I’ve long been aware that often, when I go clothes shopping, my allergies flare up. But it didn’t occur to me that the cause could be hidden toxins in clothing. If you’re scent-sensitive like I am, you are probably familiar with this. If not, you might have not ever given it a second thought.
I can walk into any department store and within 15 minutes my nose is running and my eyes are burning. I start to feel a general sense of fatigue. After just a few hours of shopping, I’m done. The first thing I do when I get home and unbag my purchases is take the tags off and get my clothes in the washer to get rid of the smell. For a long time, I thought this was “just me” and the way I was wired.
As it turns out, it’s not just me and there’s a reason that I’m having this reaction. It’s because of the many chemicals used in the manufacturing of clothing. Not only are they the cause of the smell, but it also turns out that many of the chemicals used are quite toxic.
Research for Hidden Toxins in Clothing
There have been almost no scientific studies done regarding exposure to toxins in clothing by wearing them. There has been lots of research that shows that chemicals are easily absorbed by the skin; it’s the largest organ in the human body and it’s permeable, so this makes sense. There has also been a lot of valid research regarding workers’ exposure to chemicals involved in the manufacturing of textiles. Those studies show plenty about how dangerous it is and have rigid safety requirements.
Here are a few things that the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has to say:
“Dermal exposures to hazardous agents can result in a variety of occupational diseases and disorders, including OSD (occupational skin disorders) and systemic toxicity.”
“OSD are the second most common type of occupational disease and can occur in the following forms:
Irritant contact dermatitis,
Allergic contact dermatitis,
Skin injuries, and
Other miscellaneous skin diseases.”
“Dermal absorption is the transport of a chemical from the outer surface of skin both into the skin and into the body. Studies show that absorption of chemicals throughout the skin can occur without being noticed, and in some cases, may represent the MOST SIGNIFICANT EXPOSURE PATHWAY…..these chemicals enter the blood stream and cause health problems away from the site of entry.”
For more on the Center for Disease Control findings, click HERE: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/. You’ll also notice a few photos on this site that show how severe the skin can be damaged when exposed to textile chemicals. What are not shown (but are mentioned) are the “health problems away from site of entry,” i.e., skin, and any sort of systemic issues.
Because there haven’t been many studies associated with the wearing of chemical-laden clothing (or inhaling their fumes), it’s not necessarily a good idea to just assume that it is safe. We know two things to be true and the CDC spells both of them out for us. First, skin is permeable, and second, the chemicals used in the manufacturing of textiles are poisonous.
Dangers of Exposure
Prolonged exposure to chemicals can cause toxins to accumulate in the body. When multiple chemicals are used together as they are in the textile industry, their combinations can be even more lethal.
While the skin can easily absorb what it’s exposed to, there is also another factor in that the body vents toxins out of the body through the skin (as well as other means). When we wear fabrics that don’t “breathe,” the skin is prevented from doing its job of expelling toxins. Also, when we get hot, our pores open more which allows greater permeability. This is especially true in areas where our clothing fits tightly such as underneath the arms, around waistbands, the collar area, inner thighs, and upper back. If there’s no room for air circulation, the toxins we are sweating out can be absorbed right back in to the body.
There are other methods of exposure to these hidden toxins in clothing besides absorption through skin. Clothing fibers can abrade over time; they are shed from our clothing through handling, movement, and washing/drying. The fibers fall off and move through the air and can land on the floor and other surfaces. This makes them susceptible to ingestion by small children and pets. Additionally, the fumes produced by chemicals (particularly noticeable when they’re new) can be inhaled. Symptoms of chemical exposure or sensitivity include respiratory issues, headaches, itching, rashes, nausea, and fatigue.
It’s interesting to note that some of these chemicals have been banned in the United States in things like toys because they can pose dangers to children. In some instances, they’ve been banned from foods yet they are still allowed to be used in the manufacturing of clothing. Red Dye 2G is one example of this.
Over a century ago, clothing was made from natural products such as silk, flax, cotton, wool, and hemp. This was before the industrial revolution and textiles were manufactured naturally, on a much smaller scale, and in many cases, locally.
