Frances Dale does a roundup of information on the web – including what you might wish to avoid while purchasing school uniforms...
Our skin is the largest organ in our body. Although it forms a solid barrier to some substances such as water, others (chemicals, oils, toxins, medications etc) can be absorbed through it (very easily if it has been damaged in any way – such as by eczema) and thereby reach the bloodstream. And the majority of that skin comes into constant, 24-hour-a-day contact with our clothing. So we really need to be aware of what we wear, what it is made from and what might leach out of it and through that skin barrier into our bodies. Moreover, we need not just to think about the one off contact but what might be the cumulative effect of wearing even marginally toxic clothing over a long period of time.
And there are plenty of undesirable chemicals that go into the manufacture of most high street brands, not only of clothing but of bed linen and towels, which also come into constant and very close contact with the skin. Here, for example, is a list from the Rosewood Holistic Health site – who are concerned not only about what chemicals may leach into your skin, but what chemicals may leach into the environment:
• Chemicals are used to make fibers suitable for spinning and weaving.
One of the main problems for anyone concerned about the chemical content of fabrics or clothing in the USA is that the requirements for disclosure are extremely basic – all they need to state is the fibre content (all wool / 65% rayon and 35% polyester etc), the country of origin and the manufacturer.
In Europe clothing manufacturers need to abide the the REACH regulations (Registration Evaluation Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) which are still being rolled out. As of last November (2011) chemicals that are 'carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic to reproduction and produced or imported in quantities of more than one tonne per year; or that are harmful for the environment and produced or imported in quantities of more than 100 tonnes per year' need to be registered. But although this is certainly a significant step in the right direction, it does not as yet translate into information on the label that the consumer can access at point of purchase.
• Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – associated with cancer risks, usually occurring in the human prostate, pancreas, liver and bladder.
• Formaldehyde – often used to pre-shrink materials. Although use is regulated, it can be trapped by the heat processing in the fabric.
• Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) – these are often used as a detergent in clothing manufacture – especially clothing manufacture in China and south east Asia where there is no restriction on its use. NPEs break down into a toxin called nonylphenol which is thought to have hormone-disrupting properties similar to BPA.
• p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) – this is the black dye which has been implicated in a number of severe allergic reactions to hair dye in which it is also used. It is used in black clothes and in leather dyes.
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) – used to create fire-retardant, stain resistant and moth repellant clothing. These chemicals bioaccumulate in all living tissue and are most commonly associated with thyroid and hormone disorders.Tthey are also thought negatively affect a child's brain development and their effects are thought to be irreversible.
• Acrylic fibres – acrylic , polyester, rayon, acetate, triacetate, nylon. They use the chemical polycrylonitriles which, in high concentrations such as might be absorbed by those working with the fabrics, cause irritation, anaemia, nausea, leukocytosis, mild jaundice and kidney damage. It is also thought that concentrations that might merely be irritating for an adult could be fatal for a child.
Well, ideally, only wear or use natural fabrics, preferably organic and, in the case of cotton, non-genetically modified – and avoid any fabrics that may have been treated to be any of the things listed above. Easier said than done if you wish to shop relatively cheaply or wear many of the popular high street brands.
If you cannot bring yourself to entirely eschew any of the above, then make sure that you wash all clothes, sheets or towels at least three times before you wear them - and do NOT use any kind of fabric softener or 'improver' in your wash/dry as these will also be chemical based and will bind to the clothes, as that is how they 'soften' them.
First published in September 2012