You are what you eat. But what about what you wear? Studies are beginning to suggest that yes, indeed, the clothes you wear next to your skin have an impact on your health.
Following the natural progression of looking at the ingredients in our food, and then our beauty products (paraben and sulfite-free, please!), this same scrutiny has migrated to our clothing. It's time to take a good look at what we're putting in our clothes and on our bodies.
From toxic dyes, pesticides, and fabrics made of synthetic chemical concoctions, it's easy to see why monitoring what we put on our bodies, not just in them, is an important consideration. When I first started to get interested in eco-fashion, I focused primarily on the environmental benefits of greening my wardrobe, but as I’ve interviewed experts, production managers, and individuals affected by toxic clothing, I realized there are some very real health merits to sustainable fashion.
Doing research for my book, Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe, I came across a study from BioTech Articles on Toxicology which found that cancer cells multiply more quickly in test tubes made of polyester than glass. In other words, exposing cells (cancerous in this case) to polyester encourages rapid growth.
Polyester also emits phytoestrogen, a hormone disruptor, a known carcinogen, and culprit of skin rashes and dermatitis. Maybe you're thinking that doesn’t apply to you, and at this point I would challenge you to randomly select a handful of pieces from your wardrobe and look at the tags. How many are made with at least a percentage of polyester? That’s what I thought. Scary right? Unfortunately, polyester has a couple of synthetic side kicks with the same track record, so keep an eye out for nylon and rayon, too.
One person I interviewed shared that she was having various symptoms and discomfort on her chest. Despite a physical exam, no one could identify the cause. Then, on her own initiative, she decided to stop wearing a new (and brightly colored) polyester bra she'd bought from Victoria’s Secret and was wearing regularly. Within a week, the symptoms subsided and never reoccurred. Just imagine if she had continued wearing it, exposing her skin and cells to the obviously noxious chemicals present in the bra!
You may be wondering, how can this happen in the US with all of the regulations in place to protect us? One word: imports. Other countries do not uphold the same standards of environmental and human health protection.
Christoph Frehsee, the co-founder of eco-friendly brand Amour Vert, is very knowledgeable about foreign production. He has found that the chemical dyes used to produce vibrant stay-fast colors in China are regulated, but not necessarily to our advantage.
He tells the story of a manufacturer who was producing pieces of clothing in a standard assembly line fashion, and when the pattern was laid upon the fabric to cut out the garment, the scrap fabric would fall to the floor to be discarded. Without any further treatment, the garments would be sewn, packaged and shipped out.
Here’s the rub: the factory was required to treat those scraps as toxic waste due to the chemicals in the fabric. Yet, we receive the same fabric in the form of a shirt or dress and wear it next to our skin!
How can we protect ourselves from these silent killers lurking in our closets? Follow these four easy steps:
1. Buy natural fibers and avoid synthetics.
2. Shop organic whenever possible.
2. Look for natural (vegetable) or non-toxic dye use.
4. Support made in the USA clothing with a transparent supply chain.
By incorporating these steps into your shopping, you not only move toward a more eco-friendly (and non-toxic) wardrobe, but you help to support better production and products by voting with your dollars.
During Earth Month (April) this kind of conscious consumption is a great way to get involved … in style!
Photo Credit: Michael Chung for Eileen Fisher