Could your clothing be harming your health?
“Beyond the visible is invisible.” - Lailah Gifty Akita.
That outfit looks great on you, but would you wear it if you knew it was putting your body at risk of getting sick?
Unless you’re walking around naked, you’re wearing clothes 24/7. And while you could be living an otherwise “healthy” lifestyle, you can still be exposed to toxins used in our modern society, including harmful chemicals used in your clothing.
There are over 8,000 synthetic chemicals used in the apparel industry, most of which contain known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. And while we may “know” this is happening, it’s not something most people actively think about, so it remains as part of our cultural norms.
But “normal” it is not.
Our skin is our body’s largest organ. Many health-conscious parents seek out natural fiber options for their babies, and for good reason. It is well documented that toxins used in children’s clothing can affect their genetic expression and health long term.
While babies are particularly susceptible, as adults, clothing treated with chemicals can affect us too. And while it may not be as apparent as an immediate rash, the long term consequences on our health should cause reason for alarm.
Today we are going to explore what chemicals you need to be aware of, and how they may be affecting your health. We will also share some shopping tips so that you can feel confident and empowered that your clothing is safe and dollars are being spent to support conscious brands that uphold the standards you want to see in the world.
Chasing perfect - not what nature intended
Wrinkles, static, stains, oh my! All things you would rather not experience in your clothing.
Spill your red wine? No worries, that stain can be prevented with a little formaldehyde - you know, the same substance they use to embalm dead people.
Shocking, we know, but sadly things like formaldehyde, pesticides, and other CANCER-CAUSING chemicals, banned in Europe but legal to use on clothing in the US, exist on a mass scale and are being sold to millions of people every day. Toxins used on clothing is so common, you probably have a few of those chemically-treated clothes in your closet.How did chemicals become a cultural norm? It turns out, chemicals were first used to make clothing safer to wear. Instead of the threat of an outfit catching fire from a nearby flame, we were able to treat those garments with a chemical spray that would protect the wearer. Around the same time, it was discovered that chemicals - fossil fuels - could also be used to create synthetic fabrics, which were needed to supplement the demands for mass production.
Leap forward to today, and toxic chemicals are used to make clothing wrinkle-free, shrink-resistant, flame-resistant, waterproof, stain-resistant, mildew-resistant, or cling-free. Many textiles now contain chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), ammonia, and/or other harmful chemicals.
That was before we knew the damage it was doing to our health and our environment.
But before you go tossing out your wardrobe in a panic, let’s all take a collective deep breath of chemical-free fresh air. Because chasing perfection is what got us here in the first place.
In our quest for achieving the “perfect” garment, we have created a system that is encouraged and paid to produce chemically-laden clothing.
Perfection is not the goal. Next to natural is. So let’s take a deep dive into what you need to know about chemicals used in clothing, so you can make informed decisions the next time you go shopping. Knowledge is empowering, and the goal is to stack the odds in your favor, one informed decision at a time.
The dirt on your clothes
The apparel industry is a dirty business. The fashion industry emits 10% of global greenhouse gases. Pesticides and chemicals used in the production of conventional clothing make up 20 percent of global insecticide emissions. From the factory floors where workers are exposed to toxic substances and fumes, to the runoff of dyes and corrosive finishing products that flow into our water sources and agricultural systems, it’s a complex industry that ends up producing clothing that pollutes our environment and our bodies.
The good news is, awareness is the first step. And because it would be overwhelming to try to change the entire toxic system, instead, we recommend you start just by taking a look inside your closet.
Toxic chemicals you should avoid
“Fast fashion is not free, someone, somewhere is paying.” - Lucy Siegle
We’ve identified the most toxic substances used in the production of clothes. These include carcinogens and hormone disruptors which should be banned but are not. A study by Greenpeace showed that 63% of the items tested from major brands contained hazardous chemicals.
Today we are going to identify the worst offenders, why you need to avoid them, and then offer a few tips to help you shop smarter. Keep this list for future reference and share it with your friends so we can keep this important conversation top of mind.
Pesticides & Insecticides
Roundup, also known as glyphosate, is used on a mass scale in conventionally grown crops, including non-organic vegetables, grains, and conventionally grown cotton. The cotton industry alone is responsible for administering 10% of the entire world’s pesticides and 25% for all the world’s insecticides.
And while you may think of cotton as “natural”, it’s quite UNnatural to know that studies have linked exposure to certain pesticides used on cotton to cause cancers like leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Pesticides in food and clothing have also been linked to autism risk in infants and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and young teens.
Certified organic cotton, on the other hand, is grown GMO-free, and is never treated with fungicides, synthetic pesticides, or fertilizers. Additionally, it requires 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy to produce than conventionally grown cotton, so it’s safe for the planet, and to wear next to your skin.
