How to Avoid Toxins in Clothing.Date: 08/27/2021
The clothes we wear every day can cause of a variety of health detriments, from skin irritation to cancer formation. How can the average consumer avoid buying or wearing clothes that contain dangerous toxins?
Many of us know to avoid harmful chemicals in our cleaning products, and to wash our fruits and vegetables before we eat them, but we may not always think about the toxins we’re exposed to through the clothes we wear.
Consider the number of fabrics that your body encounters per day – from blankets, to sheets, to shorts, shoes, jackets, pants, shirts and skirts – and then consider the fact that each of these fabrics is likely to have been treated with chemicals during processing and finishing.
When I started to look at this deeper, I imagined the chemical count being evident but found the amount to be frustratingly large. Right then and there, I was ready to take the next step to learn how to avoid toxins in my clothing.
Yet, as it seems to be with much of my health research, I was completely taken aback to find out about some of the more prominent cases where humans had been exposed to toxic chemicals through the clothes they wear!
Here are just FIVE examples I found from a single article on the subject:
- Disinfectants from laundry detergents used in hospital settings can cause infant death and sickness.
- Cloth diapers can contain toxic compounds that have the potential to be absorbed by newborn skin.
- When chemical finishes for textiles (such as pesticides in raw cotton added during the manufacturing process) are transferred from fabric to skin, dermatitis is the common result.
- Farmers and field workers who work with chemical pesticides suffer instances of ‘pesticide bombs’ in the house; this is when toxins have settled on fabric clothing surfaces, and the wearer trails traces of that through the home.
- Desert Storm personnel may have experienced transfers of harmful chemical warfare agents from their clothing to their skin, and may have further endangered civilian health when those agents spread from uniforms to the air, or other uniform-wearers.
Given that the amount of research in this area is on the rise, I figured it would be a good a time to share with my more fashionable audiences the dangers of chemical toxins in our clothes, and the importance of doing our research whenever we plan to invest in any functional fabric item we intend to wear. (Even handbags!)
Let’s start with the worst of the worst, and then work our way forward to understanding how to avoid chemical toxins in our clothes, and how to avoid human exposure to such chemicals via the fashions (and fabrics) we choose.
How Toxic Are the Clothes I Wear?
From what I can tell, the answer to this question is pretty toxic. In fact, with the exception of brands that are explicitly sustainable, or which have taken efforts to improve the environmental and health-related impacts of the products they produce, most of the clothes in our closets have been treated with chemicals that can seep into our skin over many washes and wears.
Let’s look at more of what I found:
First and foremost, the ability for the toxic chemicals in our clothes to transfer to our skin has been proven time and time again (see this article, for one example with treated cotton). As well, the number of chemicals in each piece of clothing we wear will naturally vary – I’ve seen numbers ranging from 15, to 40, to 400, to 8000 – which means that it’s simply best to be diligent with everything you purchase.
But as I began looking harder, I noticed that a lot of the dangerous chemicals found in our clothes are the same chemicals and toxins I’ve seen in my explorations on water safety and water cleanliness, particularly when it comes to phthalates and chemical dyes.
What Types of Chemicals or Toxins Are in The Clothes I Wear?
According to this article from Compare Ethics, and based on an extensive search of other cutting-edge research publications in this field, there are about eight toxins which are most commonly used during textile manufacturing, processing, and finishing, with harmful results to consumers, as well as household and national water supply.
If you like wearing a lot of black clothing and dark colors, then it is likely that your clothing is heavy in Azo Dye, which is often more concentrated for black and brown fabric dyes. These dyes – or, their transfer to human skin through regular wear – can cause allergic reactions and dermatitis, whereas some dyes and pigments may even contain mercury, which is harmful for its own obvious reasons.
PFCs/ PFAs (perfluorocarbon / perfluoro-alkyl substances)
PFCs and PFAs, while different, are both likely to be present where stain-resistant or waterproof clothing is concerned. In the case of PFCs for sure, the health risks have been associated with infertility and cancer—though results of that nature would more likely stem from higher exposure rates over a short period of time than from wearing stain resistant clothing.
Phthalates are basically…plastic…or, they are a plasti-cizer often used in printing to imprint rubber logo materials to fabrics. These chemicals can be found in activewear, plastic accessory decorations, or sports and athletic clothing. They are also found in clothes which are advertised as being ‘anti-odor’. Altogether, these toxins are known carcinogens that have also been linked to hormone disruption, though again that is in severely high exposure doses.
