Do you remember that incident back in 2017, where thousands of American Airlines flight attendants, ticketing agents, and pilots became ill after putting on their new uniforms? While some suffered only rashes or hives, others had difficulty breathing and at least one woman’s eyes swelled shut. Worse yet, many ended up in the emergency room.
It was also reported that even the passengers were getting sick just from being in close proximity to a flight attendant wearing the uniform. That’s pretty serious.
This may sound like an extreme example of how dangerous the toxins in our clothing can be. But skin sensitivities and allergic reactions (called ‘contact dermatitis’) to even low levels of manufacturing chemicals in our clothing are more common than you’d think. If you’ve ever experienced unexplained skin rashes or itchiness that seem to go away when you change your clothing, it’s time to take a serious look at what’s in your closet.
In this article:
- Washing new clothing isn’t enough
- How toxins get into our clothing
- Natural clothing alternatives
- Washing new & vintage clothing without toxins
Washing new clothing isn’t enough
Like many folks these days, I prefer to order my clothing online rather than visit an actual store. I love the convenience. But what I don’t love is being knocked out by that sudden waft of chemicals when I rip open the packaging.
I aim to buy non-toxic clothing made from organic cotton, hemp, linen, and wool, whenever I can, so I don’t experience this very often anymore. That’s because the brands that make their clothing with these natural fabrics tend to do so without adding toxic chemicals to their manufacturing process. That said, I do buy ‘regular’ stuff on occasion and, for some reason, I’m still surprised when I open the bag and get hit with the fumes.
Sure, I can’t always smell those fumes after a while, but the thing is, they’re still there. This is a problem because many of the chemicals used to manufacture, dye, and finish these textiles are known skin irritants. And they don’t always come out in the wash.
For context, let’s quickly list the ways toxins make their way into our clothing in the first place. Then we’ll cover a few easy things you can do to keep your wardrobe toxin-free, as well as how to remove any chemicals that stick around, even after a wash.
How toxins get into our clothing
How does something like this happen? Toxins can make their way into our clothing a few ways:
- Man-made fabrics such as polyester, rayon, spandex, and nylon are made from synthetically derived fibers. These fabrics also tend to be manufactured with harsh chemical additives.
- Fabrics made from natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, are often sprayed with harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. These biocides can persist, even as the raw fibers are manufactured into fabrics and then into the finished product. (This is why I stick to organic cotton clothing.)
- Manufacturers often use ammonia, formaldehyde, VOCs, and other toxins to keep fabrics wrinkle-free, stain-free, odor-free, mold and mildew resistant, flame-retardant, and waterproof.
- Textiles are also bleached with chlorine, and dyed or printed with a host of chemicals and heavy metals.
- Zippers, snaps, buttons, bra hooks, and other metallic closures sometimes contain nickel, which can cause a skin reaction for many.
Natural clothing alternatives
To ensure your clothing isn’t laden with harsh chemicals, start by looking for fabrics made from natural fibers that are grown or raised without pesticides or other biocides.
- organic cotton
- modal (from sustainably harvested beech trees)
- eucalyptus (often listed as tencel or lyocell)
From fiber and yarn to the finished product, each stage of manufacturing should also be free from:
- chlorine bleach
- heavy metals (including nickel in the zippers, snaps, etc)
- other toxins that allow brands to market these seemingly beneficial properties such as wrinkle-proof, stain-proof, cooling technology, etc.
You can also choose products that are certified to be safe. The big names in certified textiles include:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Pact Organics (GOTS Certified Cotton)
While both Greenguard and OEKO-TEX are known to cover every stage of production from fiber to finishing, GOTS goes even further to cover the social aspects of manufacturing, such as worker safety, fair wages, and child-free labor.
Certifications can be expensive and many brands, particularly smaller brands, cannot afford them. I always check the ‘about’ page(s) on the brand’s website to learn more about their fabrics and manufacturing process, as well as to see what they say (if anything) about their workers and working conditions.
Not everyone shares this kind of information, but thoughtful brands who are making the effort to do things differently don’t feel the need to hide anything. In fact, they are proud to tell you about their sourcing partners, manufacturing process, and labor practices. Many will even post photos and videos, so you can see for yourself.
If this information isn’t front and center, consider choosing another brand.
A note on wool allergies
Wool is considered a safe natural alternative for nearly everyone, however, some folks are sensitive – or outright allergic – to it. That said, wool allergies are apparently quite rare. Those sensitive to wool can become itchy and red where the fabric has touched the skin. However, many believe the irritation is often the result of coarse, low-quality wool, rather than from an allergy or sensitivity to the wool itself.
Wearers can also be sensitive to the chemicals sprayed on the sheep to keep it pest-free, or in the dyes and finishes used in the manufacturing process. Just something to keep in mind, if you’ve had bad reactions to wool in the past.
What about bamboo clothing and sheets?
