Toxic chemicals in clothing: Is your wardrobe making you sick?

Whether you buy them at a high-end boutique or at the supermarket, escaping the harmful substances that hide in today’s clothes is practically impossible

Toxic chemicals in clothing

When she was 15, the daughter of Azucena Pérez began to pay more attention to the clothes she wore. However, unlike other girls her age, her intention was not to follow the fashion trends or pick whatever suited her best, but rather to examine the labels. “Everything made her itch a lot, she would get welts, burning throat, shortness of breath,” says the mother, who tenaciously washed her clothes and put them in vinegar to disinfect them, to no avail.

One day, her reaction was so strong that she suffered anaphylaxis. “That’s when we began to talk to doctors and discovered the toxins in clothes, and how they affect the skin,” explains Azucena. “We changed everything to organic cotton, not just the clothes, but also the sheets, the mattress, the sofa…” Over time they learned that the problem was called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome, a disorder that causes a greater reaction to the chemicals present in food, the environment or textiles.

When talking about the harmful effects of the textile industry, one usually thinks of the exposure of factory workers, or the pollution generated by their production and waste. However, less is known about the effects of the chemical compounds present in the fabrics, which enter the body upon contact with the skin, going through its different layers and even reaching the bloodstream, organs and tissues.

Formaldehyde to reduce wrinkles, phthalates and alkylphenols to soften the fabric, perfluorinated compounds to repel water and stains, heavy metals for coloring, flame retardants, pesticides, bisphenol A and more; the list of substances that can be found in the clothes we wear every day can include more than 600 chemical elements, and there is increasingly more evidence of their effects, such as allergic reactions, cancer, obesity or hormonal alterations like hyperthyroidism or diabetes. But when did clothes become so full of harmful ingredients?

Oil clothing

Everything began to change in the 1970s. The oil boom gave rise to new materials that revolutionized the products we use, including polyester fabrics such as Tergal and Dacron. Polyester is derived from the same PET (polyethylene terephthalate) with which beverage containers are made; in other words, the only difference between a polyester skirt and a bottle of Coke is that the plastic is fiber or laminated. It is estimated that a polyester T-shirt carries the equivalent to five two-liter bottles, while a sweater would be about 20. Ten square feet of carpet, no less than 40.

Around the same time appeared nylon, then rayon, synthetic cellulose and more, to the point in which most fabrics began to be derived from oil. Polyester alone represents 54% of the fibers used today in the textile industry; 69% if extended to all synthetics. But the problem does not lie only in the composition. A lot of chemicals are needed to make this material wearable, to make it comfortable, to prevent it from catching fire, to prevent it from itching and more. The problem is that polyester fragments into microplastics. That is when things get complicated.

Joaquim Rovira from the Institut d’Investigació Sanitària Pere Virgili in Barcelona, Spain, is part of a research group that has been analyzing the composition of different clothing items since 2017, discovering all kinds of new components. They found that sportswear is full of silver nanoparticles that prevent it from emitting an odor – at a very high cost. “The bad smell doesn’t come from our sweat, but from the bacteria that eat our sweat and transform it, which is why the industry uses nanoparticles to kill them,” the researcher explains to EL PAÍS. “The problem is that it destroys both the bad and the good bacteria, that is, the natural flora that protects the skin. And if we kill the good bacteria, other, pathogenic bacteria can replace them, causing a greater risk of infections and complications.”

Other toxic elements that they have found are perfluorinated compounds, which can cause babies to be born with low birth weight or kidney problems, as well as being related to infertility; and antimony, listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen. Between 20% and 30% can be absorbed through the skin, but is used as a catalyst to make plastic straps.

From the perspective of the consumer, there is little escape: in their analyzes they have not found any differences between the composition of the clothes of recognized brands, popular chains or those that can be bought in the supermarket. “Neither if it was produced in Portugal, Italy or in Asian countries,” adds Rovira. There are also no differences between regular clothing and specific clothing for babies or pregnant women.

A study published in 2022 by the Center for environmental Health found that the levels of Bisphenol A in the socks made by more than 100 brands – including Adidas, New Balance and Reebok – exceeded the safe limit dictated by California law by up to 31 times. Greenpeace has also devoted years to analyzing the textiles of various chains, finding toxic concentrations in some of the best known.

An unstoppable industry

The textile industry is the second most polluting on the planet, only behind the oil industry. Every year this sector creates more than 100,000 million new garments, a rate that requires a very different type of manufacturing from the one that was in place only 50 years ago – but it also moves $2.5 trillion a year, which makes it harder to regulate.

For Nicolas Olea, professor of radiology and physical medicine at the University of Granada and another of the few experts on this subject, in this sector planned obsolescence “is called fashion,” and it also has an impact on the risk that we currently face. “Fashion, being so fast, causes textiles to be of increasingly worse quality, because they are not going to be worn much,” he explains.

Except for the cases of chemical sensitivity, the harmful effects that clothing have on the body usually do not manifest until they have already caused a serious disease such as cancer, hyperthyroidism or even attention deficit. And the cause-and-effect relationship is always complicated in a world that is increasingly filled with chemicals. “Right now we are seeing many infertility issues due to endocrine disruptors. I’m not saying it’s because of the clothes, but it’s clear that the chemicals have an influence,” says Rovira.

However, some things can be done to reduce the risks. A very simple measure is to wash your clothes before wearing them for the first time to remove the labile substances that they carry. According to the experts, lighter colored clothing is “healthier,” as it contains fewer dyes, and 100% cotton and other natural fibers are preferable, especially if they are organic (otherwise, they could have been treated with the same chemicals as the polyester ones).

“You have to favor brands marketed as sustainable and ecological; everything else is made in the same production chain as the fast fashion,” explains Paloma G. López, director of the Spanish Association for Sustainability, Innovation and Circularity in Fashion. “This is how you make sure that they were made in closed, sustainable water circuits, with dyes of vegetable origin or that don’t exceed the stipulated limits.” The expert in sustainable clothing also recommends washing and ironing clothes less, because this releases the toxins and microfibers that come off the polyester and fill the seabed. “If you wear cotton clothes, you can air them out and wear them again because they don’t smell, they breathe very well.”

A recent resource for those consumers who are more aware of sustainability are the garments made from recycled plastic. However, according to Olea, there is not much of a solution here: in addition to the pollution caused by washing, sterilizing, bleaching and making new fibers, they affect the body in exactly the same way. “And there have been cases in which companies buy new bottles to make clothes and then say that it is recycled, so it’s also useless for the environment,” says the expert, who is more in favor of giving garments a longer life, buying clothes made with better quality fabrics and reusing.

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