Would you reconsider that little black dress if it put your body at risk for cancer?

Unlike the nutrition facts on the back of our favorite foods, clothing doesn’t come with a conveniently itemized list of ingredients. Instead the 8,000 synthetic chemicals used in fashion manufacturing, most of which contain known carcinogens and hormone disrupters, are kept undisclosed and hiding within the fibers of the industry’s most sought out styles.

Fear not. We took a close look at the hazardous production methods and chemical cocktails that affect our environment–not to mention our own personal health. Toxic synthetics are apparent throughout the many stages of a garment: from the factory floors where workers are exposed to and breath in their fumes, to the runoff of dyes and corrosive finishing products that flow into our water sources and agricultural systems, to the leaching of poisonous substances into our largest organ–our skin–and deposited into our bloodstream upon every wear.

The good news is that by being more aware of what we are putting on our bodies, we can reduce exposure to unhealthy compounds.

Here is a list of the most common chemical culprits and handy tips to pick fashion that is better for your health and for the women who make our clothes:

1. Conventional Cotton (Non-Organic)

Pesticide Use in Spain: A maker without protective clothing only wearing a paper breathing protection sprays pesticides. Photo: Greenpeace.

A chemical-intensive crop, conventional cotton accounts for 25% of the insecticides used worldwide. Residue from these poisons are transferred from soil to boll making their way into the fibers of our conventional cotton clothing. Even the smallest dose of pesticide exposure has been linked to brain, fetal damage, and sterility in humans. Unlike organic cotton, a slew of toxic chemicals are also required in processing conventional cotton. Some of these chemicals include silicone waxes, petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde. Body heat and sweating actually accelerate the absorption of these residues into your skin.

Instead, choose organic:

Not only are organic fabrics better for your body, when grown organically cotton conserves land biodiversity. The growing and harvesting of organic cotton also uses 71% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton making it the more environmentally-friendly choice.

2. Synthetic + Performance Fabrics

Illustration depicting models wearing polyester clothes superimposed over textile production facilities. As part of the campaign to reduce overconsumption, the Detox My Fashion campaign has produced a set of infographics and illustrations for Buy Nothing Day. Photo: Greenpeace

Did you know that your skin works to keep you healthy by discharging up to 1lb of toxins per day? Petrochemical fibers like nylon, polyester, acrylic, acetate or triacetate actually restrict toxin release. Don’t be fooled by popular marketing terms like “sweat-wicking” or “performance fabrics”. These fancy claims equate to a high synthetic fiber content which suffocates your skin. Wearing synthetic fabrics can cause anything from headaches and nausea to skin rashes and respiratory problems.

Synthetic undergarments have also been said to contribute to infertility in men.

Additionally, recent studies have found microfibers from petroleum-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester in 83% of the world’s drinking water. It’s not surprising when considering that the laundering of a single polyester garment is estimated to release 1,900 individual plastic fibers that rinse off and end up in our oceans killing aquatic life.

Instead, choose natural materials:

Unlike synthetics, natural materials like organic cotton, linen, silk, wool and hemp allow the body to breath, detox and regulate body temperature properly. Natural fibers are also naturally biodegradable and can be composted, while synthetics don’t break down and can live in landfills for hundreds of years.

3. Brand New Clothes & Wrinkle-Free Fabrics

Dye Factory in Shaoxing: A plant with five dyeing machines will need about 250kg of dye, along with other additives. Aproximately 2500kg of dyestuff paste circulates the plant every day. This plant is located within the Binhai Industrial Zone. Photo: Greenpeace

New clothes are the consumer choice for their bright, crisply pressed and unworn-by-anyone-else appeal. But, what is that “new” smell we’ve been conditioned to appreciate? Oh well, it’s just a mixture of toxic finishing treatments like urea resins and formaldehyde. Used primarily in construction–and to preserve dead bodies–formaldehyde, has been linked to dermatitis and lung cancer. So why do we use this known human carcinogen on our clothing?

New clothing is often covered with formaldehyde to prevent mildew, wrinkling and parasites during shipping–especially those shipped from China.

In fact, Victoria’s Secret has undergone multiple lawsuits for the excessive formaldehyde levels found in their lingerie. Consumers should also be wary of any fashion labeled “easy care”, “wrinkle-free” or “shrinkage-free” as these fabrics are also known to release formaldehyde.

