Textiles are a huge part of our everyday lives—we use them to dry ourselves off from the shower, we clothe our bodies with them, and we sleep inside them when we go to bed at night. For many of us, we may have never given a second thought to the blanket on our bed or our favorite tee—but have you ever stopped to wonder… what’s this product made from? And, does that even matter?
The Problem It turns out that fabric and textiles are not as straightforward as we may think. We wrap ourselves in materials that sit on our skin. Our skin, the dermal layer, is actually the bodies’ largest organ. Some of the chemicals used in the production process are skin irritants, while others may have inhalation risks and may cause environmental harm.
Toxic Chemicals in Fabric & Textiles Understanding what is behind the tag matters—especially for fabrics that come into such close contact with our skin such as apparel, bedding, sofa cushions and more. Read on for some of the chemicals of concern that commonly show up in textiles and, particularly in the clothes we wear.
- Pesticide residues – Linked to cancer. Pesticides have been detected in products made with conventionally grown cotton. Glyphosate, a commonly used pesticide in agricultural applications, has recently been deemed by the EPA likely harmful to endangered plants and animals, and has the potential to contaminate groundwater, which raises concerns about the chemical’s ubiquity in natural water sources as well as drinking water.
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – PFAS denotes a group of thousands of substances prized for their ability to repel liquid and various stains. This class of chemicals has been associated with cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive and developmental harm. The PFAS category of chemicals are often called “forever chemicals” because they are persistent pollutants, meaning they don’t readily break down in the environment. Not surprisingly, some PFAS have consequently been found to accumulate in the human body, with one 2007 study finding PFOA (a type of PFAS chemical) in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans.
- Synthetic fibers – Nylon, rayon, spandex, acrylic, and polyester are all examples of synthetic fibers. These materials are derived from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable. When washed, synthetic fibers shed microplastic fibers, which then contaminate our waterways and harm aquatic life. This paired with a lack of biodegradability makes synthetic fibers a large contributor to plastic pollution. Lastly, synthetic fabrics tend to be less breathable than natural ones. You would never cover your head with a plastic bag – should you cover your skin with it?
Tips for Choosing Better Fabric & Textiles By shopping smarter, there are ways to reduce exposure to these substances in clothing and textiles, while also doing your skin and health a favor and reducing your consumption of the fast fashion clothing items that contribute to environmental harm.
- Shop the MADE SAFE® seal to ensure the product has been fully vetted for substances known or suspected to cause human and ecosystem harm. We have certified hundreds of textile items for everyday living.
- Look for fabrics and textiles made with natural materials such as organic cotton, linen, hemp, and responsibly sourced wool and silk.
- If you purchase conventional cotton, wash it with a nontoxic laundry detergent prior to use.
- Avoid clothing that may have been treated with PFAS or other chemicals by steering clear of claims like “no wrinkle” or “stain resistant.”
- Say no to fast fashion (cheaply made clothing that typically doesn’t last long).
- Focus on buying higher quality long-term pieces that will last longer and contribute less to pollution.
- Buy vintage or thrifted to support a culture of reuse. Shopping secondhand can be gratifying and affordable.
- Consider donating apparel and textile items that still have life in them rather than throwing them away.