The next time you break out in a rash, instead of wondering if you ate the wrong food, maybe ask if you are wearing the wrong clothes.
Toxic fabrics have been linked to all sorts of health issues ranging from bad body odor and skin rashes to kidney failure and cancer. Not convinced? Read this update on how badly chemically-laden uniforms have affected airline staff.
With all the eco-friendly and non-toxic clothing on the market, why expose yourself unnecessarily to toxic fabrics?
Here are the most toxic fabrics to avoid when clothes shopping.
Most toxic fabrics to avoid
Polyester is the number one worst fabric for you. It’s also used extensively in clothing, especially for sportswear.
It’s a fully synthetic fabric made from petrochemicals. The finished product undergoes more chemical treatment to make it wrinkle-resistant, stain-resistant, waterproof etc.
When you buy polyester clothing, it comes complete with toxins embedded in the fibers. These chemicals can never be washed away. These toxins are known to cause cancer, hormonal imbalances and reduced sperm counts (Singh and Balla, 2017).
Read: Is recycled polyester safe to wear?
Rayon is a generic name for any fabric that is made by processing plant materials. Toxic chemicals like caustic soda, bleach, acids and titanium dioxide are used to produce the silky fabric we know.
These chemicals can linger on in rayon clothing causing nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest and muscle pain and insomnia (Singh and Balla, 2017).
Rayon can be manipulated to imitate silk, cotton or wool. If you look at the labels of your casual and work clothes, chances are most of them are some version of rayon.
Acrylic is made from acrylonitrile which can cause cancer. Highly toxic chemicals are used to manufacture acrylic fabric including dimethylformamide (DMF). DMF is easily absorbed through your skin and can cause liver damage, cancer and other health issues. Acrylic manufacturing is so toxic that the CDC produced a safety alert.
You will generally find acrylic in knits. Fast fashion brands often use acrylic to replace wool as it is much cheaper.
Toxic chemicals like carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid are used to convert rough raw bamboo fiber to the soft bamboo fabric that we know and love. These chemicals have can negatively affect our reproductive systems.
Conventional cotton is grown with genetically modified seeds and heavy pesticide use. Many finished cotton products have been found to contain chemicals like bleach, formaldehyde, PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), ammonia and heavy metals.
What makes cotton even worst for us is that it’s often sold as ‘natural’ and ‘better for you’. I bought a shit load of 100% cotton clothing before finding out how bad they were for me.
Further reading: Organic cotton vs cotton: Why is organic cotton better?
Choose these healthier options instead
Tencel™ lyocell is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics around at the moment. And when you buy the Tencel™ brand of lyocell, you know it is sourced from sustainable FSC-certified forests and OEKO-TEX certified for your safety.
Synergy True Blue Top in 100% woven lyocell chambray
Read my sustainability report on Synergy.
GOTS-certified organic cotton
Organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals and pesticides, which is great. But make sure you buy Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton.
Unfortunately, fast fashion brands greenwash by promoting their use of organically grown cotton. However, they use toxic dyes and chemicals like heavy metals, chlorine, bleach and formaldehyde to manufacture their organic cotton clothing.
If it is GOTS-certified, you know it doesn’t contain any of those harmful chemicals.
prAna 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton dress
Read my detailed review of prAna
Further reading: 8 of the best organic underwear brands that are certified to be safe
Quick links: Best organic cotton bras
OEKO-TEX certified linen
Linen is woven from the flax plant which naturally needs no pesticides or fertilizers. As a natural fiber, linen is breathable and breezy. My mother-in-law who is going through hot flushes with menopause swears by it. Buy OEKO-TEX certified or BlueSign certified linen to make sure your linen clothing wasn’t dyed with toxic chemicals.
3HLinen is a fashion brand from Belarus, producing OEKO-TEX certified textiles from their factory in Ukraine
Organic merino wool
Merino wool is soft and hypo-allergenic, perfect for those with sensitive skin. If you buy organic merino wool, you know that it came from merino sheep that have been raised naturally without chemicals in their diet and no toxic chemicals were used in the wool processing. The down side? It’s crazy expensive.
Hocosa Organic Merino Wool Long-underwear Pants
Hocosa is a Swiss fashion brand whose merino wool is KbT-certified
Check out my comparison of Tencel vs merino wool.
Hemp is one of the oldest fabrics around, and also one of the cleanest. Hemp plants don’t need toxic pesticides to grow. And raw hemp fibers can be made into hemp fabric through mechanical processes that don’t involve chemicals. But this doesn’t stop factories from using toxic chemicals to process hemp quicker and cheaper. That’s why you need to buy organic hemp.
HOCOSA organic cotton/hemp undershirt
Naturally dyed silk
Depending on how you feel about the treatment of silk worms, silk that is naturally dyed is one of the most luxurious safe fabrics around.
Agraire has a beautiful collection of 100% silk scarves, naturally dyed with the Shibori technique.
Buy safer fabrics by doing these checks
- Buy from eco-friendly and ethical brands. Avoid fast fashion brands.
- Look out for brands that use non-toxic dyes. In an investigation, Greenpeace found clothing from global fashion brands contained harmful chemicals.
- Don’t buy any clothing that are promoted as wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, flame-resistant, waterproof, mildew-resistant or cling-free. Not even if they are organically grown natural fabric. Toxic chemicals are used to give them these ‘unnatural powers’.
- Check for certifications like BlueSign, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, and Cradle to Cradle. These certifications ensure that your clothing contains no harmful toxins.
- Always wash your clothes before wearing them.
To wrap up
When it comes to your health and safety, it’s not as simple as looking at clothing labels for ‘safe fabrics’. Fashion brands don’t have to declare chemicals used to dye and treat their clothes. That’s why it’s important to choose certified non-toxic clothing.
- What is Tencel lyocell? - April 16, 2022
- Is yak wool itchy? - April 7, 2022
- What is Tencel lyocell made of? - March 30, 2022
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