What do you think of when you think of your favorite clothes? Is it the soft feeling of your favorite silk shirt? The interesting patterns drawn over your dresses? The bright colors of your favorite shorts? What about the up to 2000 types of chemicals that are used to create different fabrics?
Toxic Fabrics That Should Never Touch Your Skin Again (and safer alternatives)
Toxic Chemicals in Commonly Used Fabrics and Your Health
That’s right; I did say 2000! Many of these chemicals are harmful to human and environmental health. This is even more alarming when we think of the fact that our skin is our largest organ. More so, it can be worse for our skin to absorb dangerous chemicals than for our digestive system to do so, as our digestive system has the liver to help manage toxins.
According to the Extension Toxicology Network, “chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and into the blood stream, causing toxic effects”. As fabric both rests against our skin and is often treated with so many chemicals, it becomes a major way for toxins to get into the body. As a result, people have experienced all sorts of negative effects, including hormonal dysfunction, behaviour problems, immune system problems, digestive system problems, reproduction problems, skin problems, cancer…. and the list goes on!
Why So Many Toxins in our Fabrics?
To clarify, unless a fabric is organic, chemicals effect both natural fibers and synthetic fibers (fibers are used to make fabric). Natural fibers, like cotton, are those which come directly from nature. Synthetic fibers, like nylon, are created by people. Chemicals effect both of them from the very start.
The toxins come from the making of synthetic petroleum-based fibers. They also come from chemicals used to piece together the fibres and fabric, to make them work as clothing or other items, and to decorate them with paint or beads. They are often used to give fabric qualities like being resistant to fire, odor, staining, water, and wrinkling.
To shed more light on the complex nature of fabric production, we can also look at the way new chemicals are being added to fabrics. For example, a chemical called nanosilver is being added to fabric even though there is not enough research to make sure that it is safe. What we do know about it is that fabrics with nanosilver release the chemical when in water, and that nanosilver is soaked up by plants. If this chemical is bad for humans and the environment, these qualities are troubling for both humans and the poor plants!
Fibers and Fabrics Being Made in Other Countries
A lot of companies find it easier and cheaper for the products they sell to be made in other countries. Due to this, just about 3% of clothing sold in America is actually made in America. Because of this, chemicals that aren’t banned or managed for safety in these other countries can end up in the fabrics consumers buy somewhere else. This can lead to a lot of toxic chemicals in fabrics.
More Government Regulation Needed
According to journalist Elizabeth Grossman, there is no specific U.S. Federal agency overlooking specifically the chemicals which come with clothing. There is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission which has set up rules to protect children from some chemicals in children’s clothing. There is also the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act which also regulates chemicals in clothing. However, there is nothing specific to just managing the chemicals in clothing.
This would be very helpful, because it would lead to more insight to toxic chemicals and the effects they are having, and less mystery around the products. Some companies are taking steps to make their procedures more eco-friendly and better for human health. Toxic chemicals in fabrics is really an issue effecting everyone.
Commonly Used Chemicals and their Effects:
Formaldeyhde is a chemical conscious consumers are becoming more aware of, and is often found in many fabrics. Manufacturers use it as a fabric finish. Exposure to this chemical in low levels causes irritation in the eyes, nose and throat. It can also lead to skin and lung allergies. This chemical may be a cancer-causing agent, and exposure to it at high levels can have a way worse effect.
Chemicals like DMF, Chromium VI, and Alkphenols manage leather or other materials. Chromium VI exposure can cause or worsen dermatitis. DMF exposure can cause bad eczema. Alkphenols really mess with the human endocrine system.
Azo dyes are other bad chemicals. They can cause cancer and change genetic material. These are only a few examples out of many, but to keep this from getting too long, the following are examples of the key fabrics you want to avoid and why.
The 4 Fabrics You Want to Avoid:
This is a fabric created with recycled woof pulp. In order to make it long lasting and able to be washed, manufacturers apply a bunch of chemicals to it. Its a nice intention, but some of these chemicals are problematic. They can cause nausea, headache, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, sleeplessness…. as well as necrosis and parkinson’s diseases in people who wear it often.
This fabric is petroleum-based, and I don’t know about you, but for me even just knowing that detail makes me not want to wear it. It also uses a long list of chemicals like caustic soda, chloroform, terpineol, limonene, sulfuric acid, pentene, sulfuric acid and even the formaldehyde we spoke of before. It’s not good for the health either, as it is connected to cancer, skin allergies, spine pain, dizziness and more in a lot of people.
This fabric is very bad for the environment, and can cause breast cancer in women. It’s so unstable that it can even cause an explosion while the item is being made. Let’s pass on this one.
You’ve probably heard about the problems with polyester by now. It is made from highly toxic chemicals which don’t fully go away even after it’s made. It causes plenty of problems such as different types of cancers, skin problems and respiratory problems. For those people who wear polyester a lot, they can experience changes in their behaviour, and have a lower sperm count if they are male.
The Fabrics You Want Instead
The very first recommendation is to try to find organic versions of natural fibers, like cotton, linen and wool. If they are truly organic, they won’t have harmful chemicals in them and will be better for the environment as well. This in my opinion is the most straightforward option.
Tencel, also known as lyocell, is another option becoming more popular. It is created from nature and has an environmentally friendly process. It is hypoallergenic, able to absorb sweat and release it without easily causing odours, being better than cotton in this way! It is very soft and good for the body.
The issue is that the company that creates it only makes the fibers, not the actual fabric. That means that after they sell the fibers, they dont’ have much control over what chemicals manufacturers put in it, making it still possibly toxic. Due to Tencel being hard to dye and naturally prone to peeling, companies need some chemicals to manage it. However,we can possibly work with this if we buy from a company or manufacturer who also cares about limiting and using safe chemicals in their products!
The company that produces Tencel also produces Modal. This fabric comes from European beech trees. It goes through an eco-friendly bleaching process and is easy to dye. It is soft and strong in face of wear and tear, which we want.
It is at times blended with other materials, which if they are toxic, we don’t want. However, that doesn’t always have to be the case.
Cupro is a beautiful fabric which many call the silk-substitute. It is made out of linter, which is fiber stuck to the seeds of a cotton plant after the cotton is removed. Despite being light-weight and soft, you can put it in a washing machine and drier, which makes it a practical choice. What also excites me is that it is hypoallergenic, and can be used to create beautiful, flowing clothing.
Out of this list, which one are you most excited about trying? When it comes to our health, we want to make better choices in hopes of enjoying a better quality of life. The great news is that more companies and people are finding ways to make healthier products and choices. Let’s make the most of that today!
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