To avoid pesticides and insecticides completely, seek out GOTS and OEKO-TEX certified clothing only. GOTS is the standard Nui uses that is the highest worldwide standard for the processing of organic fibers. It is a comprehensive standard that covers the entire textile chain—from the sustainable, ethical harvesting of organically grown plants through eco-friendly and socially responsible manufacturing and labeling practices.
Despite documented research about flame retardants being linked to thyroid cancer, ADHD, slower brain development, and decreases in children's IQs, at the time of this article, usage of them is only regulated in 13 US states.
To us, that is unacceptable. Also unacceptable are the estimated 90% of Americans that have detectable levels of flame retardant chemicals in their bloodstream.
But you have a choice. Merino wool is NATURALLY flame retardant. This magical fiber does not require additional chemical treatments to keep you or your child safe. Additionally, merino wool is breathable, anti-microbial, and temperature regulating, which makes it the perfect fiber to wear day or night, summer or winter.
You may be singing in the rain, but if you’re wearing a chemical-laden waterproof raincoat, that song may just be a sad one.
While having a "waterproof" or "stain-resistant" jacket might seem necessary, you probably would rather get wet if you knew the danger of the polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that is used to make that jacket waterproof.
PFAS became popular in the US around the 1940s when manufacturing companies realized this chemical compound could resist heat, grease, stains, and water. The industry, in their carelessness and lack of environmental foresight, even named them "forever chemicals'' since they can linger in the environment for thousands of years.
“The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight but no vision.” - Helen Keller
These aptly named “forever chemicals” have been associated with kidney and testicular cancers, liver damage, and developmental issues. And because this information is now public, if the company that sold you your waterproof jacket is NOT talking about not being toxic, then chances are it is. To avoid PFAS, avoid labels that contain the words GoreTex or Teflon that signal the presence of PFAS, which are commonly found in outdoor gear and "moisture-wicking" apparel. Seek out outdoor natural brands like North Face or Patagonia, who innovate using recycled bottles and other safe materials to manufacture naturally waterproof garments that keep you dry and safe.
Love the smell of new clothing? You may want to think again on that when you realize that the “new clothing smell” is actually formaldehyde. The same substance used to embalm dead people is also used to keep clothing wrinkle-free, prevent mildew, wrinkling and parasites during shipping.
While it is recommended to always wash new clothing to diminish the impact of chemicals used during the production of the garment, it’s even better to remove the chances of exposure altogether.
Does that mean you’ll have to learn to love ironing? You’ll be happy to know that Mother Nature has your back. It’s called Tencel, a type of rayon made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus that is more resistant to wrinkling (and a fabric Nui is adding in the spring!)
Referred to as a “regenerated cellulose fiber”, Tencel is made in a closed-loop process that has high resource efficiency and low environmental impact.
Phthalates are often used in clothing to make them more durable and flexible. They are known toxins that were banned from usage in toys and children's products in 2008 - but the usage in clothing and other products continues.
Phthalates are found in jeans, raincoats, artificial leather, and workout gear that has been printed or dyed in the design process. The chemicals have been linked to ADHD, asthma, diabetes, and breast cancer, obesity, along with several reproductive issues, lowered testosterone in men, and endometriosis in women.
We find it alarming that, despite the studies linking Phthalates to the above medical conditions, the CDC has said that the human health effects of phthalates are "unknown," but "exposure is widespread" in the US.
As they are not labeled on clothing, the best way to avoid them is to seek out organic and natural fiber clothing, and as always, demand more from the clothing you buy.
Workout gear & antibacterial fabrics
Hand sanitizer anyone?
In today’s germaphobic society, marketers have made us believe that everything we touch is dirty. And in an effort to try to be “clean enough”, we’re killing our immune systems and in fact, killing ourselves with clothing and products that are supposed to keep us clean and dry.
Our bodies are made of tiny microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and viruses. Knowing that there are ten times more microbes in your body than there are human cells, makes it illogical for people to seek out clothing treated with dangerous chemicals to make fabrics “anti-bacterial”.These chemicals, including one called triclosan, have been proven to cause liver cancer in mice; and the usage of the nanoparticle silver, to give clothing “anti-odor” properties have been linked to hormone disruption and DNA damage.
Instead, after you walk in the dirt (to expose yourself to the bacteria needed to help build your immune system), you can seek out naturally anti-microbial and anti-odor fabrics such as Merino Wool, and Tencel, aforementioned for their high tenacity and absorbance.
Synthetic & performance fabrics
Sitting in a pool of trapped sweat.
