Do you know that toxic chemicals in clothes have an impact on your body? Do you know what chemicals are in clothes? Toxic chemicals used in clothing are present in petroleum based synthetic fibers and special finishes, but harmful chemicals are also used in the production of conventional, non organic, cotton. Chemicals get into the fibers even during the growing phase with herbicides and pesticides sprayed on the plants.
Around 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used in the fashion industry during the manufacturing of clothing. Many of these chemicals contain carcinogens and hormone disruptors and end up in the fibers of our clothing. But it is kept hidden from the unsuspecting consumer.
Unlike processed foods, that have to display the ingredients on the outside of the product, clothing does not come with a warning sign or a list of ingredients and chemicals that were used during the production processes. We can reduce our exposure to unhealthy and hazardous substances by becoming more aware of what we put on our bodies.
Be Aware of Chemicals Used in Clothing
Toxic chemicals are used throughout the production process of textiles. From the growers, to the factory workers, and then the final user, we are exposed to toxic fumes and poisonous substances leaching into our skin from the clothes that we wear. I bet you didn’t know that!
The skin is the largest organ in the body and absorbs harmful chemicals from fabric that is in contact with your skin. Sweating and body heat actually accelerates the absorption of these chemical substances into your skin.
Did you know that the smell of new clothes is formaldehyde, which is a toxic chemical and a carcinogen. Clothes that are labeled stain resistant and wrinkle resistant, have usually been chemically finished with formaldehyde because it has excellent preserving properties.
Toxic chemicals in clothes can cause skin irritations and allergies and also headaches and a sore throat. An allergic reaction to chemicals in clothing is known as textile dermatitis. A rash and itchiness are the most common symptoms if you have an intolerance. Synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, spandex and acrylic, don’t breathe like natural fibers and make you sweat even more.
What Chemicals are in Clothes?
Beware of these chemicals used in clothing and footwear production. Toxic chemicals can be a combination of several different chemicals.
- Polyflourinated and perfluorinated chemicals (PFC’s) are used as surface protectors and finishes as they have special properties. These include resistance to fire and it repels water, oil, grease and stains, so PFC’s are used to make clothes waterproof and stain proof (can lead to hormone disruption and possible liver damage)
- Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFA’s) are the more specific chemicals from the group of PFC’s that are used and they are very hard to break down.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE’s) are a class of organic compounds that are present in the majority of our clothing.
- Azo dyes is a very common synthetic that release aromatic amines which could cause cancer.
- p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which is a chemical that can cause contact dermatitis and skin allergies.
- Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and is used to make fabric wrinkle free and prevent shrinkage. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has boycotted formaldehyde. Wrinkled clothes are better for you than those smothered in chemicals.
- Flame retardants cause hormonal disruption
- Triclosan, nanoparticle silver and phthalates are used for anti-bacterial and anti-odor finishes.
- Parabens are present in many plastics and household cleaners, so look for natural cleaners or it can be made from vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and essential oils.
These are the ways in which toxic chemicals in clothes end up in fashion products, and the alternative choices to select fashion products that are better for your health and for those that produce it:
1. Wrinkle Free Fabrics
Brand new clothes and wrinkle free fabrics have finishes where toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde and urea resins, are used. Formaldehyde is a chemical that is used to preserve dead bodies! It also prevents mildew, wrinkling and parasites during shipping, specially from China.
Formaldehyde has been linked to dermatitis and lung cancer. Any labels like “wrinkle free”, “easy care” and “shrinkage free” are known to release formaldehyde.
Alternative choice: shop second hand clothing where the chemical residue is considerably less, as clothes would have been washed numerous times. If second hand is not to your liking, then look at tencel, a type of viscose. Tencel is made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus. It uses a closed loop process and requires very few chemicals. Tencel has a fluid drape and is more resistant to wrinkling.
Discover more about tencel and cellulosic fibers in this post on Viscose fabric – the textile made from cellulose.
Tip: Always wash new clothes before you wear it the first time, this will get rid of excess toxic chemicals in clothes.
2. Flame Retardant and Weatherproof Finishes
Garments and footwear that have a waterproof and stain resistant finish, have been treated with PFC’s (perfluorinated chemical or carbons). Exposure to PFC has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer and obesity. Manufacturing of PFC can cause environmental contamination of drinking water, surface water, ground water, dust and air.
Clothing that is water resistant is normally made by using a group of chemicals called PFA’s (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Flame retardant finishes have been linked to birth defects, infertility, endocrine disruption, breast cancer and reduced IQ. It also gives off toxic fumes when it is burned.
Alternative choice: rather choose organic wool and fabrics free of PFC’s like waxed cotton. Organic wool is hypoallergenic and naturally water and flame resistant and our ancestors used wool as the weatherproof fiber.
Related post: What is Wool, the natural fiber to keep us warm.
3. Performance Based Fibers
Did you know that your skin discharges up to a pound of toxins every day? Synthetic petrochemical fibers and performance based fibers, like polyester, acrylic, nylon, acetate and triacetate, restricts the release of toxins through your skin. Wearing synthetic fabrics can cause headaches and nausea, respiratory problems, skin rashes and eczema.