As well, these fabrics were not heavily processed. Cotton, for example, is a natural fiber and I use to often buy clothes that were 100% cotton. However I have since discovered that cotton is one of the most heavily processed fabrics, making it loaded with chemicals. So type of fabric is important, but also the processing it is put through is a major factor as well.
In the early 1900s, synthetic textiles began to emerge:
- Rayon, 1924
- Nylon, 1935 (first used for women’s hosiery)
- Acrylic, 1950 (wash and wear)
- Polyester, 1953 (wrinkle-free)
- Spandex, 1959
- Olefin, 1959 (swimsuits, thermal underwear, carpets, and more)
Needless to say, textiles have become big industry! China and India are the biggest commercial producers of textiles, likely because of their lax laws over safety standards and environmental regulations. Australia actually produces about 90% of the world’s wool, however, because of their strict rules, they will not process the textile. Most of it is exported to China. While there is some processing in the United States, to date EPA restrictions have made it more expensive for companies to produce it here.
Oddly, there is NO organized voice to represent the textile industry and advocate for it to change their ways with regards to toxins in clothing. This is truly horrific because this leaves the sole responsibility to consumers to demand change. That’s never an easy thing especially when going against such big companies.
To date, there are over 2,000 known chemicals used in the textile industry for varying purposes to give different traits to fabric such as color, wrinkle resistance, stain resistance, crispness, softness, flame resistance and fragrance just to name a few.
Here are just a few of the most commonly used chemicals:
- Formaldehyde – this is a frequent offender and used for its anti-cling, anti-static, anti-shrink, and waterproofing qualities. It also makes clothing stain-resistant, perspiration-proof, moth-proof, and used for fabric to hold its color-fastness. The United States is not as strict as other developed countries regarding its use. While the EPA lists it as being a “probable carcinogen,” the American Cancer Society classifies it as a “known carcinogen” since there has been some research that exposure to higher levels can cause cancer. It has off-gassing properties and can be harmful to skin. Formaldehyde is a petroleum product.
- Dimethylformamide (DMF) – used for acrylic fiber spinning, textile dyes, and others. The CDC has said that DMF is “readily absorbed through skin and can cause liver damage and other adverse health effects.”
- Azo dyes – these are ammonia-based and the most common synthetic dyes used in clothing, leather, and other textiles. Red Dye 2G falls into this category. There have been some studies which indicate azo dyes may be easily absorbed by skin. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10523869. A study done by the federal government in Australia recommends banning their use because they are a known carcinogenic. There are already bans in place in Europe. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-28/govt-considers-banning-carcinogenic-dyes-more-found-in-clothing/5482040. While some of them have been banned by the United States in food products, the only state that has recommended their ban for use in textiles is California and that is currently still in legislation. One of the concerns is that research indicates that the toxins found in finished textiles are particularly permeable through the skin if a person is perspiring. http://www.leatherusa.org/azo-dyes. There are many carcinogens found in the various azo dyes.
- Phthalates – used in artificial leathers, plastic raincoats, and other waterproof clothing. Their use in teething rings and pacifiers was outlawed in 1999 because they were proven to be endocrine disrupters that could damage reproductive organs, particularly developing testes in baby boys. They have also been shown to damage kidneys, livers, and lungs. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 placed a federal ban on the use of phthalates in toys and children’s products. In adult men, some forms of this chemical have shown to reduce sperm counts and act as an anti-androgen in men.
- Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) – used for oil, water, and stain repellence. This chemical is also used in plastics. Since its use is so widespread, there has been a considerable amount of research on PFOAs, but studies on absorbency from clothing is somewhat lacking. It has been proven that exposure does exist through skin contact and that it can remain in the body for long periods of time. The CDC conducted several studies and found that levels of this chemical agent were found in almost every single person tested. https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/index.html. It affects the immune system, liver, thyroid, cholesterol and has been shown to be harmful to fetuses.
