Clothes Fashion

Deadly Dyes! Could Toxic Clothing Be Harming Your Health?

By Su Dodd

By now, we all know that organic food is better for your health and eating chemicals applied during food manufacturing is probably best avoided. We are also aware that we need to choose natural skincare and makeup and even hair dye, as the chemicals in these permeate our pores and enter our bloodstreams.  But  have you ever thought of extending these precautions to what you wear?

Throughout history, we’ve been harming ourselves in the name of fashion and beauty. From lead based face powders to glowing, luminous green jewellery enhanced with radium, we humans seem to take a long time connecting the dots between how the toxins in our food, cosmetics and clothing can lead to a slow death.  

While we may believe we’ve learned from the days when Elizabeth I lost her teeth due to leaded facial powder, or Napoleon died prematurely young due to the deadly dyes in his green bedroom, numerous highly toxic chemicals are still used at every stage of clothing manufacture today. This is something Greenpeace have been bringing to the general public’s attention for the last few years with their Detox Fashion Campaign. In 2012, they produced The Toxic Threads Report, putting ‘pollution on parade’ and exposing how textile manufacturers were hiding their toxic trails.

Although Greenpeace’s focus is more about environmental pollution, their work also provides reliable research into hazardous chemicals used in textile manufacturing that are relevant to human health.

Why Fashion Needs A Detox

Consider conventionally produced cotton, which is not only one of the world’s most heavily sprayed crops in terms of pesticides – including the very nasty glyphosate – but is also  considered to be a major polluter of the fashion industry. After harvest, its natural cream colour is bleached to a more desirable white, followed by toxic chemical dyes, containing plasticizers, to create the required fabric colour. And it doesn’t stop there; most garments also contain what’s known as ‘finishing chemicals’. These include such toxins as PFCs, which are used to stain and waterproof clothing, formaldehyde and phthalates, which help make some textiles like so-called ‘vegan leather’ softer, to name just a few.

These can lead to serious health consequences. Cases in point: recently, over 1000 staff at American and United airlines complained of illness after receiving new uniforms – it turned out that there was formaldehyde used to preserve the wool fabric that was actually making them sick. And Primark just recalled one of their flip flop lines because they contained a chemical that could be absorbed by the bottoms of your feet and lead to cancer.

Don’t underestimate the toxicity of the chemicals used in clothing manufacturing: many of them are on The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List, and are considered a health risk.

Many textiles contain chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), ammonia,heavy metals, PVC, and resins, which are involved in dyeing and printing processes.

Considering your skin is the largest organ of your body, with millions of tiny pores that have considerable absorption capabilities, perhaps it’s time to start to take some notice of how our clothes are made? And if you want to talk about ethics, well, not only is it reprehensible that the people who make our clothing are paid peanuts and work in horrid conditions, but let’s also remember that they are directly exposed to these nasty chemicals – especially if they are working in the dying, bleaching or finishing side of production – putting their health at risk.

Oh, and finally, let’s not forget that all of these dyes and chemicals are dumped – often untreated – into our waterways, and even at the post-consumer stage, they may leak into our waterways when they go through the washing cycle.

It’s Greenpeace’s most recent report investigating the chemical content in sportswear that really opens up the debate.  Their analysis of one high street brand’s sportswear found substantial toxic chemicals, such as:

Phthalates – plasticizers linked to certain cancers, adult obesity, and reduced testosterone

DMFsDimethylformamide – easily absorbed chemical connected to liver damage

NPEsNonylphenol Ethoxylates and NP’s – Nonylphenol – linked to reproductive issues

PFCs – Polyfluorinated Chemicals – strongly affects liver and thyroid function.

The worst clothes are those that are made to be wrinkle- or shrinkage-free, flame-resistant, waterproof, stain-resistant, mildew-resistant, or cling-free. Toxic chemicals are even put on kids’ pyjamas to make them flame-resistant! All fabrics can accept these chemical finishes and in some cases, it’s actually encouraged to use them. To avoid them, you need to specifically select products that haven’t been chemically finished.

What To Wear Instead

If you truly want to protect your health, these are the fabrics to stock in your wardrobe:

  • Tencel, made from the cellulose naturally extracted from eucalyptus trees (which grow fast)
  • Organic cotton
  • Wool  dyed without harmful chemicals such as chlorine bleach, formaldehyde and heavy metals
  • Alpaca
  • Silk

Again, it’s important to stress that all of these should be naturally dyed. If you can only choose a few items that are 100% toxin free, I’d suggest going with underwear and jeans, as these sit close to the body and the latter are normally dyed with seriously toxic colours that have been known to seep into skin.

You Won’t Drop Dead Immediately, But…

Sure, the concentration of chemicals found in clothing may not cause immediate, acute toxic problems for the wearer in the short-term (though that is possible), but what about the long term impact on human health? This is unexplored territory. There’s been little research done on the topic (although that’s changing slowly), and right now many industry insiders dismiss this line of inquiry as a non-issue. I think that will change!

Regardless, it certainly gives credit to the argument that organic or more natural and less chemical fabrics, aren’t just better for the environment, but also better for our health.  Take as an example your  sports bra, designed to fit tightly on the breasts, sitting tightly near the lymph glands, interacting with the skin during high friction movement, in warm, moist environments. Sweat and friction during exercise could prompt more rapid absorption of these toxins through your skin’s pores into your body. The potential health risk is not unlike that presented by deodorants containing aluminum. So, doesn’t it make sense to wear organic lingerie and sports clothing? The same would apply to men and their exercise wear: could the rise in testicular cancer be related to toxic workout gear?

These are questions we all need to keep asking. In my opinion, I don’t eat toxic chemicals, so I won’t wear them, either.

All images by Reve en Vert, an online retailer that sells non-toxic clothing, and Nido, a wool based fashion company using only natural dyes. Last image, by toxic-dye free brand  FROM  clothing.

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