How Worried Should You Be About Chemicals In Your Clothes?

Photo: Leandro Crespi

Every so often, a food recall scares us into thinking about everything that can potentially go wrong before a product lands on shelves. And unfortunately, recent news 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 our hangers.

First, there was the American Airlines debacle in which more than 3,500 employees linked their allergic reactions, headaches, and breathing problems to the company's new uniforms. In June, the airline cut ties with its supplier. July came around and clothing retailer Primark recalled a style of men's flip-flops because they contained high levels of a cancer-causing chemical called chrysene. Then, just last week, shoe supplier Dr. Martens pulled select vegan boots off shelves after finding traces of an undisclosed chemical.

Though it's encouraging that companies are taking proactive steps to pull these items, these events still raise some important questions. Namely, why are there so many chemicals in our clothes in the first place? And do they need to be more strictly regulated?

The toxic trade-off.

Make no mistake: The clothes on your back went through a long, resource-intensive production process to get to you, no matter what you're wearing. 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 likely pulled even more chemicals into the mix.

However, in a tale that mirrors the beauty and home-cleaning industries, the fashion industry's regulations are notoriously lax. The Federal Trade Commission 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, even though by some estimates there are upward of 250 "restricted substances" used in textile manufacturing that pose potential health concerns. 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 carcinogenic in high enough levels, and governments like Australia have considered banning them altogether.

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2. NPEs.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a class of organic compounds found in the majority of our clothing. Besides being associated with reproductive and developmental risks in rodents, they also have widespread environmental effects and are highly toxic to aquatic life, according to the EPA.

Photo: Leandro Crespi

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.

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4. Metals.

Metals are ubiquitous in the textile production process, and one study found 20 different ones in clothes of all different styles and materials. These metals don't present health risks at low doses, but high concentrations of them can be seriously dangerous. Clothing that features metal accessories is another potential concern. 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."

What to do about it.

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 or you're just looking to live a life with fewer chemicals, 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.

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2. Wash them well with natural detergent.

Washing your clothes before their first wear can't be a bad idea, and it's something a lot of dermatologists actually recommend to protect against allergic contact dermatitis.

3. Do your research and avoid 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 quite a few corners along the way.

Ready to start your nontox journey? Read up on these unique natural, sustainable fabrics first. Pineapple-leaf jacket, anyone?

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