We often hear about food or product recalls due to harmful chemicals. But did you know that toxic and dangerous chemicals can be in your clothes, too?
Unfortunately, this is a lesser-known truth about the fashion industry, but it’s one you should know about. You wear clothes every single day, and you need to know if they’re toxic or not.
Why are there chemicals in clothing?
Chemicals are used for a variety of reasons. Some are used in the production process depending on the item, and some are used in the shipping process. But neither way, they’re all pretty harmful.
So, why don’t you know about them? Because the Federal Trade Commissions only requires U.S clothing retailers to disclose a handful of information on the clothing label. So, you’ll always find information about the fiber content, country of origin and who the manufacturer is.
But what you’ll never see is any of the 8,000 synthetic chemicals used throughout the fashion industry. And that includes the more than 250 “restricted substances” that manufacturers continue to use. So, what are some of these chemicals?
Earlier this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (BCP) released a list of the five main hazardous chemicals found in clothing produces in China. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem coming from China. Other countries are guilty, too. So, what are some of these chemicals? Let’s start with lead.
Why is lead used? It’s used to dye fabrics – especially brightly colored ones. But that doesn’t seem to be a good enough excuse to use it, considering the impact it has on the body. Lead poisoning can have detrimental effects on children’s development, especially if they’re under the age of six.
But lead is just one type of metal found in clothing. One study identified 20 different metals in a variety of clothing pieces. And this isn’t just abstract science. The fashion mega-retailer, Asos, had to pull it’s studded belts off their website because they were radioactive and tested positive for a substance called Cobalt-60.
As a response, Asos had this to say: “Unfortunately, this incident is quite a common occurrence. India and the far east are large consumers of scrap metal for their home and foreign markets. During the refining process of these metals, orphaned radioactive sources are sometimes accidentally melted at the same time. This in turn [contaminates the process] and traps the radioactivity in the metal as an alloy or in suspension.”
Nonylphenol ethoxylates and nonylphenols (NPE)
That’s one big name for one thing: a detergent to wash fabrics. But this chemical can actually accumulate in body tissue and disrupt the endocrine system, which is the system of the body that governs all of your hormones.
It’s not hard to see why NPE is so dangerous. If you disrupt your hormonal system, it’s inevitable that your body suffers, too.
Unfortunately, NPEs are found in the majority of the clothing produced by the fashion industry. What can you do about it? Try to avoid fast fashion whenever possible. This is a challenge since it’s just about everywhere, but it’s a good idea to get a little more picky about what you put on your body.
Another idea is to wash your clothing well before wearing them. Opt for a natural, effective detergent.
Phthalates are also called “plasticizers”. In other words, phthalates are used to make things flexible and durable. You can find them in images and logos that have that rubbery feel. Like NPEs, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, and they have been linked with breast cancer.
Try to avoid plastic-feeling logos, images or graphics on your clothing. Yes, your shirt might make less of a fashion statement, but your endocrine system will thank you.
Perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFC)
Performance clothing, like water-resistance and sweat-wicking pieces, are definitely desirable for the outdoor enthusiast, but the main chemical used in them isn’t. PFC exposure has been linked to cancers, like kidney and testicular cancer, along with a lowered response to vaccines and even obesity.
What can you do? Look for natural materials, such as cotton, silk, wool and, hemp. Believe it or not, these natural materials allow your skin to breathe, detox and regulate its temperature – all without the help of toxic chemicals.
The reason why formaldehyde is used for clothing is because it helps prevent bacteria and fungus from accumulating in the clothing while it’s being transported. Even Victoria’s Secret faced trouble when authorities revealed that they had excessive levels of formaldehyde in their lingerie. Not so sexy, right?
But even if you’re not a fan of Victoria’s Secret, you can find formaldehyde in your jeans, too. That’s because it’s also used to create the synthetic indigo dye used for blue jeans.
The more your body is exposed to this carcinogen, the more likely it is to experience burning in the eyes, nose, and throat, irritated skin, coughing and even nausea.
Second-hand clothing may not be as appealing, but wearing pre-worn clothing can lower your exposure to formaldehyde.
There are lots of different chemical dyes used to change the color of clothing, but azo dyes are the most common. Unfortunately, they are carcinogenic if the amounts are high enough.
You’ve probably come across a clothing tag that warned, “This garment will lose dye and color.” Or, you might have found that your new pair of black denim jeans left marks on your other pieces. Why? Because azo dyes get released in washing. This can cause dermatitis.
If you notice your skin is irritated, consider that your clothing may be causing that, and consider investing in clothing made with natural dyes.
Jeans are a total wardrobe staple. So, should you do without them? We say no. But just seek out brands that make jeans without using chemicals that harm your body and the environment. Everlane is one fashion brand that is leading the way.
Should you worry about chemicals in clothing?
Everyone’s sensitivity to these chemicals will vary. So, if you notice that something’s not right, yet you’ve ruled out allergies, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and underlying health conditions, consider your clothing. They may be causing you grief.
Even if you don’t notice anything, it’s still a good idea to eliminate your exposure to endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and all the like. They’re no good for your body or the planet.