How Worried Should You Be About Chemicals In Your Clothes?
Every so often, a food recall scares us into thinking about everything that can potentially go wrong before a product lands on shelves. And recent news about work uniforms causing allergic reactions has reminded us that our food isn't the only source of concern. Our clothing, too, goes through a long, complicated, and often chemical-ridden process to get to the hanger.
So why are there so many chemicals in our clothes in the first place? And which ones are actually dangerous? Here's how to avoid potential irritants without driving yourself crazy.
The chemicals in clothing you should try to avoid.
Make no mistake: Most clothes are treated with some type of chemical. Even natural fibers like cotton and wool could have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides (unless they're organic), dyed, and treated with compounds that make them fire-, odor-, stain-, water- and wrinkle-resistant. Petroleum-based synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon pull even more chemical compounds into the mix.
While chemicals are not inherently bad (just consider the fact that water and oxygen are technically chemicals too), the fashion industry has taken a pretty lax approach to them over the years. The Federal Trade Commission1 asks U.S. clothing retailers to share only fiber content, country of origin, and the identity of the manufacturer on labels. They are not required to disclose any of the chemicals used in the production process, some of which could pose potential health concerns to humans and the environment. Let's take a look at some of the most common ones:
1. Azo dyes
There are many varieties of chemical dyes used on clothing, with azo dyes being one of the most common. These dyes have been found to be carcinogenic2 (though only in high levels), and governments like Australia have considered banning certain kinds of them.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a class of organic compounds found in clothing that have widespread environmental effects and are highly toxic to aquatic life, according to the EPA3.
3. Formaldehyde and phthalates
Formaldehyde is a known respiratory and skin irritant that is sometimes used to make clothes wrinkle-resistant. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters that have been used to make fashion that incorporates plastic like shoes and gloves and in the decorative printing process.
Though metals don't present health risks at low doses, high concentrations of them can be dangerous. After ASOS discovered that a line of its metal-studded belts was radioactive in 2013, the brand released a statement saying, "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."
How to choose a better option.
Keep in mind that everyone reacts to the aforementioned chemicals differently, and low levels of them don't pose any significant health risk to the average person. But if you're someone who is prone to skin irritation or rashes, here are some easy ways to protect yourself:
1. Prioritize natural materials.
When buying new clothes, look for ones that are as close to natural as possible. That means more organic cottons and wools and fewer synthetics like polyester and nylon. Steer clear of claims like "wrinkle-free" and "stain-resistant" to ensure that nothing is being added to your clothes that you don't want there.
2. Wash before your first wear.
Washing your clothes before their first wear can't be a bad idea, and it's something a lot of dermatologists recommend to protect against allergies.
3. Do your research and avoid cheap fast fashion.
Research a brand's manufacturing process before making a purchase, and ask for more information when you have questions. Prioritize companies that are transparent about their production, and remember that you get what you buy: You can't sell a $5 T-shirt without cutting a few corners along the way.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.