While on their own metals are not harmful – though many cause individual skin irritations and allergic reactions – they have been known to prove dangerous when processing or manufacturing is not monitored to a sufficient degree. I mean, who would have guessed that in 2013 a line of studded metal belts would be identified as radioactive ( having tested positive for Cobalt-60).
If you’re like me, you have a good collection of leather accessories to your name. However, I was surprised to learn that chromium salt is a fairly common applicant for use in leather tanning, particularly since it is known to treat leather faster than non-chemical alternatives (such as vegetable tanning). Given the potential for chemicals to rub off onto our skin over long-term exposure, this can’t be a good sign for those who are already prone to skin rashes or respiratory problems.
Are you a big fan of wrinkle-resistant clothing? While super useful when you need to hop from place to place with only a small bag at your side, the use of formaldehyde to get such an effect has been known to cause breathing issues and skin irritation. To be sure, major lingerie brand Victoria Secret has suffered the consequences of multiple lawsuits, as their products have continually tested positive for formaldehyde in high concentrations.
When clothes are treated, they sometimes encounter solvents, which are used to dissolve other unwanted substances like the stubborn pigment in popular fabric dyes. Although prolonged skin exposure through clothing or even bedding may not get the results that over-exposure to solvents get, i.e. impacts to central nervous system and organ function, they are nevertheless an abundant chemical that can leave its traces on our skin to irritating or even harmful effects.
Think about the chemicals and detergents you add to prevent wrinkles, static, tangles, and to improve the ‘softness’ of your clothes when you’re doing laundry. Well, big-production textile factories (the places making your clothes) often use just as many (and likely way more) chemical surfactants to scour, dye, and finish their clothing. While less dangerous to humans, the excess wash of these surfactants into your home water source may not bode well for our water quality.
NOTE: There has been evidence to show that chemicals involved in textile manufacture – and thus those which can come into contact with our skin – have negative effects on endocrine function. The article itself is quite dense, but if you’re up for it, there’s more on that HERE.
What Happens When I Wear Clothes Processed with Chemicals and Toxins?
When you wear the clothes you love most, you don’t want to think about how they may be hurting you or your body; yet the reality is that skin exposure to harmful chemicals can be just as detrimental as inhaling toxins or chemical aspirates.
For instance, one study from the CDC takes a hard look at occupational dermal exposure to hazardous agents (not necessarily through clothing, but overall). This report notes that occupational skin diseases (OSD) and general system toxicity affects about 13 million workers across the US.
While this toxicity is more likely a result of first-hand exposure, given what we know about how fabric can carry dangerous chemicals home, it is likely that much of this exposure is the result of the clothing itself (released under extreme conditions such as fire), or from external chemicals entrapped in that clothing.
Yet, when I was exploring more on this subject, I found myself wanting to know the extent to which the clothes that we, as everyday consumers, wear, and how that wear may affect our overall health. Can simple, prolonged exposure cause such big problems to our skin, digestion, and even immune system?
That’s when I came across another article which helped to explain it all a little better. The study, in sum, found that under the conditions of repeated wash and wear, exposing our skin to clothes which contain commonly-used textile processing chemicals can cause tangible health risks. I suggest reading this one as well, but here’s the snippet which really caught my attention:
Human dermal exposure to potentially toxic chemicals through skin-contact textiles/clothes shows a non-negligible presence in some textiles, which might lead to potential systemic risks. Under specific circumstances of exposure, the presence of some chemicals might mean non-assumable cancer risks for the consumers.
As I would come to find, the reality that toxins can ‘leach’ onto our skin from clothes is often repeated throughout the research literature on human exposure to chemicals and toxins through fabrics and textiles. It would seem, then, that the significant effects of such exposure are worthy of further investigation, meaning it is certainly something we, as consumers (however fashionable!) need to really watch out for.
What Brands Should I Avoid If I Want to Buy Toxin-Free Clothing?
Although it can be difficult to assess the true material make-up of some branded clothing products (not everyone is so willing to divulge their own unethical or unsustainable chemical practices), there have been several studies which look to do just that. More so, these studies intend to look at the toxicity of certain brands of clothing, as well as different clothing items.
One of the first articles I noticed was a 2013 study from Green Peace which includes 82 different clothing and footwear products. Right there in the technical report on toxicity, plain as day, is a list of brands tested that shows the true outliers in terms of NPE content concentrations.
How Do I Avoid Buying Clothes Made with Toxic Chemicals?
