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17 Dec

6 Toxic Chemicals in Clothing You Should Know About

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.

The low down on the most used chemicals in fashion

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?

Growing process


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


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.


Clothing that is stain or water-resistant is typically made this way using a group of chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) or PFCS (Perfluorocarbon). 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.


Frequently used in activewear and sportswear, phthalates are known endocrine disrupters. They have been found to be linked to hormone disruption and are cancerous. Phthalates are often used in decorative printing in clothes, such as logos or accessories.


When you buy leather goods, chances are they’ve been treated using chromium salts during the tanning process. Chromium can cause respiratory problems and rashes. Plus, it’s often not disposed of correctly, poisoning the environment.

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

Editor's note

Feature image via 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 thousands of rated brands.

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