Clothing can be one of the most challenging areas to navigate for people trying to live a non-toxic lifestyle. Over 8000 chemicals are used in the production of clothing but the U.S. does not have a regulatory agency dedicated to overseeing textile production. There is little transparency in the industry, but fortunately, some companies are beginning to restrict the use of the most hazardous chemicals.
What are the Most Concerning Chemicals Used in Clothing?
Formaldehyde: Used to keep clothes wrinkle or shrink-free, and as a preservative for colorfastness and to prevent mildew, particularly when shipped overseas. Avoid clothing labeled wrinkle-free, iron-free, permanent press, or stain resistant. Washing will remove some, but not all of the chemicals.
Azo Dyes: These are the most common types of dye used for clothing. They release aromatic amines, a chemical linked to cancer.
PFCs: Polyfluorinated chemicals are used for waterproofing and stain-resistance.
Heavy Metals: Lead, cadmium and mercury are used in dyes and for leather tanning.
Flame Retardants: Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are still sometimes used in children’s clothing.
Other chemicals of concern include phthalates, ammonia, chlorine bleach, and high-VOC solvents.
What Types of Materials are Best?
GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton or Wool:
Choosing clothing based on fabric alone is not enough to avoid chemicals. Even organic cotton can be processed and treated with hazardous chemicals. GOTS, The Global Organic Textile Standard, restricts the chemicals used throughout the manufacturing process. The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification also restricts chemicals used in the manufacturing process and covers both organic and non-organic fabrics.
Use with Caution:
Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees which are sustainable and ethically grown. The chemicals used to process the fiber are petroleum-based but generally less toxic than those used to process cotton.
Flax requires little to no pesticides and can be mechanically processed into linen fabric with few chemicals. A cheaper alternative that is becoming more common, however, is chemically processed linen.
While much of the pesticides from growing cotton are washed off during processing, even small exposures to pesticides have been linked to adverse health effects. The processing of cotton is chemical-intensive, including steps to bleach, scour, dye and finish the fabric.
Rayon is made by a chemical-intensive process that converts wood pulp into fiber.
Polyester is derived from petroleum but the process to dye it uses fewer chemicals than cotton because it retains the dye better.
Faux or vegan leather is often made with PVC. The main ingredient in PVC, vinyl chloride is a carcinogen. PVC also contains phthalates.
There are hundreds of chemicals used in the tanning of leather. Most leather is tanned using the toxic metal, chromium.
Unfortunately, there is not a simple, affordable way to build an entire wardrobe of non-toxic clothing. Here are some helpful tips to minimize your chemical exposure.
- Wash before wearing.
While you can’t wash out all of the chemicals, washing new clothing will help to remove residual finishing treatments.
- Invest in GOTS certified pajamas.
This is a great way to ensure that you will be free of toxins for the 8 or so hours of your day that you are asleep. Make sure your sheets and bedding are also GOTS certified.
- Wear GOTS certified undergarments.
It’s important that the garments closest to your skin are free of harmful chemicals. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of options available.
- Buy from retailers with transparent chemical management policies.
Check out Green America’s scorecard of major U.S. apparel retailers. (Target, The North Face, Nike, and the Gap get a thumbs up for chemical management.)
- Buy vintage clothing.
Clothing that has been washed for a period of years is more likely to have fewer chemicals. This may not be an option for people who are sensitive to fragrance.
- Buy Less.
This one’s simple. Less clothes = less chemicals.
Green America 2019, Toxic Textiles, January 2020, https://www.greenamerica.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/GA_TextilesReport_Final_0.pdf.
Stockholm University 2015, Toxins remain in your clothes, ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, January 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151023084508.htm>.
GAO 2010, Formaldehyde in Textiles, January2020, <https://www.gao.gov/assets/310/308673.pdf