Have you ever thought that that cute dress could be increasing your risk of cancer? or that that cheap pair of boxers made form polyester could be lowering your sperm count? Many don’t realise that the 8000 chemicals used to make certain fabrics absorb into our skin over time leading to lasting health effects.
Then there is the 43 million tons of chemicals each year that are used to dye and treat our clothing which are also damaging our environment. WHO estimates that 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile manufacturing, which releases these dyes and other chemicals into waterways. This toxic pollution has lasting effects on the consumers, factory workers, wildlife and our precious ecosystems.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty of these rarely thought about toxins in some of the most common materials and dyes used for clothing.
Polyester is super popular as it is cheap to make! Think no cotton fields, just chemical reactions. It is made through a process called polymerization, where petroleum by-product, coal, water, and air are heated at high temperatures under pressure and stretched into long fibers. The fibres are yes very strong and yes, you might have guessed it, toxic. This is concerning as the use of Polyester is on the rise in the textile industry and is found in approximately 60% of garments in retail stores.
Concerning points for polyester include:
Chemicals used in the manufacturing of polyester are known carcinogens.
Phytoestrogens are released from polyester can enter the skin and are known endocrine disruptors. As well as being linked to the development of certain types of cancers.
If worn for long periods can cause acute and chronic respiratory infections.
Nylon like polyester is also made through polymerization and is a thermoplastic silky like material. Typically you find nylon in swimwear, activewear and stockings.
Concerning points for nylon:
Chemicals in nylon such as Formaldehyde are released by the fabric with body heat and this is known to be a carcinogen.
Titanium oxide and barium sulphate found in nylon are known to cause hyper skin pigmentation and dermatitis. Even more concerning is that it can impair functioning of your central nervous system and cause symptoms such as disorientation, dizziness, headaches and spinal pain.
Gases like nitrous oxide and other toxic compounds are also emitted by nylon fabric.
Acrylic fibre is any long chain synthetic polymer composed at least 85% by weight of acrylonitrile units. As it mimics the properties of wool it is mostly commonly found in jumpers.
Concerning points for acrylic fibre:
EPA has classified acrylonitrile as a probable human carcinogen.
Acrylic is made with such toxic substances that careful handling is required and even worse it emits toxic fumes that could be harmful to human health.
Fundamentally, the majority of synthetic fabrics are plastic and pose similar risk to your health and the environment.
Semi Synthetic Fibres
Rayon fibres are of vegetable origin and are derived from cellulose, which are typically created from wood pulp. Sounds natural right! But, yes there is a catch. It is called semi-synthetic for a reason, as although it is derived from natural products, chemicals are still used to make the fibre. Types of rayon you might be more familiar with are viscose, tencel and lyocell. It is now found in an array of garments from dresses to lingerie.
Concerning points for rayon:
Carbon disulphide, a chemical used in rayon, has been linked to skin conditions, increased risk of birth defects, skin conditions, heart disease and cancer.
Other serious health issues linked to chemicals used in rayon include necrosis, anorexia, polyneuropathy, paralysis, insomnia and parkinson’s disease.
These chemicals can remain on the clothing after manufacturing causing the consumers and factory workers to suffer symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache and chest pain.
Dyes used in fabric
Azo dyes are the most common dye used on clothing and account for over 50% of the worlds annual production. Think of the blue dye rubbing from that new pair of jeans. Azo dyes can release chemicals called amines and are classified as potential carcinogens.
A study in 2014 found that 17% of clothing samples contained amine of "high toxicological concern," including several that had them in higher levels than legally allowed in the European Union.
Azo dye chemicals such as benzidine have been shown to induce tumours in humans and animals. Along with this, other chemicals used in these types of dyes are know skin allergens. In fact the EU has banned certain forms of azo dyes because of these health concerns. It is important to note that azo dyes are water soluble therefore can be easily absorbed into your body.
