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.
• A formaldehyde product is often applied to prevent shrinkage. This product is applied with heat so it is trapped in the fiber permanently.
• Petrochemical dyes, which pollute waterways, are used for color.
• Chemicals are added to make clothing softer, wrinkle-free, fire-retardant, moth-repellant and stain-resistant.
• Commonly used chemicals include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dioxin-producing bleach.
• Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals, whose production creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that's 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
• Rayon is made from wood pulp that has been treated with chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphuric acid.
• Dye fixatives used in fabrics often come from heavy metals and pollute water systems.
• Acrylic fabrics are polycrylonitriles, which may be carcinogenic.
• Clothing and fabric that is treated with flame-retardant chemicals, such as children's pajamas, emit formaldehyde gas.
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.
So what do you need to be most concerned about and to avoid?
• Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – associated with cancer risks, usually occurring in the human prostate, pancreas, liver and bladder.
They are used to achieve wrinkle-free, non-iron clothing, often advertised as 'Teflon coated' and very widely used in children's clothes and school uniforms – which is very concerning for 'concerned' parents as it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to get uniforms which are not made from these fabrics.
• Formaldehyde – often used to pre-shrink materials. Although use is regulated, it can be trapped by the heat processing in the fabric.
See this article in the Daily Mail illustrating how devastating formaldehyde sensitivity connected to clothing can be.
• 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.
The Greenpeace Dirty Laundry report found that, of 78 items of clothing from common high street brands, 52 (two thirds) tested positive for NPEs.
• 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.
For those who are concerned about environmental damage, these fabrics should also be avoided as they make use of petrochemicals and, according to the Bright Hub website, may be capable of emitting greenhouse gases at more than three hundred times the rate of carbon dioxide.
So, what to do?
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.
For more see the articles quoted above or:
Natural News September 1st 2012
Choice – Chemicals in clothing - re Australia
The Guardian – Ethical Living July 2012
Sarah D – chemicals in fabric dyes
First published in September 2012
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