The problem with new clothing is that the fabric it’s made from is often chock-full of toxic chemicals. And it’s not just new clothing — it’s towels, sheets, rugs, and other everyday textiles that we lay against our skin.
This is important to know, because many of the chemicals used to manufacture, dye and finish these textiles are known skin irritants and they don’t always wash out in the laundry. Unfortunately, the continued demand for fast, cheap fashion means this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. And it doesn’t just affect the chemically sensitive.
You may remember an incident in 2017 where thousands of American Airlines flight attendants and ticketing agents, along with about 200 pilots, became ill after donning their new uniforms. While some suffered rashes or hives, others had difficulty breathing and at least one woman’s eyes swelled shut. Many ended up in the emergency room.
It was also reported that passengers were getting sick just by being in close proximity to a flight attendant wearing the uniform. That’s pretty serious.
How toxins get into our clothing
How does something like this happen? Here’s a quick breakdown of how the toxins get into our clothing and linens:.
- Man-made fabrics such as polyester, rayon, spandex, and nylon are made from synthetically derived fibers and are often 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.
- 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 dyed, bleached with chlorine, 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.
What about thrift store purchases? While older vintage clothing and upholstery 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, the older fabrics often accumulate germs, mold, and/ or mildew over time.
As I mentioned earlier, these contaminants aren’t just an issue for the chemically sensitive. Even folks who don’t normally experience sensitivity issues with everyday chemicals can find themselves with a nasty skin rash after spending some time in the department store (or thrift store) fitting room.
Sensitive or not, it’s always important to wash both new and vintage 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 ensure your clothing and linens stay free from contaminants.
To ensure your clothing, bedding, towels, and rugs aren’t laden with harsh chemicals, start by looking for fabrics made from natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and wool, that are grown or raised without pesticides or other biocides. From fiber and yarn to the finished product, each stage of manufacturing should also be free from formaldehyde, chlorine bleach, heavy metals, and other toxins.
You can also choose products that are certified to be safe. The big names in certified textiles include OEKO-TEX, Greenguard, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). 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 a brand’s website to learn more about their fabrics and manufacturing process, as well as see what, if anything, they say 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.
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 with far fewer than particle board and other wood alternatives.
However, you may be surprised to know that it 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 okay, 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.
What about wool allergies?
Wool allergies do exist, but 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 may be the result of coarse, low quality wool, rather than from a wool allergy. 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.