For thousands of years clothing was made using natural materials, but with the invention of polyester fabric this all changed. But has moving away from natural materials been the right thing to do? Is polyester bad for you? And is our love of polyester a toxic affair?
Rising to prominence throughout the 1900s, polyester was marketed as cost-effective and durable. This new synthetic fabric swept the world like wildfire and quickly gained its place as one of the most widely used fabrics in the world.
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The prevalence of polyester
In the modern world, roughly 70% of clothing is made from synthetic fibres. Looking to the wider textile sector, 52% of fibre production is to make polyester fibres. From clothing to bedding to home textiles, mattresses and furnishings, carpets and car seats, the use of polyester, it seems, is everywhere.
Why are synthetic fabrics so popular?
The massive takeover of synthetic materials in the world of textiles is largely because materials like polyester and acrylic are incredibly convenient materials. Polyester, in particular, is versatile, takes well to dyes, is cheap and relatively easy to create.
However, this modern wonder fabric may not be quite so wonderful for the planet or even for us.
Polyester’s environmental impact
The environmental impact of polyester is well recorded. Made from the base component of fossil fuels, polyester plays a part in environmental destruction from the outset. Toxic chemicals are used in its production, many of which go on to pollute local environments, and the fabric is known to be a big contributor to microplastics.
Creating polyester is an energy intensive process too. It also requires large amounts of water, and as such can contribute to water scarcity and water pollution, particularly in disadvantaged communities where production often takes place.
How is polyester made?
The raw materials that polyester textiles are made from are fossil fuels, namely petroleum. The manufacturing process involves petroleum first being broken down and refined in a process known as ‘cracking’. The resulting compound then undergoes processes, including a chemical reaction with dimethyl terephthalate, to become a polymer.
The resulting PET pellets are melted and forced through small holes called spinnerets to make long strands which, as they cool, harden into fibres. These strands are then twisted together to make polyester thread that can be woven into fabric. There are some variations in the production process depending on what the finished fibres’ intended use is.
PET is also the foundation of many different plastic products, including plastic water bottles, rope and packaging. This means that polyester is essentially a plastic fabric.
Many sustainable brands are now turning to recycled polyester as a more eco-friendly option. Recycled polyester retains many of the qualities of virgin polyester without quite as many of the environmental drawbacks.
The process for creating recycled polyester involves, quite simply, melting down existing PET products, such as plastic bottles, to create the polyester strands that are then twisted into thread and woven into fabric.
While this does mean that recycled polyester contains the same potentially harmful substances and still sheds microplastics, it reduces the environmental impacts associated with mining virgin materials and creating PET.
Is polyester in clothing toxic?
Although polyester may not have had the best environmental start to life, when it comes to our health, how worried should we be? Just how bad for us are polyester clothes? The following are the main points to consider:
1. Polyester finishing treatments
To make raw polyester the versatile and convenient fabric used across the fashion industry, it is treated with a concoction of toxic substances:
- Formaldehyde is used to make clothing wrinkle free and to help dyes stick to fabrics. However formaldehyde exposure has been linked to certain cancers, namely leukaemia. While the amount of formaldehyde residue present at the consumer level is unlikely to contribute to cancer, it can still cause skin irritation or allergy and asthma flare ups.
- PFOA is commonly used to help make clothing waterproof. However, exposure to these ‘forever chemicals’ can contribute to cancer, immune system suppression and even increased cholesterol levels.
- PFCs, a close cousin of PFOA, help to make clothing stain resistant. However the cost of saving a few stains can be negative impacts on the liver, reproductive issues and impacts on growth and development.
For a full round up of the chemicals used in clothing production, see our guide Toxic chemicals in clothes.
And for more information about how polyester can affect fertility, see Does polyester underwear cause infertility?
2. Heating polyester in the dryer or by sweating
On a rainy day, there is nothing more convenient than throwing your clothing in the dryer. However, when it is exposed to higher temperatures, polyester can release traces of antimony. The fabric is commonly exposed to antimony during the production process as the chemical is used as a catalyst to produce PET.
Human exposure to antimony can impact the heart, lungs and stomach as well as irritate the eyes. Even if you aren’t a fan of using the dryer, traces of antimony can be released when wearers sweat.
However, while antimony does come with health risks, the levels of exposure from putting polyester clothing in the dryer or exposing it to sweat are relatively minimal. This risk is also further decreased when clothing is washed before wearing.
3. Not breathable or hypoallergenic
Breathability in clothing helps to not only make you feel comfortable on warmer days but also can help to prevent skin irritation, infections, and other issues. Polyester is neither hypoallergenic nor breathable, meaning it can contribute to a whole host of skin problems. So while fabric breathability properties may not necessarily impact whether polyester is toxic, it does present a health issue.
Wearing polyester clothing has been linked to increased flare ups of dermatitis and acne, as well as itching and redness of the skin. As it isn’t hypoallergenic, it also poses an ever greater risk of rashes and irritation for those that suffer from sensitive skin and other skin conditions.
For more about allergies from synthetic clothing, see our article Allergic to underwear? Can allergy free options help?
