Toxic and dangerous chemicals in clothes: the scary truth

Toxic clothes on mannequins in a shop window

Toxic and dangerous chemicals in clothes: the scary truth

Over the past decade, growing fast fashion production has been accompanied by outcries to examine sustainability and ethics practices.

The cost of harm caused by fast fashion is often felt first by its employees, followed by the environment. But did you know there can also be dangerous chemicals in clothes? I was surprised and pretty concerned to learn this.

Cut-price clothes demand shorter product lifecycles, increased waste and less environmental consideration, fuelling a cutting-corners culture. I wondered: how common is it to find toxic chemicals in clothes produced for contemporary high street fashion?

What I discovered was a worrying trend. In 2018, a Greenpeace investigation revealed high levels of both toxic and cancer-causing chemicals in a number of tested garments. Not only that but the majority of clothes consumed this way will be thrown away, adding to the Earth’s toxic load.

fast fashion clothing
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Contents

What are the harmful chemicals in fast fashion?

Around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide annually. Even if chemicals are at “safe” levels in a single garment, the cumulative impact is significant. Where they are disposed, it means large-scale chemical waste potential.

I found a later study by Greenpeace that reported worrying findings on fast fashion retailer Shein. The report demonstrated a lack of enforcement of environment protection regulations. Of the Shein products bought and tested, hazardous chemicals in excess of EU regulatory limits were found in 15% of them.

Not all chemicals are inherently harmful, but it turns out that synthetic (man-made) chemicals tend to be. Clothes that contain synthetic chemicals release them as you go about your day. This off-gassing has been linked to reproductive issues and developmental system damage, skin irritation, respiratory problems and liver symptoms.

There are around 8,000 different types of toxic chemicals used in the production and supply chain of synthetic clothing. I noticed as I looked into it further, that the health and environmental effects vary between chemicals. Here are some facts about the most common toxic chemicals in clothes, their uses and where they show up.

Image of reels of thread
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

1. PFAS (forever chemicals)

What are PFAS’ common uses?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, are toxic chemicals in clothing that have existed since the 1940s. They’re added during the production process for their ability to resist water, heat, oil and stains.

What clothes/features are they found in?

They’re commonly used to coat water-repellent clothing. You’ll also find them in mattress pads, shoes, cosmetics, personal care products and textiles.

What are the health and environmental effects?

These “forever chemicals” do not break down naturally. They’re known to accumulate in the body over time. In cases where PFAs have been ingested via the water supply, they’ve been linked to cancer (making them carcinogenic).

They also cause fertility issues, liver damage, asthma, and chronic kidney disease. By building up in the environment, PFAs end up in drinking water and food.

2. Phthalates

What are phthalates’ common uses?

Phthalates are a plasticiser. They are used alongside rubber for printing images onto clothes. They’re also used in a number of products that contain plastic, to make it more durable and flexible.

What clothes/features are they found in?

Phthalates are found in anti-odour clothing and activewear, and some fabric softeners. They are also found in some personal care products, such as body lotion, perfume and deodorants.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Phthalates are known to be cancerous, and are linked to health issues including endocrine (hormone) disruption. In one report, phthalates were found to be linked to early death in adults aged 55-64, notably due to heart disease. The highest blood phthalate levels coincided with those who had passed unexpectedly.

Rubber printed red t shirt with toxic face mask logo
Photo by M Alazia on Unsplash

3. Formaldehyde

What are formaldehyde’s common uses?

Formaldehyde is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It’s associated with the “new clothing smell” on garments.

What clothes/features is it found in?

It’s sometimes added to cottons as well as other materials. It helps to prevent wrinkles on garments and the growth of mildew on clothes while in transportation.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Formaldehyde is most dangerous when inhaled. This kind of formaldehyde exposure is associated with shortness of breath, asthma, nausea, wheezing, and changes in lung function. Trace amounts in clothes may cause contact dermatitis on contact with the skin.

Image by burlesonmatthew from Pixabay

4. Flame retardants

What are flame retardants’ common uses?

Flame retardants are a variety of chemicals, added to clothes to stop them burning. The term refers to the function, not a specific composition of chemicals.

What clothes/features are they found in?

These dangerous chemicals in clothing are often found in children’s pyjamas, other kinds of kid’s clothes, and furniture.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Flame retardants have been linked to bioaccumulation. This means the chemicals build up in the blood stream to cause chronic health problems. Flame retardants have been shown to pose numerous health risks, especially when inhaled.