Instead, choose second-hand clothing or tencel:

With second-hand clothing, you have the peace of mind that the garment has been washed several times and that the chemical residue is significantly less than what is found in new clothes. If second-hand clothing is not your thing, be sure to wash your new clothes with skin-friendly detergent before wearing to lessen the contact of formaldehyde and other harmful finishing agents. If you hate ironing, try tencel a type of rayon that is more resistant to wrinkling and has a fluid drape. Tencel is made with sustainably sourced eucalyptus, in a closed loop process, and requires less chemicals than other semi-synthetic fibers such as modal.

4. Weatherproof and/or Flame Retardant Fabrics

Indonesian models wear eco fashion apparels designed by Indonesian well known designers Felicia Budi, Indita Karina, Lenny Agustin during “Detox Catwalk” organised by Greenpeace in the polluted paddy field in Rancaekek, West Java province to highlight the toxic pollution brought by clothing industry as well as the idea that ‘Beautiful fashion shouldn’t cost the earth’. Photo: Greenpeace

For the outdoor enthusiast, weatherproof clothing is highly preferred, but comes with an unexpected price. The culprit is called PFC (Perfluorocarbon) and can be found in non-stick household items and apparel and footwear products that claim to be stain-resistant and waterproof. Exposure to PFC has been associated with both kidney and testicular cancer, obesity and decreased response to vaccines. From an environmental perspective, the manufacturing of PFC can contaminate surface water, drinking water, groundwater, air and dust. In fact, in 2015 PFC runoff from a DuPont manufacturing plant in the mid-Ohio Valley was blamed for significant birth defects and other health issues in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Flame retardant fabrics have also gotten a bad rep in recent years. Found in everyday household items and furniture to outdoor apparel and camping gear, flame retardants have been linked to serious health risks like infertility, reduced IQ, endocrine disruption and breast cancer. What’s more is that firefighters have even spoken out against the use of fire retardant chemicals claiming that they don’t even properly work–releasing toxic fumes when burned that are far more likely to kill you than the fire itself.

Instead, choose pfc-free, flame retardant-free and/or organic wool:

As part of their Detox campaign, Greenpeace has actively encouraged popular outdoor apparel brands to set PFC elimination timelines since 2012. Clothing companies like H&M and Adidas have taken the pledge, while leaders like Patagonia are working towards the goal but have yet to develop a PFC-free alternative that can protect the body from freezing temperatures. Alternatively, to our ancestors organic wool was the weatherproof fiber of choice as it is naturally water and flame resistant as well as hypoallergenic.

5. Workout Gear & Anti-Bacterial Fabrics

River Pollution in West Java: Industrial wastewater containing hazardous chemicals discharged into the Cihaur River, a tributary of the Citarum River. The government indicated as responsible the companies PT. Oriental and PT. SMM. Cipeundeuy Village, Kecamatan Padalarang regency. Photo: Greenpeace

As a society, we’ve become hyper germa-phobic. Much of this is due to marketers convincing us that we are never clean enough, when in reality embracing a little dirt keeps our immunity intact. The fitness sector of the industry is known to use synthetic blends and fungicidal chemicals to make their products “anti-bacterial”. These chemicals include triclosan, a coating linked to liver and inhalation toxicity that’s been proven to cause liver cancer in mice; and nanoparticle silver, that gives the garment “anti-odor” properties and has been linked to hormone disruption and DNA damage. Phthalates are commonly used in workout gear that has been printed or dyed in design. This manufacturing plasticizer is linked to cancers, adult obesity as well as reduced testosterone in men and women.

Instead, choose Organic cotton, hemp or tencel:

Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly of fibers. It’s drought-resistant and doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers. As a fabric, hemp is very light and breathable like linen. Tencel is a semi-synthetic fabric that is made from traceably sourced eucalyptus tree pulp. Because it is a high tenacity cellulosic fiber, it creates a strong fabric that is also very absorbent.

