Fabric from fossil fuels: Is acrylic clothing toxic?

Pile of acrylic clothes on a chair

Fabric from fossil fuels: Is acrylic clothing toxic?

Acrylic fabric is one of the most popular materials for clothing. Used by fashion brands across the textile industry, the material’s meteoric rise saw a staggering 1.65 million metric tonnes of acrylic fibres made in 2021.

Acrylic is often used as a lightweight substitute for wool and acrylic clothing is a particularly popular choice for cold-weather clothing. It’s commonly used in products such as sweatshirts and hoodies.

However, derived from fossil fuels and requiring a cocktail of chemicals to produce, it’s natural to be left wondering, is acrylic clothing toxic?

Contents

Why are people concerned about acrylic?

There are clear environmental risks when it comes to the production of acrylic fabric. There are also some health risks associated with acrylic fabric production and use, particularly when looking at the hazardous chemicals used in production.

Girl in acrylic jumper
Photo by Alessia Marusova on Unsplash

Health and environmental risks of acrylic

1. Chemicals in production

Acrylic fibres go through a series of treatments and procedures to end up as a finished fibre that can be turned into thread and then woven into fabric. The majority of the production of acrylic fabric takes place in China. Substances used in production include formaldehyde, phthalates, and chlorine.

Acrylic base substances

The base substances that acrylic fibres are made from (Polyacrolonitrile and Acrylonitrile), are highly toxic. Polyacrolonitrile is highly flammable and when inhaled, mimics the symptoms of cyanide poisoning. Acrylonitrile, meanwhile, is highly toxic to aquatic life, and has been linked to some cancers.

Chemicals used in acrylic production

The production process requires the use of chemical treatments and solvents. Solvents include:

  • Acetone: a commonly used solvent in production. Exposure can lead to confusion and nausea, as well as changes in the size of blood cells.
  • Dimethyl formamide: can contribute to skin and liver damage.

Flame retardants used in acrylic production

Acrylic fabric has the added issue of being a highly flammable material. To combat this, many producers treat the material with flame retardants. However, these also add more potentially harmful chemicals to the mix.

Bromine compounds, a popular flame retardant option, can cause headaches, coughs, and other respiratory issues. Acute exposure to bromine can result in central nervous system issues and deep partial skin loss. 

Bromine is no friend to the natural environment. Bromine particles are destructive to the ozone layer. It also has adverse impacts on fish, algae and lobster species and can cause significant health risks to animals throughout the ecosystem.

See our article about toxic chemicals in clothes for more on this scary topic.

Woman holding pile of knitwear
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

2. Is acrylic clothing toxic to wear?

While it is unlikely that your health will be severely impacted by wearing acrylic clothing, it is not the most health-conscious clothing choice. Wearing acrylic clothing can increase exposure to chemicals that are carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors and known causes of neurodevelopmental issues.

There is evidence that high exposure to chemicals used in acrylic clothing production does come with health problems. This includes increased risk of cancer for workers that are acutely exposed. 

Some of the main health issues include: 

1. Use of carcinogenic substances

While the levels of chemicals present on acrylic clothing at the consumer stage are unlikely to directly cause cancer, there is no getting around the fact that acrylic yarn is treated and created with known carcinogenic substances.

2. Use of toxic flame retardants

Flame retardants, commonly used in acrylic clothing, also pose negative health implications. Flame retardants have been linked to cancers, thyroid issues and neurodevelopmental problems. While the risk of significant exposure from clothing, particularly if it is washed before wear, is low, the risk does still exist.

3. Effects on children

As children’s bodies and brains are still developing they are particularly susceptible to the adverse health effects of flame retardants.

4. Lack of breathability

Acrylic clothing is not breathable. As well as making clothes potentially uncomfortable to wear in warmer weather, this can also lead to skin irritations and skin rashes.

Moisture, heat and oils being trapped close to the skin as a result of wearing non-breathable fabrics can also exacerbate issues such as acne and dermatitis. These fabrics can be particularly problematic for those that struggle with allergic reaction issues and sensitive skin.

As fabric heats up due to an increased body temperature from limited breathability, it also becomes more likely to release harmful chemical residue that may be lurking in fibres.