- Xylene (to include benzene and toluene) – yet, another hidden toxin in clothing, these are petroleum-based chemicals and were first used for wood adhesives. They are mainly used in polyester-based textiles and exposure can cause dizziness, headaches, and vomiting along with reduced mental acuity. They’re a known skin-irritant. Xylenes can strip skin of its oils making it more permeable to other chemicals. Factory workers are required to wear impervious gloves and respirators for health safety when handling these types of chemicals.
- Olefin – this chemical was originally discovered by a chemist in Italy. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for this invention. Its use has become so widespread that its olefin fibers make up 16% of ALL manufactured fibers. When it was invented in the 1960s, it was mainly used for carpets, upholsteries, drapes, and auto interiors. However, one of its attributes is ability to wick moisture away from the skin and dry quickly. Because of this, olefin textiles are used in things like cold-weather active wear, sportswear, socks, and underwear, both regular and thermal. Prolonged exposure to significant levels affects memory, liver, the thyroid gland, kidneys, ovaries, and blood.
These are just some of the more common chemicals that are regularly used in the manufacturing of clothing. Glyphosate, VOCs (solvents used to create printed fabrics), and PFCs are also common. Brominated flame-retardants which use to help prevent clothes from catching on fire have been shown to contain neuro-toxins and endocrine disrupters and can even cause cancer.
Bromine, the chemical in flame-retardants, is scary. Children are particularly susceptible to its affects. Studies have shown that it has shown up in blood tests of many of the various study participants. Dr. Andrew Weil, a respected and well-known physician, has written a comprehensive article about bromine. Read his article HERE: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/balanced-living/healthy-home/are-flame-retardants-toxic/
Hidden Toxins in Clothing – Is There a Solution?
All of this data can be overwhelming, not only because of the toxins themselves, but also the lack of solid research on exposure through clothing combined with the studies that show how toxic these chemicals are. Without strict government regulations or any organized advocate group, it’s easy to feel both helpless against the problem, and ignorant about how much of a problem actually exists regarding the dangers of our clothes.
We also know that this isn’t just about the clothing against our skin. The textile industry produces an enormous amount of pollution which affects the environment, water supply, and aquatic life which, for the purposes of this article, I won’t discuss here. Those are all open cans of worms in their own right!
We have to start with small steps. After all, not many of us can afford to get rid our wardrobes and start from scratch. We also need to apply some common sense in making choices about our clothing.
- ALWAYS launder your new clothing before you wear it. Unfortunately, not many chemicals wash out, but a good washing can certainly decrease the concentrations.
- Be especially mindful of the clothing you wear that fits tightly against your skin such as underwear, bras, socks, etc. Bras especially have all sorts of toxins because many of them contain foam padding and underwire. Take them off when you don’t need to be wearing them.
- As soon as possible, start replacing the clothing you sleep in, tight fitting clothing such as undergarments, sheets and towels with organic ones.
- Be more mindful of clothing that you purchase from here on out and try to get more natural fiber clothing items to reduce your exposure.
- Do further research and educate yourself. Speak out against the textile industries by voicing your opinion to those that have the ability to make a difference. You can do this in a variety of ways such as making different choices in which products you purchase, writing lawmakers, or joining a consumer advocacy group.
- Buy ORGANIC as much as possible.
I was actually surprised to learn that there are so many options available for purchasing organic clothing. In fact, one of the manufacturers of an organic clothing line sells their products at Target! They don’t necessarily have to be expensive to be organic.
In order for clothing or other textiles such as bedding to be sold with an “organic” label, they have to be both grown (without GMOs) AND manufactured organically. There is a group that regulates the organic clothing industry called Global Organic Textile Standard International Working Group (GOTS). Here is a link to their very long set of standards if you’re interested in reading more about them: http://www.global-standard.org/images/GOTS_Manual-01March2014.pdf.
We can gradually protect and improve our health by being more mindful of reducing our exposure to the hidden toxins in clothing. This gives me hope, and I hope it does for you as well.
For your information, I’m attaching several links to some companies that I found that manufacture and sell organic clothing. Please let me know if you find some favorites so that I can keep this list updated.
www.wearpact.com (available at Target!)