4. Microplastic pollution
There is no getting around the fact that polyester fabrics shed microplastics. These pesky plastic particles pose a significant environmental issue. They impact the health of ecosystems, transport bacteria and diseases, and pollute everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to the slopes of Everest.
When it comes to human health, there have been links between microplastic exposure, (such as exposure through ingesting microplastics) and health issues such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and even DNA damage.
The surface of microplastics can also be home to bacteria and viruses that can be harmful to human health. As plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it can transport pathogens over large distances, causing a distinct threat to health.
Microplastics can even enter the food chain through animals further down the chain, notably fish, who ingest microplastics and pass them up the chain to human consumption. Microplastics can also enter the human food chain through plastic packaging on food.
Check out our article to learn more about microplastics and what you can do about them.
There have been links made between wearing polyester underwear and issues with fertility. Studies have found that wearing polyester undergarments could contribute to decreased sperm count and motility. See our article Does polyester underwear cause infertility for more information on this important subject.
Is polyester toxic for babies?
While polyester is unlikely to cause serious harm to babies, it can be best to opt for more environmentally friendly fabric options. Babies naturally have skin that is more sensitive than that of adults and older children, so they can be more susceptible to having reactions to polyester fabrics.
If you are searching for organic kids clothing, be sure to check out our guide to sustainable kids clothing brands.
Is polyester toxic to sleep on?
Many sheets and other bedding in the modern era is made from polyester, or sometimes polyester blends.
While for many of us, polyester bedding may not cause major issues, it is not necessarily the healthiest choice. As we spend extended periods of time in bed, irritants that may not cause an issue in clothing that is worn for less time, can cause irritation when it comes to bedding.
Mattresses, sheets and even duvets and pillows can often contain polyester that has been treated with dangerous chemicals. As items such as duvets are often not washed before use and washed infrequently thereafter, traces of these chemicals may remain prevalent on the product longer than they do on clothing.
Choosing natural fabrics when it comes to bedding can be the overall better option. And our guide to non-toxic and natural mattresses and organic mattress toppers will help you find the best mattresses and toppers free from these nasty chemicals.
What can we do about it?
So polyester isn’t great for the environment and isn’t necessarily great for our health either. What can we do?
1. Look for natural, organic fabrics
The most obvious answer is to avoid buying polyester garments and other polyester textile products such as bedding or home furnishings. Natural fibres don’t come with many of the drawbacks of polyester. If they are sourced sustainably, they can be a more environmentally friendly option too.
However, even when choosing natural materials, it is important to make sure that they too didn’t undergo treatment from toxic chemicals. This can mean checking supply chains are ethical, that there are adequate policies for chemical use, and, in particular looking out for organic certified materials.
Opting for natural fabrics is particularly important when it comes to undergarments and bedding that are in frequent and prolonged contact with the skin. It is also an important choice when purchasing items for babies who have sensitive skin.
Alternatives to polyester
Some alternative materials to polyester that offer a more natural approach include:
- Wool – look for RWS certified wool
- Organic cotton
- Bamboo fibres
- Innovative natural materials such as pineapple, corn or apple vegan leather
- Silk – look for Peace silk over conventional silk options.
See our article on organic cotton knickers to find natural and sustainable options for our most delicate areas.
2. Check the certifications
There are certifications out there that specifically deal with toxic chemical use and exposure. Look for certifications that ensure organic materials or that regulate the use of dangerous chemicals and substances.
REACH is the standard implemented by the European Union to offer protection to both people and the environment when it comes to chemical exposure. It identifies hazardous chemicals and creates guidelines and restrictions to limit the impact of these substances.
There are also certifications that can be obtained in the clothing sector to ensure the safe use or absence of chemicals. Perhaps the best known of these is OEKO-TEX. OEKO-TEX’s range of standards certify that a product is tested to ensure that it doesn’t contain a variety of harmful and toxic chemicals. This goes for every part of a garment, from fabric to buttons and embellishments.
To learn more about OEKO-TEX, be sure to check out our article.
Bluesign is another certification that gives peace of mind that a product is free from toxic chemicals.
Living with polyester
In a world that is so awash with polyester products, it can seem near impossible to avoid polyester completely. Throwing away clothing is also highly unsustainable.
So for any polyester product you may already own, be sure to air dry clothing and other polyester products rather than putting them in the dryer. Installing washing machine filters can help to catch microplastics that may come loose in the wash. Similarly, opting for a shorter wash cycle can help to limit microplastic shedding.
Is polyester bad for you?
So, is polyester bad for you? There is no doubt that polyester fabric is often exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous substances. Traces of these substances can remain on products and cause irritation and health issues. This is particularly true when it comes to clothing that is in contact with sensitive skin or in bedding or baby products.
There is also no escaping the fact that polyester fabrics shed microplastics.
While it is unlikely that using polyester products will cause drastic health issues (although skin irritation isn’t uncommon), it certainly isn’t good for your health.
The sheer prevalence of synthetic fabrics can make polyester hard to avoid. However taking steps to minimise our exposure to polyester and to limit the potentially harmful impacts of polyester products is a good idea.
Both your health and the environment may thank you for it.
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