When bamboo is used an eco-alternative to hardwood for things like flooring and cabinets, it can be processed without harsh chemicals – or, at least, with far fewer than particle board and other wood alternatives.
However, you may be surprised to know that bamboo is not always the eco-alternative that it’s marketed to be for clothing, towels, sheets, and blankets. Why? Because bamboo stalks are exceptionally strong and they need to be heavily processed in order to make the fibers soft enough to be used as a fabric. This is often** accomplished with harsh chemicals and by the time it is transformed into a fabric, very little of the original bamboo remains.
** I say “often” because there are a few brands that claim their processing is not chemical-laden, but I have not (yet) prioritized researching these brands.
That said, there is a similarly soft fabric called Tencel (or ECOlyptus) that is made from the cellulose of the eucalyptus tree. Unlike bamboo, processing the eucalyptus is done without toxins. However, do keep in mind that while the initial Tencel manufacturing may be completely fine (personally, I love Tencel), you should always check the label or the brand’s website to make sure they don’t dye or finish their fabrics with toxins after the fact.
Organic Basics (Ethical Labor + Organic Standards)
Washing new & vintage clothing without toxins
Older vintage clothing may have been manufactured with fewer chemicals than they would be today, and any off-gassing of chemicals would have washed out by the time you bought them. However, these older fabrics often accumulate germs, mold, and/or mildew over time. Even folks who aren’t usually sensitive to chemicals can find themselves with a nasty skin rash after spending some time in the thrift store fitting room.
Sensitive or not, it’s important to always wash both vintage AND new clothing before wearing them. But even a good washing doesn’t guarantee to remove all the chemicals. You also have to be careful to use toxin-free laundry detergents, softeners, and whiteners to keep your clothing and linens free from contaminants.
For “regular” laundry, I use:
- Soapnuts as a natural detergent: Soapnuts grow on the sapindus mukorossi (soapberry) tree in the Himalayas and their shells contain a natural soap, called saponin. Just throw 5 or 6 into a small linen bag (that usually comes with the soapnuts), toss them into the washer with your laundry, and wash, as usual.
- Baking soda to boost efficacy (optional): If I have some extra sweaty gym clothes or musty towels, I’ll sprinkle 1/2 a cup of baking soda over the top of my laundry to boost the cleaning power of the soapnuts.
- White vinegar to soften (optional): I mostly use wool dryer balls (below) on their own to soften my laundry, but occasionally I’ll pour 1/2 to 1 cup of white vinegar into the liquid fabric softener compartment of my washing machine. I do this because the vinegar not only helps to soften the laundry, but it also helps to brighten colors (just like it does for Easter eggs), as well as whiten whites.
- Oxygen bleach to whiten: I hate the smell and the chemicals left behind by chlorine bleach, so I use oxygen bleaches instead. The main ingredients – and often the only ingredients – in oxygen bleaches are hydrogen peroxide (hydrogen + oxygen) and sodium carbonate, also known as “washing soda” or “soda ash”.
- Wool dryer balls to soften: Man, these are one of my favorite discoveries of all time! Everything else I’ve listed above goes into the washer. These go into the dryer. Toss in 2 or 3 wool dryer balls in place of dryer sheets and dry as usual. You can reuse them for months, so not only do they eliminate the harsh chemicals typically found in liquid softeners and dryer sheets, but they are also incredibly cost-effective.
When “regular” washing isn’t enough
New clothing is often steeped in manufacturing toxins that can be almost impossible to remove with regular cleaning. Likewise, vintage clothing (and your own clothing that has been seasonally stored in the attic or basement) can accumulate bacteria and mildew over time.
During my research to find a stronger solution that still doesn’t have chemicals, I found a company called EnviroKlenz. These folks use an advanced mineral technology that neutralizes both the chemical and biological (sweat, mold) odors from laundry.
I’ve used EnviroKlenz on my laundry a few times and it’s pretty amazing. In their reviews, some folks say they pre-soak their clothes in a bucket of water + EnviroKlenz before washing for exceptionally strong smells. But they often say they’ve tried pre-soaking with baking soda or vinegar in the past and it didn’t work. So even when the odors require a little extra effort, they all say EnviroKlenz does the trick where the other solutions had failed.
EnviroKlenz (Odor Neutralizing Minerals)
It’s worth the effort
Sure, this can be a lot to think about every time you shop for new clothes. But it does become second nature after a while, as you accumulate a list of healthier brands that you love.
Plus, I like to think of it as voting each time I buy something. I figure, my wallet is filled with a bunch of ballots, right? So each time I resist buying some ‘fast fashion’ item and make the effort to find a natural alternative instead, the more I feel like I’ve voted for a ‘slower’, healthier company to win this crazy race.
I say, let’s all vote for natural, toxin-free clothing every time and keep those nasty chemicals out of our closets — and away from our skin.