Are Chemicals in Your Clothes Making You Sick?

Miriam Gubovicova
Author: Miriam Gubovicova
Are Chemicals in Your Clothes Making You Sick?
We live in a fast-paced world, and guidelines on living a healthy life seem to change in a blink of an eye!

It’s not news that we are exposed to an array of toxic chemicals, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors daily, but have you considered how your clothes could be contributing?

At Whomesome we investigated and dug deep into our closets to look for hidden chemicals in our clothes. Was it easy to find them? Not at all. However, we didn’t assume they weren’t present just because the labels didn’t highlight them.

We have compiled a list of the most common toxic chemicals in your clothes to help you identify them and take steps to protect your health.

But first, let’s look at what’s happened to the fashion industry recently and why people buy these chemical-laden clothes. The words lockdown, work from home and comfort come to mind!

A picture of a fashion store display window
A picture of a fashion store display window

From pandemic to innovation

The fashion industry is continually shifting and adapting to current global situations and trends, but what hasn’t changed for many years is the rise of fast fashion. 

The pandemic forced many fashion brands and online stores to innovate and optimize their marketing, ordering process, and delivery services as shopping shifted to digital channels. 

It’s been two years since we started spending more time at home, working and exercising wearing our PJs! We put on a smarter top for the Zoom team call but have stopped buying new clothes for weddings and social gatherings.

The fall of the fashion industry was lingering in the air. But as it turned out, not for very long. Brands quickly swapped their formal wear to more comfortable leisurewear. And, instead of the fashion brands falling apart, we continue to fall for their best online deals of the month, helping them thrive. 

A national survey conducted by Shane Co. revealed that retail clothing businesses have seen a 115.4% increase in sales since March 2020.

The browsing on retailers’ shiny websites was tempting and a needed distraction. We started dreaming of the remarkable comeback of social life, and we were getting our closets ready for it. Only, many of us still haven’t had the chance to wear the new pieces. 

Raise your hand if you fall into this group. You can’t see us, but we’re raising our hands high. We’re all human, after all, and the past few months have not been easy on anyone. 

What has changed in fashion?

Styles have changed. We realized how comfortable looser, softer clothing is, and many of us will stay away from itchy fabrics, high heels, and jeans that quite literally cut off our blood circulation. Oh, and we cannot forget the no-bra revolution! Of course, bras are unhealthy for women anyway, but that’s for another article. 

A more substantial change that has happened is the consumer becoming more conscious about their choices. Many people started looking for sustainable and eco-friendly options. Unfortunately, many were also discouraged by the price tags found on these. 

So we turned back to our regular brands that were very fast in highlighting their sustainable and eco-friendly lines. Most of these companies lack transparency about their practices, and often, the unique collection only fuels the brand that doesn’t have its ethics straight. 

I don’t know about you, but I do not trust a sweatshirt for $9.99 to be sustainably and responsibly made. 

Let’s circle back to the main point of this article and connect the dots. While a clothing item can claim to be sustainable, as there are very few regulations in place, the product can be made with “consciously grown” cotton or recycled material while still containing dies and other toxic chemicals to preserve the fabric. 

Eco friendly and sustainable does not equal chemical-free.

Photo of clothes made out of dollar bills
Sustainable labels on clothing is often just a marketing ploy.

What are some of the chemicals you can find in your clothing?

By the time your new summer dress reaches you, it would have already gone through several stages of production and come into contact with some seriously toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, the systemic nature of these toxins makes it nearly impossible for us to wash them out. It’s like trying to wash pesticides out of contaminated berries. 

Let’s look at the chemicals and the material it can be found in:

  • GLYPHOSATE: the main ingredient in Roundup used as a herbicide in cotton farming
  • BLEACH: chlorine bleach is used to whiten and remove stain from natural fiber and cotton
  • FORMALDEHYDE: has two roles – making the fabric wrinkle-free and “unshrinkable” and being a carrier for dyes and prints. Found in cotton and anything dyed or printed. 
  • FLAME RETARDANTS: to prevent clothes from burning, and it is required in children’s clothing! 

Side note: it is allowed and often required to add flame retardants in products. Levels of these chemicals in the US population are up to 10 times higher than in Europe, where the policies are different. 

  • VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS (VOCs): found pretty much everywhere around us. They are present in finished natural and synthetic textiles (especially with prints), as they are used as solvents, particularly for printing. 
  • PERFLUORINATED CHEMICALS (PFCs): used to make products stick and resist stains in durable clothing. Found mainly in natural and synthetic rain, stain, and windproof clothing and gear.
  • HEAVY METALS: lead, chromium, cadmium, and antimony are used for dyeing of natural and synthetic material, leather tanning, and polyester production.
  • PHTHALATES: used for printing on any material.
  • AMMONIA: shrink resistance to natural fabrics

Why are these chemicals so problematic?

Unfortunately, our skin is hardly ever left to breathe. We spend most of our days layered up in clothes, and even at night, we are covered in fabric. It is essential to look beyond your closet and consider your bedding and personal towels when looking at these chemicals. 

Even though there are some regulations in place, they are far from enough. The fashion industry production is very complex and in a severe lack of unifying regulators, such as USDA or the FDA. Hence, there are a lot of cracks where “mistakes” can happen.

The chemicals listed above have been linked to endocrine disruptions, thyroid disorders, immune system problems, reproductive toxicity, and even infertility, heart disease, and, no surprise, cancer. 

One of the most vulnerable are babies and young children. Exposure to these chemicals has been connected to congenital disabilities and low birth weight, low IQ, early onset of puberty, developmental issues, including mental retardation, and delayed development. 

In 2018 and 2019, a series of cases regarding toxic uniforms came out in the US. Crew members of several US airlines came forward and said their uniforms were toxic and making them sick. In addition, flight attendants claimed their uniforms make them lose their hair, break out in hives, and suffer respiratory issues.

The onset of the health issues was always most prevalent after the crew members were given new uniforms. Coincidence? Hardly. 

Does washing my clothes help?

We wish this was a straight-up YES answer, but unfortunately, it’s not all that simple. As we mentioned earlier in the article, the production process is very long. The chemicals enter the deep space of the fabric structure, making it very hard, if not impossible, to remove all of the chemicals. 

That being said, washing does help to a certain extent, and it should always be done. Always wash your clothes before wearing them for the first time. It will help with some toxins. 

And be wary about dry cleaners. While it might seem like a good idea to give your clothes deep cleaning, the chemicals dry cleaners use are highly toxic for you- not to mention the environment. Your best bet is to wash clothes at home using natural detergents and higher temperatures. If any clothing is visibly leaking the color, it’s best to either (unfortunately) recycle it or wash it several times. 

If this article made you want to burn your closet, pause for a moment. The best thing you can do for yourself and the environment is to first look into any pieces that need some extra washing and sort through those you know you wouldn’t wear anymore. 

During the next shopping spree, search for brands that are eco-friendly holistically. Meaning they don’t just have one line that’s labeled as “conscious.” And most importantly, read up about their practices, values, and social commitments. Often, these are perfect indicators for the brand to be honest with its consumers.

Everyone wears clothes so there is no avoiding this subject! You want to make sure that you are looking after yourself and your family by understanding the harmful toxins that can be hiding in your clothes, their dangers, and most importantly, how to avoid them. 

Chemical-free clothing equals a healthy lifestyle.