Now that you’re looking at your closet with new (and perhaps panicked) eyes, knowing that even your simplest cotton might contain dangerous chemicals, you may be feeling it’s time to do everything you can to avoid those toxins in the clothes you wear every day.
Some of the most obvious paths we can take start in the home. I’m not, of course, advocating that you go and throw away your whole wardrobe (haha!) but here are three common-sense solutions that will help minimize added chemical compounds from getting onto your skin (and into your home’s water supply):
3 ways to avoid added exposure to toxins in the clothes you already own:
- Always wash your clothes according to the instructions to avoid added chemical wash-out.
- Be sure to use organic and non-toxic detergents when you clean your clothes.
- Use a whole-home filtered water system to help filter out any remaining toxins still seeping out of your clothing so it does not get back into your clothes.
Knowing that you won’t be able to avoid chemicals and toxins entirely in some of the clothes you already own – as we mentioned, anything static-resistant, stain resistant, flame-retardant, or wrinkle-free likely contains at least one dangerous chemical substance – the next best step you can take is to avoid buying new clothing that has been known to use high chemical volumes during manufacture, processing, and/or finishing.
So really – how do I avoid buying clothes made and produced with chemicals that are toxic to my health?
When you’re looking to purchase new clothes or fabrics to adorn your home, this article does say that some fabrics are okay to place your faith in, such as ethical cotton, silk, organic wool, hemp, alpaca, angora, camel, cashmere, mohair, flax, or ramie.
Remember, even these fabrics may contain chemicals – however, they are less prevalent. The article also mentions that there is no need to sacrifice quality or price to get the non-toxic clothes you desire!
You may also want to begin looking out for certifications which indicate that the product has been tested for harmful substances, and has passed the standards imposed per the toxins and chemicals they use during processing. Examples of textile certifications are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX®.
One final way you can avoid buying clothes made with harmful chemicals (or which contain toxins that can have ill effects on your skin-health)? Watch out for brands that are open and transparent about their manufacturing processes, the materials they use, and how they source those materials as well. You always want to buy from a company that is willing to confront their own toxicology, and to find new, less harmful alternatives.
So, What Companies Can I Trust to Make Chemical-Free Clothing?
Over the course of my research, I kept returning to this same question. It seemed everywhere I looked, the brands I loved were close to the cutting block due to the very materials they used, and the way they were treated—artisans or no.
It was in that grey little cloud that I happened to scroll past a new article from the guardian: it’s this season’s must-have Hermes bag. And it’s made from fungus.
Yes! Some of the major brands I love are turning over a new leaf! They are incorporating sustainable materials into their work-shopping efforts, and in doing so they are moving away from the toxic chemicals and processes often necessary to produce similar materials on the market today.
Still, I am aware that this change is new, and that much of it is in response to pressure from activists, lawyers, environmental organizations, and government leaders who have done their part in holding these same fashion brands accountable (my wardrobe and water filter have these people to thank!).
For instance, in 2011 Greenpeace launched a campaign that would exert pressure on a major sportswear brand to use safer alternatives to their current rotation of toxic agents and finishing materials. Referred to as the Detox Campaign, their efforts resulted in the Manufacturers Restricted Substance List, which is now seen as the “global standard for chemical compliance in textile and apparel manufacturing.”
And I really can’t say this enough: while you are doing your research, seek out brands that are at least willing to be transparent about the processes they use, and who are trying to mitigate the toxicity of those processes, if nothing else. Companies like Adidas, Mango, and H&M have for example made tangible efforts to reduce chemical volumes and disclose supplier lists. That’s a good step in the right direction.
Search, Research, and Buy the Looks You Love!
I know it can be shocking to take this all in at once, so I really encourage you to come back to this article anytime you catch yourself thinking about toxic chemicals in your clothing, and to avoid buying those types of clothes for yourself (or your loved ones).
I wouldn’t recommend a ‘turn and burn’ approach to transitioning your wardrobe into clothes that have less toxins and chemicals; just like with meditation, trying a new style, water filtration, or anything health or self-care related, a moderate approach with tons of research is best, and will ultimately save you a ton of time and money.
Best of all, these new clothes will give you a renewed peace of mind as you flaunt your amazing style, knowing you’re not endangering your health (or your skin-care routine!). You can still buy all the amazing looks you love, but now you’ll be putting your money where your health is.
Most importantly, if you are considering this transition for you and your closet, make sure you share your journey with your friends and family, and even me! The more we work to stay away from toxins in our clothes, the more others will catch on and do the same for their own wardrobes at home. That means more fun fashion, less health risk, and more ways to love the skin we’re in!
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