Fabric may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about living a healthier lifestyle, but it definitely should be considered. Even many “health nuts” don’t realize that synthetic fabrics are teeming with chemicals and dyes that cannot be washed out, making them a potential health hazard.
Organic, all-natural fabrics like cotton, wool and linen may be the safest options when it comes to your health.
Toxins in Your Textiles
Most synthetic fabrics, from towels to dress shirts to bed linens, are treated with chemicals during and after processing. These chemicals not only leach into the environment, leaving an impact on groundwater, wildlife, air and soil, but they also may be absorbed or inhaled directly.
The use of man-made chemicals is increasing, and at the same time we have warning signals that a variety of wildlife and human health problems are becoming more prevalent,” says Dr. Richard Dixon, Head of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Scotland. “It is reckless to suggest there is no link between the two and give chemicals the benefit of the doubt. Urgent action is needed to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives especially in clothing and other consumer products.
WWF is so concerned about one fairly new clothing additive that, in 2004, they advised parents to check their children’s clothing labels. If the chemical is on it, they advise switching to clothing made from natural fibers whenever possible.
Teflon in Your Trousers
The chemicals that the WWF was warning about are perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which include the non-stick additive Teflon. These chemicals are increasingly being added to clothing because it makes them last longer and also can make them wrinkle-free. Most clothing labeled “no-iron” contains PFCs.
The problem with PFcs?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that PFCs are cancer-causing compounds. However, “no-iron” and “wrinkle-free” pants have become a popular part of many schools’ compulsory uniforms. Hardly the thing you’d like to send your child off to school in, but other options usually aren’t provided.
PFCs in “wrinkle-free” pants, often used for school uniforms, may cause cancer, according to the EPA. “Without knowing it, parents are exposing their children to toxic chemicals in clothing that could have serious future consequences for their health and the environment. Children are usually more vulnerable to the effects of chemicals than adults, so the presence of these substances in school clothing is particularly alarming,’ says Dr. Dixon.
Your Clothing’s Chemical Cocktail
You may be wondering when, and why, chemicals are applied to your clothing. The fact is, man-made fabrics are complex, and getting a soft pullover out of raw materials takes some measure of chemical manipulation. For instance:
- Chemicals are used to make fibers suitable for spinning and weaving.
- A formaldehyde product is often applied to prevent shrinkage. This product is applied with heat so it is trapped in the fiber permanently.
- Petrochemical dyes, which pollute waterways, are used for color.
- Chemicals are added to make clothing softer, wrinkle-free, fire-retardant, moth-repellant and stain-resistant.
- Commonly used chemicals include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dioxin-producing bleach.
- Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals, whose production creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Rayon is made from wood pulp that has been treated with chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphuric acid.
- Dye fixatives used in fabrics often come from heavy metals and pollute water systems.
- Acrylic fabrics are polycrylonitriles, which may be carcinogenic.
- Clothing and fabric that is treated with flame-retardant chemicals, such as children’s pajamas, emit formaldehyde gas.
The chemicals used in synthetic clothing have been linked to health problems including cancer, immune system damage, behavioral problems and hormone disruption.
Synthetic Fibers to Avoid
If at all possible, it’s best to stay away from the following fabrics in lieu of more natural options:
Natural fabrics tend to breathe better than synthetic fibers and naturally wick moisture away from the body. These include:
If you are very sensitive to chemicals, you may want to seek out organic fabrics. Even natural fabrics, such as cotton, are treated with pesticides while they are grown, and some of those pesticides will remain in the fibers. Organic fabrics are becoming more widely available and can be found in health food markets, specialty shops and online.
Additional Clothing Tips
• Wash and dry synthetic fabrics three times before wearing them.
• Do not use conventional dryer sheets, as they are loaded with toxic chemicals. An excellent alternative is Static Eliminator, a reusable dryer sheet system with woven sheets that take static cling out, and soften fabric without any toxic chemicals whatsoever.
• Avoid dry cleaning your clothing, as perchloroethylene, the chemical most widely used in dry cleaning, is a VOC known to cause cancer in animals. There are environmentally friendly dry cleaners that do not use this chemical.
• Wash your clothing in non-toxic detergent, such as the EnviroRite Laundry Detergent, which is non-caustic and free of petroleum solvents, fragrances and dyes.