aware of how their pigments and dyes affect other properties of a product, including flavors, allergic reactions, material strength, and tendency to corrode or oxidize. They must take consumer behaviors into account, including common laundry practices, cooking practices, and color trends in cosmetics, fashion, or automotive finishes.

Technology applications like laser dyes and inkjet fabrication require finding new materials that not only function well as finished products but are amenable to existing production techniques. Newer technologies are still in the very early stages, and entrepreneurial chemists are needed to develop research model systems into commercial products.

Because this is a global industry and much of the demand is in rapidly developing markets, it is worthwhile to consider working for companies outside the United States.




Global demand for pigments is expected to grow slowly, but steadily, through at least 2020, with the largest market for pigments being the construction industry.

Expect to see strong demand for printing inks for magazines and printed packaging, but less demand from the textile and paper industries. Niche markets are expected to thrive, and emerging markets are also creating new opportunities.

Because high-tech applications are largely in the developmental stage, most jobs are expected to be in the research field, although opportunities in product development may increase.


Dye, pigment, and ink chemists require a solid background in chemistry or a related scientific field.

  • Research and academic positions: usually require a Ph.D. and possibly one or more postdoctoral fellowships.
  • Research assistants, technicians, and production plant chemists: may have bachelor's or master's degree, and some may earn doctorate after gaining work experience.
  • Instrument specialists, chemical engineers, and persons working in marketing or customer service: may have master's degrees.
  • Managerial and administrative jobs: some may require master's degrees, but research director positions generally require a science Ph.D.


Median salaries for “synthetic dye and pigment manufacturing” positions (April 2015):

  • $76,000: Median annual wage for laboratory managers
  • $36,000: Median annual wage for chemical laboratory technicians:
  • $45,000: Median annual wage for marketing managers:
  • $65,400: Median annual wage for pigment chemists:
  • $60,200: Median annual wage for ink chemists:
  • Chemists with bachelor's degrees earned $50,000 to $80,000 in this field.