Baby blanket
Photo by Peter Beukema on Unsplash

3. Environmental impacts of production and disposal

You may not think about oil when purchasing new clothing. But, the ugly truth is that synthetic fabrics, such as acrylic, are made from fossil fuels. In fact, 70 million barrels of oil go into making the world’s synthetic fibres every year.

On top of the environmental toll of all those fossil fuels, the concoction of volatile chemicals used in the manufacturing process further compounds acrylic’s environmental issues.

Acrylic fabrics don’t end their lives in a much more sustainable way than they start. Essentially plastic, these fibres don’t biodegrade. Research has shown that acrylic fibres ending up in landfill can be around for the next two hundred years.

Even before acrylic fabric reaches landfill, it sheds plastic particles. Microplastics represent a key environmental problem in the modern world and garments such as acrylic clothing are a major contributor. One load of laundry can release up to 700,000 microfibres.

These microfibres go on to litter the air, the ocean and the soil. The microplastic issue is so widespread, that it is thought microplastics have even entered the food chain.

What regulations are there to control these chemicals?

Due to the toxic nature of many of the chemicals used in acrylic fibre production, there are regulations in place in some areas of the world to control the use of these substances.

REACH Regulations and European Restrictions

Standing for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, REACH Regulations are in place in Europe. The regulations aim to protect people and the environment from toxic substances. This is alongside other aims such as advancing innovation and reducing animal testing.

As part of these aims, REACH has placed restrictions on the use of substances including formaldehyde and acrylonitrile.

Due to the hazardous nature of formaldehyde, the EU has even prohibited the sale of items that test over set limits for the presence of formaldehyde.

The TSCA and the EPA

In the United States, the TSCA and the EPA are two of the main bodies for controlling toxic chemicals, such as those used for acrylic fabric production. The TSCA requires clothing made in the USA to be tested to ensure it doesn’t contain dangerous levels of toxic substances.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also has restrictions in place regarding the chemicals used to make acrylic clothing. This includes limits of the amount of formaldehyde residue that can be present on a finished product. This is as well as prohibiting the presence of other dangerous chemicals, including many phthalates on a finished product.

The agency also bans chlorine-based bleaches during production and the use of a number of flame retardants. 

Girl in acrylic clothing
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

What are less toxic alternatives?

While acrylic fabrics are widely popular in the fashion industry, there are many great alternatives. These are more natural materials that are health-conscious and eco-friendly. Organic fabrics are always one of the best options when looking out for sustainable and kind products. 

Wool – Many imitation wool products are made from acrylic. However buying products made from wool is a good option if you are concerned that acrylic clothes are toxic. When shopping for wool products, look out for RWS certified wool.

Cotton – Cotton is the most widely used natural fabric in the world. Used in every facet of the fashion sector, it is not hard to find a cotton alternative to an acrylic product.

Be sure to look out for organic cotton, rather than conventional cotton, to minimise the product’s overall environmental impact. Third-party certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard are always a great choice.

HempHemp is gaining popularity in the clothing sector. The crop is fast growing and creates a material that is durable and offers UV protection.

Linen-  Long lasting while still being soft and breathable, linen is a great choice for clothing for the warmer months.

TENCEL Lyocell– A newer material to the market, Tencel Lyocell is made from eucalyptus. The fabric is lightweight, absorbent and even wrinkle-resistant to save on ironing without the use of yet more toxic substances.

It’s also worth looking out for clothes with the OEKO-TEX® or Bluesign label, certifying safety from a wide range of chemicals.

Is acrylic toxic?

So is acrylic clothing toxic? It is definitely a material that has been exposed to toxic substances and one that poses a distinct environmental threat. While the level of toxic substances likely to be on acrylic clothing at the consumer stage is unlikely to cause major issues for human health, there are definitely more natural and healthy alternatives available.

Opting for cotton, hemp or other sustainably sourced and natural fabrics not only helps to reduce the level of clothing that will be in landfill for the next two centuries. It also supports fewer chemicals in the environment and offers cleaner, greener clothing for all.

For more on the health effects of certain fabrics, see our article Is polyester bad for you.

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