Those working as firefighters, who suffer the most exposure, demonstrate side-effects including infertility, neurotoxicity and cancer. Flame retardants that contain bromine (BFRs) are linked to thyroid and endocrine dysfunction.

See our article does polyester underwear cause infertility for more about how flame retardants can affect our reproductive health.

5. Heavy metals such as lead, chromium and antimony

What are heavy metals’ common uses?

Lead, chromium, cadmium and antimony are heavy metals and are highly toxic chemicals. Lead and chromium are used in the dyeing process in clothing manufacture as stabilisers. As a result, they are commonly found in clothing dyes and synthetic materials.

What clothes/features are they found in?

While they’re naturally occurring in certain fibres (e.g. cotton, hemp and flax), it’s in small quantities. Higher concentrations occur when they are added synthetically, and these pose risks.

Antimony is used to make polyester. Chromium is used in faux leather products. Cadmium is used to create dyes and colourful pigments in clothes. Lead is sometimes used in cheap zippers on clothes.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Heavy metals pose a danger on contact with the skin. When absorbed or ingested in high concentrations these dangerous chemicals can cause brain, kidney, liver, or reproductive system issues. They can also weaken the immune system.

Girl in faux leather jacket
Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya from Pexels

6. Azo dyes

What are azo dyes’ common uses?

Around 60-70% of fabric colorants are made of Azo dyes. They are used to create vivid colours in clothing. Read our article about Azo dyes for more information.

What clothes/features are they found in?

Their highest concentration is found in brown and black pigmented clothes. They’re also in cheap and colourful clothes that appear to stain your sink when hand-washing.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Due to being water soluble, the toxic chemicals in clothes produced with Azo dyes are absorbable through the skin. On contact with the skin, they release chemicals called aromatic amines. These can cause allergic reactions like skin and eye irritation, and are a known carcinogen.

Toxic colours
Photo by sarah Richer on Unsplash

7. Pesticides

What are pesticides’ common uses?

Many different types of pesticides are used in the growing of conventional cotton. One of the most common types of these is glyphosate.

What clothes/features are they found in?

Growing cotton requires a lot of water and pesticides, in order to prevent crop failure.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Pesticide exposure is associated with respiratory health problems and cancer.

Cotton field
Photo by Jeff Hutcheson on Unsplash

8. NPEs

What are NPEs’ common uses?

NPE is a chemical used during the dying process to join water and clothes together in the manufacturing process. NPEs break down into a hazardous material called NPs when they enter water through the washing machine, entering public wastewater.

What clothes/features are they found in?

Their use is widespread in clothing and they’re also found in some laundry detergents as we examined in our article Is scented laundry detergent toxic.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Broken down into NPs, these chemicals bioaccumulate and can damage every cell in the body. They are known endocrine disruptors, imitating estrogen in the body to cause imbalances. Their use has been banned in the EU since 2015, however, it’s hard to police trace amounts of these chemicals in clothes.

9. VOCs

What are VOCs’ common uses?

VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are a group of chemicals used in the textile industry. Materials such as solvents, adhesives and synthetic dyes used during the production process release VOCs. Examples of VOCs are toluene, ethylene glycol, benzene, methylene chloride, 1,3-butadiene, xylene, and tetrachloroethylene.

These toxic chemicals are used to give an easy-care finish to clothes.

What clothes/features are they found in?

VOCs are commonly found in printed clothes.

What are the health and environmental effects?

Off-gassing from VOCs has been found to be an occupational hazard in manufacturing. Clothing that releases VOCs presents a risk to reproductive health, with some being carcinogenic too.

Other places toxic chemicals are found in our homes

Sadly these chemicals are not just found in our clothes. They can also show up in our mattresses, pillows, sofas, carpets and other home textiles too so it’s worth looking out for non toxic and natural materials when shopping for these.

Girl in printed t shirt
Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

What alternatives are there/what can I do?

As a consumer, awareness is key. Getting to know about the kinds of toxic chemicals in clothes is the first step. So we can all make better decisions about the clothes and homewears we buy.

Luckily there are standards in place to look out for and materials less likely to contain chemicals. This, and choosing brands that have policies not to use harmful, synthetic chemicals, seem to be the best ways to avoid potential health issues.