Sounds horrible, but imagine wearing a polyester shirt on a hot day and you would know the feeling first hand. Our skin releases up to 1 lb. of toxins per day. Petrochemical fibers like nylon, polyester, acrylic, acetate, or triacetate block that toxin release.
In fact, “moisture-wicking” or “performance fabrics” are fancy marketing terms applied to synthetic fabrics doused in chemicals to make them “perform”. These treated synthetic fabrics can cause everything from headaches and nausea to skin rashes, and respiratory problems. Synthetic undergarments have also been said to contribute to infertility in men.
Add in the 750,000 microplastics that are shedded from synthetic fabrics with every load of laundry, and you’ll find out why nylon, acrylic and polyester are found in 83% of the world’s drinking water.
We rather like our clothing and ourselves to breathe, and we don’t need them to perform like circus animals.
Black, azo dyed fabrics
Despite being linked to cancer, in the United States, there are no specific regulations that explicitly restrict “azo dyes''. Dark colors, particularly black, and synthetic indigo used to make blue jeans blue, is made from a chemical solution that includes formaldehyde, which is not only harmful to humans, but to the environment when discharged after dyeing.
It is estimated that 20% of our planet’s industrial water pollution comes from the dyeing and finishing processes of textiles.
Instead, seek out brands that use plant-based, azo-free dyes. Nature is our guide, both in color and color sourcing.
Now that you know what chemicals and types of fabrics to avoid the next time you go shopping, here is a shortlist of what to look for to ensure your clothing is natural, sustainable, ethical, and chemical-free.
Natural, organic, GOTS & OEKO-TEX Certified
There are 3 magic words: natural, organic, and certified.
Having a standard for your wardrobe will help you find brands that align with your values. After all, no one wants to spend all day shopping, let alone have to worry that you may be buying clothes that may compromise your health.
Instead, look for brands that carry products that are GOTS and OEKO-TEX certified. GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, and it sets the highest worldwide standard for the processing of organic fibers. This comprehensive standard covers the entire textile chain—from the sustainable, ethical harvesting of organically grown plants through eco-friendly and socially responsible manufacturing, and labeling practices.
At Nui, we use GOTS certified fibers and are also fans of OEKO-TEX, which certifies that every thread, button and other accessories, has been tested for harmful substances and that the article is harmless for human health.
Premium quality clothing has little to do with the prices, as we once were taught to believe in the ‘80s. Premium quality is a paradigm you can think of as a standard you should expect from your clothing. It’s about the quality of the fabrics, the intelligence of the design, and the longevity of the garment - otherwise known as cost per wear.
This is the standard brands like Nui uphold. Because we believe in making clothing that is good for you and good for the planet.
While a premium quality, natural fiber garment may cost more upfront, the enjoyment you get from the item because of the softness and construction of it, the intelligence of the design that thinks through the lifecycle of the clothing - as in sizing up so your children’s clothing lasts longer, and the number of times you can wear it, and knowing it is free from chemicals and toxins, are all indicators of a premium quality garment.
Keep a list of sustainable brands you like
There are a growing number of sustainable brands popping up every day. Due to the rise in demand from customers, in addition to the increase in brands that want to make a difference in the world, there is no shortage of sustainable brands to choose from.
That said, the interpretation of what is “sustainable” is wide and oftentimes misrepresented.
At Nui, instead of releasing new collections at the drop of a hat, we only design on a limited cycle, focusing on essentials so that our designs are timeless and long lasting. We manufacture only using the highest quality fibers, and construction, because we encourage our customers to keep, rewear, and recycle their clothing rather than constantly having to shop for more.
Knowing which definition of sustainable aligns with your values, will direct your focus on the types of brands you want to spend your hard earned money with. It’s a personal decision, that only you can make.
As one of the first eco-conscious brands that has been in existence for over 16 years, we applaud the rise of all sustainable and conscious brands that allow for better choices for a healthier world.
Essentials are timeless
If you’ve ever seen an old movie with fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, you would notice how stylish she is, even in today’s most trendy circles.
It turns out simple essentials are not only stylish and beautiful but they also never go out of style. Building a sustainable capsule wardrobe of timeless essentials will not give you a stylish and always fashionable wardrobe, but will give you back more time to spend being with the ones you love.
Reducs, reuse, recycle
Choose well, buy less, rewear, and recycle.
When you take time to find high quality sustainable clothing, buy what you need, and commit to your own sustainable values, you can always be assured you will have a wardrobe you love, clothing that is safe and toxic-free, and helping people and the planet thrive.
At Nui, we strive to make sustainability simple. Protecting ourselves and the planet is a life-long journey, and one worth learning about and taking action towards.
For our future selves, and our future earth. We are in it together.