6. Black Clothing, Denim & Azo Dyes

Toxic waste inside the Waste Water Management Installation (IPAL) PT in Sumedang Textile Factories. Three major companies allegedly were discharging their waste to farm areas surrounding the neighborhood for almost 20 years. Photo: Greenpeace

Ever seen the warning label “Attention! This garment will lose dye and color” on a prospective pair of jeans? In conventional dye methods, 35% of the color is flushed away after dyeing, while only 65% is retained in the cloth. Azo dyes, the industry’s go-to, release chemicals known as aromatic amines that have been linked to cancer. Dark colors like brown and black contain higher concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) a chemical that triggers skin allergies and can cause contact dermatitis.

Synthetic indigo that makes your blue jeans blue is made from a chemical cocktail 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 as a single mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. In China, 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater from the textile and dye industry.

Instead, choose second-hand or naturally dyed clothing or azo free:

When shopping for clothing in bright or vibrant tones, ask the brand if they use dyes that are azo-free. Natural dyes are also a great alternative as they are sourced from plants and other dye stuff derived from the earth. Did you know that natural indigo is not only the more eco-friendly choice, but it provides work for artisans and offers Ayuvedic health benefits like immune stimulation, skin detoxification and anti-bacterial properties?

7. Leather

To accompany the launch of the report “Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade,” a series of striking images have been produced to highlight the toxic truth that lies behind the glamour of the fashion industry. Shot on location in the heart of China’s textile industry, on the the bank of Qiantang River, in Xiaoshan district, Hangzhou, the images show the scale of the toxic water pollution that currently occurs in order to supply a global market, (that includes a number of international clothing labels), with its fast fashion fix. Photo: Greenpeace

Many steer clear from leather for its negative impact on animals. What doesn’t get much air time are the many toxic chemicals it takes to tan leather. Tanning is the process that converts the animal skin into leather and 90% of the leather goods you’ll find in stores today has been tanned with chromium. Although vegetable tanning is a natural option, tanning with chromium speeds up the process, creates a thinner and softer leather than veggie-tanned and can be dyed in a multitude of colors. Despite aforementioned perks, chromium contributes to some gnarly health effects. For those in the tanneries, workers can experience everything from rashes, permanent skin bleaching, nosebleeds and respiratory problems to lung cancer and the alteration of genetic material.

Just wearing leather for an extended time that has been tanned with chromium can cause a weakened immune system, kidney and/or liver damage.

What’s more is chromium is notorious for not being disposed of properly. Contaminated run-off makes its way from factory to crop poisoning food systems and causing ulcers and even death. In Kanpur, India alone 400 tanneries dump toxic chromium into the water supply to make our shoes, handbags, and belts.

Instead, choose vegetable tanned or innovative leather alternatives:

Rather than a harsh chemical cocktail, vegetable-tanned leather uses tannins derived from vegetables, tree bark and other natural plants. Innovative and cleaner leather alternatives like Piñatex, made from the pineapple, and Muskin, a biodegradable leather extracted from mushroom caps, are making their way into the market.

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  1. I appreciate this information and I am one of those people that buys mostly used and I wear my clothes to death! One of my concerns is the black clothes especially black panties which I like to wear and now I am wondering how safe those are.

    One question though, you state that rayon is a petrochemical fabric and I thought it was made from plant cellulose. Did you make a mistake perhaps?

    1. Hello Anto: You are so welcome! Thank you for reading –and for catching that mistype that we have since corrected. Rayon is indeed a semi-synthetic (not a petrochemical fabric) made from plant cellulose. Because rayon requires a chemical-heavy industrial process, we recommend tencel as an alternative.

  2. This is a fantastic summary and I love the action steps. However, my concern with Modal is that it could be produced from trees that have their origins in rainforests vs. sustainable cellulose.

    1. Hi Loren: Thank you so much for your comment and concern! You are correct, the non profit organization Canopy has recently traced modal back to forest and rainforest deforestation – which leads to green gas emissions, destruction of animal habitats and so forth. It really depends on where the modal is coming from/produced that dictates whether the woods are being ethically sourced from the forests, or not. Unfortunately, for now, that information is difficult to obtain. This is why we continue to push the industry for more transparency so we as consumers are equipped with the information we need to make the most conscious consumer choices. We recommend Tencel as a better choice b/c it is made with sustainably sourced eucalyptus and requires less chemicals in a closed loop process.

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