OEKO-TEX®

The OEKO-TEX® labels are a great solution for people who want to shop responsibly and sustainably. In place since 1992, the STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® label certifies every component of a product has been tested for chemicals.

The Oeko-Tex standard test is a rigorous process against a list of 350 different toxic chemicals. One of the world’s best-known labels for toxic safety, their standards and methods are regularly updated to stay on top of changes.

We took a closer look at the standard in our article What is OEKO-TEX® Certified?

Global Organic Textile Standard – GOTS

GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres. For example, it is the standard commonly used to certify that cotton is organic. Certification is voluntary and promoted by organizations such as Organic Trade Association, IVN, Japanese Organic Cotton Association, and Soil Association.

EU Ecolabel

An EU Ecolabel license means that the textiles in question meet a number of criteria. Products must use limited substances harmful to health and the environment and guarantee a reduction in water and air pollution. It also guarantees colour resistance to perspiration, washing, wet and dry rubbing and light exposure.

A list of license holders can be found on the Europa website.

Bluesign®

Bluesign® partner with brands, manufacturers and chemical suppliers. A Bluesign® label guarantees textiles and products have met strict standards throughout the supply chain by a clothing brand. From the chemical inputs to final production, consumers can trust the process used as the gold standard for sustainable textiles.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides or fertilisers. Farmers use natural production methods such as organic compost to secure their cotton yield. Its production is usually fairer to farmers and workers too, with a smaller environmental impact.

Unfortunately, less than 1% of the world’s cotton yield was organic according to a 2021 report on the previous year (2020). You can read our dissection of the pros and cons to decide if organic cotton is suitable for you.

clothes on a rail in airy room
Photo by tu tu on Unsplash

Can you wash these toxic chemicals out?

So I wondered, is it possible to wash these chemicals out of new clothes? While it’s advisable to wash them prior to use, to help eliminate production chemicals, it’s not a complete solution. It’s concerning that washing before wearing will remove some, but not all, of the chemicals on clothes.

The residual chemicals from the manufacturing process may be eliminated, but they are only one part of the puzzle. I was disappointed that all of the toxins and synthetics cannot be removed with a washing machine cycle. What’s more, washing can add potential chemicals to the water supply and any accompanying machine items: proceed with caution.

Image of washing machine in utility room
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash

What’s being done?

The good news is that certain azo colours, dye substances, and phthalates, have been banned or restricted in the European Union. In November 2020, the EU introduced the REACH Regulation. It restricts the use of 33 CMRs: substances classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction.

REACH Regulation sets legal limit thresholds for substances such as cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and certain phthalates. It bans these substances in clothing, footwear, accessories and textiles in furniture. Although many of the products containing these chemicals are imported, it’s definitely a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.

Earlier in 2023 the use of PFAs in clothing production was banned in New York. The ban comes into effect on clothing production in the state, on the last day of 2023. New York joins California in its ban on PFAs, however California’s law doesn’t come into effect until 2025.

Some companies have taken matters into their own hands in the search for viable alternatives. Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia trialled hundreds of alternatives to PFA/PFCs for water resistant products. Today they use 8 PFC alternatives, aiming to be free of all PFCs by 2024.

In 2021, VF corporation, owner of North Face, announced plans to phase out most PFAs by 2025. However, I find it disappointing that it did not announce a timeline to phase out the PFA used in rainwear apparel. This is a good example of the difficulties brands face to find valid alternatives, as these chemicals are so effective.

It seems to me that these moves to legislate as an acknowledgement by lawmakers of the dangers posed by chemicals. While some brands are making the right noises, the timescale of change isn’t fast, which I find concerning. It looks like it’s going totake a long time to produce safer alternatives to scale; meanwhile, the toxic off-gassing continues.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Should I worry about chemicals in clothing?

Sadly, I think so. We are still a long way from eliminating dangerous chemicals in modern clothing from the fast fashion industry. In the meantime, we can check our clothing sources and try to choose items produced to higher standards, with certification. When I’m buying new, I opt for brands that use natural fibres in their raw materials, without toxic substances.

Because once the fast fashion party ends, there’s no way to detox the harmful chemicals that have accumulated.

For more about specific fabrics, check out our must read articles about whether polyester is bad for you, or if acrylic clothing is toxic.

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