5 Dangerous Chemical Finishes On Clothing

You may not know this, but putting dangerous chemical finishes on clothing is common practice – and it can really harm your health!

By Diane Small

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion Campaign, over 80 companies representing 15% of global clothing production pledged to cut the use of the eleven most hazardous chemicals to zero by 2020. But…has that actually happened?

Fashion giants such as H&M, Primark, Zara, Adidas, Nike and Puma all agreed to end chemical finishes on clothing that harm human health, including per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which among other nasty things are considered carcinogenic.

But as of yet, we’ve yet to see that change.

And unfortunately, even some ‘ethically made’ fashion brand may not be so eco-friendly. That is to say, they may still be using any of these chemical finishes on clothing that may seriously harm your health, and the planet, too.

The only way to really avoid these chemicals is to:

  • shop at the above mentioned stores
  • buy organic clothing
  • educate yourself

Once you know about the worst chemical finishes on clothing, then you should try to avoid them at all costs.

Chemical Finishes On Clothing That Hurt Your Health

1. Phthalates

Love your vegan leather shoes? Shiny yoga pants? Vinyl tights on a night out? Ditch them, because they very likely contain phthalates.

This hard-to-spell word comprises a group of chemicals used to make plastic and vinyl more flexible. They can also be used to make some garments softer and easier to wear. Phthalates are often used for plastisol printings. Not sure that that means? Think T-shirts with images stuck on the front, jackets with slogans, or yoga tights with ‘3D’ feeling prints and patterns.

There has been a call to limit or eliminate their usage due to the fact that these chemicals are known to lead to endocrine disruption. This can cause birth defects, reduce sperm counts and contribute to breast cancer. Prolonged exposure could mean bad news for your health, to say the least. That’s especially true if the plasticky-feeling part of the garment is always touching your skin.

And did I mention, they’re often also in yoga mats, which your skin is constantly in touch with, too?

chemical finishes on clothing

2. Alkylphenols (APEOs)

This group of chemicals is another of the chemical finishes on clothing that are used for wetting, emulsifying, cleaning, printing, and softening, fabrics. They’re so commonly used that in the United States, the EPA has noted a rise of Alkylphenols in all water systems.

However, increased washing reduces the amount of APEOs in our clothing, which can be leached out by sweat onto our skin. But whether they’re in your clothing or washed into your drinking water, APEOs can lead to skin and respiratory problems and act as an endocrine disruptor.

What’s worse, these chemicals are slow to biodegrade. And as they do so, they produce byproducts that have an even higher toxicity.

Alkylphenols alone are a good enough reason to buy organic clothing only!

4 Chemical Finishes On Clothing That Seriously Hurt Your Health

3. PVC

Burberry uses it. Chanel uses it. But no matter what its fashion house credentials, Polyvinyl Chloride, a.k.a. PVC, is very bad news indeed! It’s one of the worst chemical finishes on clothing, by far. It’s the deadliest plastic known to man. In fact, it’s often referred to as  poison plastic as it contains several seriously harmful toxic chemicals including dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and organotins.

This lethal combination gives the stuff an appealing, shiny and sometimes patent-leather-like surface, so some designers use it as ‘vegan leather’. But you know what? There’s nothing cruelty-free about PVC, which heavily contaminates our water and soil at all stages of its life, from production to rubbish.

Image: Burberry

chemical finishes on clothing

4. Azo Dyes

These colourants are used to dye our clothing, but of these compounds, mostly the benzidine-based chemical, are considered carcinogens. This is largely due to the aromatic amines that are produced upon breaking down. They are already banned in Europe, but they can still be commonly found in our clothing thanks to most of our garments being imported from countries like China and Bangladesh, which don’t have strict regulations for Azo dyes.

They can easily rub off on your skin – as anyone who has ever ended up with blue legs from wearing a pair of jeans will know. If that’s happened to you, you should be concerned: respiratory, skin and organ problems have been reported after exposure to these dyes, and higher rates of cancer and other serious illnesses have been reported by factory workers who deal with these chemicals daily.

A much better option? Find clothing that uses natural dyes instead.

5. Formaldehyde

Think wrinkle free clothing is a great idea? Think again! Anything touted as ‘wrinkle free’ is likely to have been treated with one of the worst chemical finishes on clothing: formaldehyde. This is a deadly carcinogen that caused staff on several airlines to become seriously ill when their uniforms were treated with the stuff. It’s not only on wrinkle-free clothing, either: this is also used to prevent mould and mildew during shipping.

Even just a bit of contact with this chemical can cause contact dermatitis, nausea, coughing, burning eyes, nose and throat.

The good news is that it has a strong, chemical odour, so if you’re about to purchase something to wear and it has a chemical smell, put it back on the rack!

chemical finishes on clothing

Diane Small
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