Are Toxins Lurking in Your Clothing?

The Cost of Convenience

Convenience almost always comes at a price. Preservatives keep your packaged foods “fresh” for months, or even years, while the parabens in your favorite beauty products prevent the growth of bacteria and ensure a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, these ingredients are also linked to cancer, skin sensitivities, and a host of other health problems. We live in a time-pressed culture where we’re willing to do anything to cut corners so that we can get on with our busy lives. Companies have caught on, and are making big profits by making “convenience” a part of their offering.

Toxins in Our Clothing?

We hear about toxins in our food and beauty products all the time, but rarely do we hear about toxins in clothing. Your wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, uniformly-dyed oxford shirts did not get that way on their own. Manufacturers must add chemicals to these products, and those chemicals eventually get absorbed by our skin. In addition, this is putting workers in unsafe conditions- day in and day out the people making your clothing are breathing in toxic fumes.

As you can see, using toxic chemicals in the production of clothing poses a wide array of problems not only for our health but also for the health of others and the environment. In areport by Greenpeace published in 2012 titled Toxic Threads, it was found that “20 percent of the world’s favorite brands are making and selling clothes containing hazardous chemicals which contribute to toxic water pollution where the clothes are made and washed.”

Here are the following most common toxins used in modern-day clothing production.

NPE’s (Nonylphenol Ethoxylates)

This chemical, which has been used in several stages of textile production, is banned in the European Union for its hormone disrupting and environmental polluting characteristics. The afore-mentioned Greenpeace report found the presence of NPE’s in 14 big-name brands including Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, H&M, and Nike.


Formaldehyde is used in clothing for its stain-resistant qualities and for a permanent press like effect. Although it is a naturally occurring compound, short-term exposure can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems and long-term exposure has been classified as a “probable carcinogenic” by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Azo Dyes

Used as dyes for their vivid colors especially reds, yellows, and oranges, certain azo compounds (specifically, benzidine-based ones) are mutagenic and carcinogenic and have thus been banned from manufacturing in Western Industrialized countries.

So What Can You Do?

Country of Origin

The best way to avoid these toxins is to only buy clothing that is made in the United States or the European Union, where these chemicals are banned. Asia and Mexico have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to ethical and environmentally responsible manufacturing.

Detox The Catwalk

Follow Greenpeace’s Detox the Catwalk campaign which reveals who the Detox Leaders, the Greenwashers, and the Detox Losers are.

The Detox Leaders, which include Adidas, United Colors of Benetton, Burberry, G-Star Raw, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Puma, Levi’s, and Valentino, have pledged to do away with the use of all toxic chemicals in their manufacturing by the year 2020. This is certainly a step in the right direction. The more consumers and the fashion industry as a whole are aware of these issues, the better we can band together to demand and create change.

Detox Losers and Greenwashers include Nike, Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Diesel, Gap, Hermes, Versace, and the PVH Group (which includes Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, and IZOD). Something I find ironic is that it’s mostly the upscale, luxury designers who refuse to join the movement, when in the past we’ve been made to believe that “haute couture” was the more eco-friendly option.

Stick to Natural Materials

The next thing you can do is to make a conscious effort to buy clothing made from natural materials such as the following:

  • cotton
  • wool
  • hemp
  • bamboo
  • silk
  • linen
  • tencel

Avoid synthetic materials including the following:

  • nylon
  • polyester
  • rayon
  • acetate
  • spandex
  • latex

Synthetic materials are made with the use highly toxic chemicals in an effort to make them wrinkle-resistant, stain-resistant, and hard to break down. Not only do their toxic residues cause health issues, these materials also are also hard to recycle and are not biodegradable.

Yes, buying Made in America or Made in the EU means higher price points. To me, this shouldn’t even be a question when we’ve been made aware of the repercussions that mass-produced fashion apparel has on the environment and humanity. So be happy with having a few new pieces of clothing to add to your wardrobe this year instead of twenty. Be receptive to information that dedicated activists dig up to disseminate to the public. Make more informed decisions when you’re buying clothing, and do your best to be part of a global demand for change in the textile industry.

This post originally appeared on Joie De Vivre Blog.