Another popular dye used in clothing is known as quinoline. Likewise, quinoline is classed as a possible carcinogen. A study published in 2014 showed that tests involving acute exposure of mice demonstrated “quinoline and some of its methylated isomers to induce liver cancer.” It is interesting that this dye in the study was found more commonly on polyester than other fabric.
Heavy metals are also used in dye including lead, chromium, copper, cadmium, nickle, aluminum, zinc and mercury.
A 2018 study indicated "that textile dyes may be highly toxic due to the presence of high levels of heavy metals, most of which have exceeded the recommended limits. These compounds may pose serious risks to humans, plants and other organisms (both soil and aquatic) through ecological interaction in the ecosystem.".
China, Egypt and India showed the highest concentrations of metals in all fabrics. Many of the heavy metals used in dyes are classified as carcinogens including cadmium and chromium.
It is unimaginable to think of the impact that the use of toxic dyes will be having on not only the consumer, but the factory workers and environment.
Other chemicals to watch out for
Plastisol used in screen printing can contain phthalates which are know to negatively impact the reproductive system. A 2012 Greenpeace study found phthalates in all of 31 garments that had plastisol prints, with very high concentrations of phthalates in four of them.
Formaldehyde was also previously used to help make fabric wrinkle resistant, prevent mildew and dye running. It is a known carcinogen, skin irritant and may cause exacerbation of asthma or cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Organotin compounds used in clothes to provide an anti-microbial finish are mainly composed of tin. Like heavy metals the tin compounds can accumulate in the body and are easily absorbed through the skin. It is know to be toxic to the immune, nervous and reproductive system.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are commonly found in Waterproof/breathable and stain resistant clothing such as Gore-Tex and Teflon. PFC are persistent in the environment and studies suggest it is linked to ADHD, impaired fertility, endocrine disruption, impaired immune functions and cancer.
The textile industry has been labelled as one of the worst polluters of the world because of the huge amount of chemicals they used.
The majority of synthetic fabrics do not breakdown and remain in the environment. The whole production cycle has dire consequence for our ecosystems. From chemicals used in the manufacturing process to chemicals being released as we wash our clothes. Many of these are persistent in the environment. To think 17 million tons of textile waste was generated in 1 year with landfills receiving 11.3 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The biggest culprit of microplastic in our marine environment is in fact Acrylic fibres. Acrylic fabrics washed in domestic washing machines have been shown to released nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles per wash which eventually makes its way to our oceans.
A 2016 study concluded that domestic washing of textiles and garments is a constant and widespread source of plastic microfibre emissions into the environment.
Just think of all of those plastics and chemicals entering our waterways and the impact on our ecosystem. These microplastics and environmentally persistent chemicals are inevitably consumed by humans through our drinking water and food. Their impacts are far reaching.
The factory workers
Throughout the making of synthetic textiles the workers, which are estimated at over 300 million people, are exposed to many harmful chemicals. These chemicals cause major problems in villages near the textile plants. There is ample research providing evidence that workers are at greater risk of cancers, respiratory conditions and a multitude of other chronic health conditions, all for the sake of us having that new outfit we probably did not really need.
What to do with all of this?
Now I have given you the low down on the hidden toxins in your wardrobe . What do you do? Given the toxic chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process of synthetic fibres we should do our best to buy clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool. Ideally we should aim for organic, particularly for clothing that sits closest to our skin for long periods such as underwear, sleepwear etc. If you are anything like me a good chunk of my wardrobe was and is polyester. I am slowly replenishing it to be better for me and each time I purchase a new item I aim for organic natural fibres where possible.
Try look out for these standards as they will help assure that your are buying clothing that is better for not only you, but the workers and the environment:
Brands selling low toxin clothing I have found:
By being more conscious about your clothing choices you can not only reduce your toxic load, but also play a part in reducing the chemicals and pollutants going into the environment.
Please drop a comment below if you know of other low toxic brands. I would love to learn about more!