Impacts of Toxic Chemicals in Clothing on Our Bodies - Good On You
17 Aug

Impacts of Toxic Chemicals in Clothing on Our Bodies

Many of us give a great deal of thought to what we put in our bodies on a daily basis, because we know that the kind of food we eat and how much water we drink is essential to our health. But why does this thought often stop at what we put in our bodies, and not extend to what we put on our bodies? Although clean skincare and makeup products are rising in popularity, there isn’t enough being said about what chemicals are involved in the production of the clothing that hugs our skin all day, every day. After all, our skin is our body’s largest organ, and when we are constantly wearing clothing that is potentially covered in chemicals, shouldn’t we be considering how this might affect us? What are the impacts of the toxic chemicals in clothing on our bodies?

Here are some chemicals to be aware of when shopping for new clothing and how they can affect your body, as well as some tips on how to shop smarter so that you can feel confident that you are wearing clothing that is not a danger to your health.

Growing process

Pesticides

Conventional cotton (non-organic) is grown using many pesticides which linger in the finished cotton product. Pesticides are well-known toxins, and have been linked to major health concerns in humans including respiratory problems and even cancer.

What you can do:

  • Opt for organic cotton instead, or materials like hemp and linen, which require little to no pesticides in the growing process. These materials are also better for your body because they allow your skin to breathe naturally, unlike clothing made from synthetic fabrics like polyester, which can lead to skin irritation.

Dyeing process

AZO dyes

Azo dyes are a group of dyes that are used to dye clothing because they are cheap and produce a strong result, but unfortunately they have a carcinogenic nature when they break down. Although these dyes are banned in the EU due to their toxicity, they are still commonly used in fast fashion clothing produced in other parts of the world. Since azo dyes are water-soluble, this makes them easy for your skin to absorb and, as a result, may cause symptoms including skin and eye irritation.

What you can do:

  • Look for clothing that was plant-dyed or clothing that wasn’t dyed at all, often called “undyed”, “unbleached”, or “natural”.
  • Look for GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification on the label, as these organisations prohibit the use of toxic chemicals and dyes in the clothing they certify. Just be sure to check the exact version as the rules may differ.
  • Wash your clothing before its first wear to ensure any excess dye is washed off.

Finishing process

Formaldehyde

Did you know that the “new clothes smell” you detect is most likely the smell of toxic chemical finishes? Charming, right? Clothing labelled as wrinkle-resistant and stain-resistant have usually been chemically finished using formaldehyde, since it has excellent preserving properties. This chemical is a carcinogen, and has been known to cause skin irritation, and even cause headaches or a sore throat. This chemical has been boycotted by Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, who insists that a slightly wrinkled piece of clothing is better than one smothered in chemicals. We couldn’t agree more.

PFAS

Clothing that is water-resistant is typically made this way using a group of chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their reluctance to break down. Consistent, high exposure to these chemicals can cause a variety of health issues, and is even linked to infertility and certain types of cancer. Although you are unlikely to be highly exposed to these chemicals when wearing clothing, it is still important to be aware of them and to avoid them whenever possible.

What you can do:

  • Wash your clothes before the first wear (or soak them overnight) to try to rid them of any toxic chemical finishes before they come in contact with your body.
  • Buy second-hand clothing, since it is likely to have already undergone many washes and is rid of many of the chemicals. Better yet, buy vintage clothing, since clothing used to be made differently, without the use of harsh chemicals. However, even if it is second-hand, be sure to still wash it before your first wear.
  • Look for GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification on the label.
  • Urge your favourite brands to be more transparent in what chemicals they use, and encourage them to implement chemical-reduction strategies. Nothing will change if no one demands change!

Chemical-free brands to support

Kowtow

Rated: Great

Kowtow uses organic, fair trade cotton and non-toxic dyes to produce its clothes. It designs elegant, timeless womenswear, and also has a range of ceramics.

See the rating.

Shop Kowtow @ Reve en Vert.

Shop Kowtow.

Organic Basics

Rated: Great
people wearing organic basics basics

Organic Basics offers high quality sustainable fashion basics for men and women in organic materials. The Denmark-based brand puts sustainable thinking at the centre of everything - it only chooses fabrics that care for our environment, and only ever partners with factories that care about their impact.

See the rating.

Shop Organic Basics @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Organic Basics.

Beaumont Organic

Rated: Good

Beaumont Organic is a UK-based slow fashion brand that blends simple style with ethical production practices. Founded by Hannah Beaumont-Laurencia, the brand also has its own charitable foundation which supports people in Fiji.

See the rating.

Shop Beaumont Organic @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Beaumont Organic.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Other images via brands and Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,500 brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.