Micro plastics are released from synthetic fibers every time it is washed and end up in our drinking water and kill aquatic life in our rivers and oceans.
Alternative choice: instead of synthetic fibers, choose natural textiles like hemp, organic cotton, linen, bamboo, silk and wool, which regulates the body temperature and allows your body to breath and detox naturally. Natural fibers biodegrade naturally and can be composted, whereas synthetic fibers are plastic, which do not biodegrade.
4. Anti-Bacterial Textiles
To make clothing and work out gear anti bacterial and anti odor, synthetic chemical blends and fungicidals are used. These chemicals include triclosan, nanoparticle silver and phthalates, chemicals that have all been linked to cancer, DNA damage, hormone disruption and inhalation toxicity. The fitness industry is known to use these toxic chemicals in clothes and footwear.
Alternative choice: Instead use hemp, organic cotton, bamboo or tencel. Hemp does not require fertilizers or pesticides and is one of the most eco friendly fibers. It is also light and breathable, like linen. Tencel is a high tenacity cellulosic fiber which is made from eucalyptus tree pulp and the sources can be traced. It is a very absorbent and strong fiber.
Discover more about the benefits of using hemp in this post on Wearing Hemp Clothes – can it give you a high? and also the benefits of wearing bamboo in this related post: Why choose Bamboo Fiber Products.
5. Azo Dyes
Azo dyes are the most commonly used dyes in the fashion industry. Unfortunately Azo dyes release chemicals, known as aromatic amines, that have been linked to cancer. Denim, black clothing and dark colors, like black and brown, contain higher concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which is a chemical in the dye, that can cause contact dermatitis and skin allergies.
Formaldehyde is one of the chemicals in the chemical cocktail that makes up synthetic indigo dye for blue jeans.
Synthetic azo dyes and low impact dyes are discussed in this post Fabric Dye: how eco-friendly is it?
Alternative choice: Instead look for natural dyes that are free of Azo dyes and also new technologies like Indigogood foam dyeing and jeanologia nano-bubble technology, that is used to produce eco friendly indigo coloring. Natural dyes use plants and other natural substances to color the fibers. Discover more about natural dyes and the differences between natural and synthetic dyes in this related post on What is fabric dye?
Natural indigo is eco friendly and provides job opportunities for artisans. You can read more about Archomas Advanced Denim Technology, which is based on sulfur dyes and use less water and electricity, in this post on the 10 Best Organic Cotton Jeans Brands.
Discover more about Indigo foam dyeing and Jeanologia nano bubble technology in this related post on the 8 Best Green Jeans Denim Brands.
6. Insecticides in Conventional Cotton
Growing conventional (non organic) cotton accounts for 25% of insecticides that are used around the world. So it is a highly chemicals intensive crop. Residues from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers make their way into the cotton fibers.
Some of these chemicals used in clothing include softeners, silicone waxes, flame retardants, petroleum scours, heavy metals, ammonia, and formaldehyde. Exposure to even the smallest dose of pesticides have been linked to fetal damage, sterility in humans and brain damage.
The growing and harvesting of organic cotton uses 71% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton. It conserves land biodiversity, making it the more environmentally-friendly choice.
Alternative choice: choose organic cotton, which is better for your body and also our planet.
Related post: What is Organic Cotton Clothing?
7. Chromium in Leather
Ninety percent of leather tanning is done with chromium and other toxic chemicals. Tanning is the process that is used to turn animal skin into usable leather. Chromium has many nasty health side effects, including rashes, nosebleeds and respiratory problems.
Only ten percent of leather tanning is using the vegetable tanning process, which is a natural process but takes much longer than chromium tanning.
Alternative choice: choose vegetable tanned leather and innovative leather alternatives like Pinatex (from pineapple leaves) and Muskin (mushroom leather). Discover more eco friendly leather alternatives like Desserto cactus leather, grape or vine leather, Frumat apple leather and even mango leather in this related post on 5 Innovative textile Solutions for Vegans.
Non-vegetarians also have the option of Fish Skin Leather – is that really possible?
Why You Want to Avoid Toxic Chemicals in Clothes
You have now seen what chemicals are in clothes and these are the harmful effects and health implications associated with chemicals used in clothing:
- Skin rashes and skin allergies, eczema and textile dermatitis.
- Headaches and nausea.
- Infertility in humans and birth defects.
- Disruption to the endocrine system and hormonal imbalances.
- respiratory problems.
- Various cancers including breast, lung, kidney and testicular cancer.
- Brain damage.
If you have an intolerance, have it tested here to see which chemicals and foods you should avoid.
Tips to Avoid Chemicals used in Clothing
- Always wash new clothes to remove toxins, before wearing then.
- Look out for alternatives to real leather.
- Look out for organic fibers and organic products.
- Buy second hand and vintage.
- Avoid buying clothes made from synthetic, petroleum based fibers.
- Buy products made from natural fibers like hemp, linen, wool, bamboo, silk and organic cotton.
If you have any questions or suggestions about toxic chemicals in clothes, then please leave your comments below and I will get back to you.