If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, one thing is indisputable. It’s hot. It’s real hot. In fact, July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded in the history of recording weather worldwide. For some lucky folk, the August summertime heat means exotic vacations and Instagram posting competitions of said exotic locations. For the rest of us, it means attempting to still look chic whilst acting as a faucet for sweat. But wherever we are on the planet, the blistering heat means that the dangers of sun exposure are all the more real.
While most of us are now well informed on the dangers of excessive sun exposure and make a concerted effort to protect our skin from the damaging rays of the sun (while still aiming for a lovely summer glow, if we are honest), the most effective way to prevent cancerous UV rays from attacking our skin is, of course, to cover up. However, what we are covering up with has a huge impact on the health of our skin and bodies as well, something you probably spend less time thinking about than the harmful rays of the sun.
Our skin is the largest organ of our body and absorbs everything it comes into contact with. Depending on the products that you use, your skin can become a chemical filled sponge if you consider how every cleanser, lotion, lick of makeup, deodorant, spray tan, and drop of chlorinated water that touches our skin is being absorbed into our bodies. I know plenty of women who have (rightfully so) embraced organic beauty products in the interest of good skincare and health but often furthest from our mind are the chemicals that lurk in our clothing.
When I first became interested in sustainable fashion, I had a vague idea that organic fabrics and natural dyes would be a better choice (more so from the inclusion of the words ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ than hard evidence if I’m totally honest!). So I felt a slight inclination to buy more items that were certified organic, but I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to closely monitor every single fiber of my clothing. It wasn’t until I was standing in line at Topshop (yes, I was at Topshop buying clothes; I wasn’t always a conscientious consumer) and noticed a small plaque on the counter with a warning that read ‘The materials on the exterior of some garments contain lead, a chemical known to the state of California to cause reproductive harm’ that I put down the items and walked out of the store, and any other like it, for good.
To this day it deeply disturbs me that a brand targeted specifically at young women knowingly sells clothing that contain harmful hormone-disrupting chemicals. And Topshop is not alone. The Greenpeace report Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up found “the presence of a hormone-disrupting phthalate in an item of Victoria’s Secret underwear at levels that would have led to the product being banned in the EU had it been a toy.” This same investigation from 2012 tested garments from brands including Zara, Levis, Calvin Klein, and Armani made of both artificial and natural fibers and discovered harmful chemicals, including high levels of toxic phthalates, cancer-causing amines from azo dyes, NPEs, and the presence of many other different types of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals.
For those unfamiliar with these chemicals and their effects, in the past few years, researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, altered reproductive development, and male fertility issues to name a few. Certain dyes used in clothing production called azo dyes can later release cancer-causing amines to be absorbed into the skin and NPEs can accumulate in the home or your clothing and cause hormone disruption, skin and eye irritation as well as reproductive harm. To have any or all of these chemicals present in your clothes and on your skin is not ideal to say the least; and sadly, this is just a small representation of the list of toxic chemicals that can and do go into producing our clothes. Synthetic fabric such as polyester, rayon, acrylic, and anything stain or wrinkle free undergo significant processing. The process of dyeing fabrics can be equally as devastating. Wearing garments that have gone through these processes allows residual chemicals to make their way through your skin and into your body.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, how we care for our clothing once we get it home can also be a source of toxicity. Dry cleaning, discovered by accident in the late 1880s when French dyer Jean Baptiste Jolly realized that the kerosene spilled on his tablecloth managed to leave it cleaner, has evolved from kerosene to tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene, which are known carcinogens that should be avoided. The Environmental Working Group says, fabric softeners and dryer sheets coat our clothes with a subtle layer of slimy chemicals and, of course, many laundry detergents are laden with the phthalates mentioned earlier that we are trying to avoid.
Overwhelming as this can all seem, thankfully there are safer alternatives available. The EPA suggests professional wet cleaning as the preferred method for dry-cleaning and there is a large selection of biodegradable and chemical free laundry detergents available at most supermarkets. Dryer sheets and fabric softeners are unnecessary and dry cleaning should be kept to a minimum.
Knowing what is in our clothing can be more of a challenge given that transparency of the complete production process is rare and even organic fibers have been treated with chemicals at some point in their production. However, organic options are often a much better choice than synthetic fabrics. Seeking out natural and organic fibers such as organic cotton, linen, silk, wool, and cashmere with low impact dyes as much as possible puts you in a far better position to avoid the absorption of harmful chemicals. The wicking and antibacterial qualities of lyocell and TENCEL ® are not just suited for sportswear, they are also good for underwear, sleepwear, and bedsheets. TENCEL ® is such a pure fiber that it is used by AD RescueWear, a therapeutic clothing company that makes specialty medical undergarments for children suffering from eczema. Garments bearing the GOTS or OEKO-TEX certifications ensure products have no harmful chemicals present. Additionally, vintage clothing has been washed and worn enough to be rid of any chemicals that could be harmful to your skin.
If you’re like me, the first time I started to research the chemicals in my clothing, I began to suddenly feel slightly itchy and grossed out about the garments that I was wearing and frankly a little anxious about all of my miss-steps to date. Try not to worry too much. Simply adjusting your washing habits can have a huge positive impact and clothes lose their toxicity with age and regular washing so you are not acting as a chemical sponge for the life of your clothing. The key going forward is to invest in the best possible quality fabrics you can afford, the better quality a fabric it is, the less processing it requires (as we always say buy less, buy better) and try to buy natural fabrics as much as possible. Low impact dyes are preferable and, as always, upcycled and vintage purchases are winners in style and sustainability.