Are my clothes toxic?

I was mortified to learn that most clothing items sold by fashion brands contain highly toxic and hazardous chemicals.

Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens (cancer-causing), bio-accumulative (builds up in the bloodstream) and endocrine disruptors (can cause cancerous tumours, birth defects and developmental disorders). Not only are they extremely damaging to aquatic life, they can also cause skin irritations, allergic reactions, and pose longer-term health risks to those who make and wear the clothes.

If we won't eat toxic substances, why would we wear them?

Toxic substances from clothes can enter the human body through our skin (especially when we're sweating or when there's friction from activity), oral intake (such as children sucking or chewing on fabrics), inhalation from textile dust particles, and indirectly through water contamination from wastewater and laundering.

Are my clothes toxic?

Pregnant women, older people and those who are ill can be more sensitive towards chemicals. Children, in particular, are more affected by chemicals than adults as their immune systems are still developing and they absorb chemicals much faster than adults due to their higher skin surface area relative to their body weight.

Think about how much toxicity we come into direct contact with, from infancy through to adult life – and what that could mean for our health.

Some might argue that small amounts of toxins can't be that harmful. The truth is, unless the garment has been tested and certified by an independent third-party, we will not know the number and level of toxins in it.

What we do know is that there is evidence of very high levels of toxic residue on garments, including children’s clothing from well-known brands. (See research findings at end of article.)

Research has also found that while some hazardous substances can be removed after 3 to 40 washes (with a risk of ending up in aquatic environments), others remain at high concentration levels in clothes.

Are my clothes toxic?

Some of the toxic chemicals found in clothes
  • AZO dyes – at least 20 of the 300 azo dyes used widely in colouring textiles are known to break down into compounds called aromatic amines, which are carcinogenic (cancer causing).
  • BROMINATED FLAME RETARDANTS – used to prevent clothes from burning and is often used in children’s sleepwear. It is a neurotoxin, endocrine disruptor (which can cause cancerous tumours and developmental disorder), suspected carcinogen, and is bio-accumulative.
  • CHLORINE BLEACH – used for whitening natural fibres like cotton and processing denim, it can cause asthma and respiratory problems.
  • FORMALDEHYDE – a carrier for dyes/prints and used to achieve wrinkle-free and shrinkage-free finish in natural fabrics like cotton, it is a known human carcinogen and can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
  • PFCs (per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals) – used for water resistance and as stain repellent on finished textiles especially uniform and outdoor clothing, it is bio-accumulative (builds up in the bloodstream), persistent in and damaging to the environment, endocrine disrupting and potentially carcinogenic.
  • PHTALATES/PLASTISOL – used as ink for screen printing on textiles, motifs, coated fabrics, and buttons, it is an endocrine disruptor. The UN and WHO list four phthalates that can alter the endocrine system and cause adverse health effects in humans and other organisms.
  • NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates) – widely used as a surfactant in textile manufacturing, it is an endocrine disruptor, bio-accumulative and is persistent in and damaging to the environment.
  • HEAVY METALS (lead, chromium VI, cadmium, antimony) – used for dyeing especially bright colours (lead), leather tanning (chromium VI), and to make polyester (antimony), they are also found in zippers and buttons. These heavy metals are highly toxic and can cause reproductive issues, severely affect mental and physical development of young children, may cause harm to breast-fed children, damage organs and cause long-lasting environmental damage.
What are governments doing about this?

There isn't currently an international agreement between national governments to restrict and prohibit hazardous chemicals in the fashion industry. Each country (and state) has its own restrictions, with compliance by brands largely voluntary. Regulating chemical use in imported materials remains a challenge.

It really comes down to fashion brands taking responsibility to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in their supply chain and being transparent about it. The "detox my fashion" campaign by the Greenpeace has led the way in calling out 80 major brands and securing commitment from them to achieve zero hazardous chemicals by 2020, with some making more progress than others. There are still thousands of brands yet to take action.

Now that we know how toxic some clothes can be and how they adversely affect the environment and human health, do we think it's acceptable? Certainly not, especially where our children are concerned.

GOTS factory
What we can do
  • Support petitions and campaigns that call for zero hazardous chemicals.
  • Buy from brands that are transparent about the materials they use.
  • Stay away from synthetic, treated and non-organic materials especially those that are worn closest to the skin.
  • Choose organic cotton or organic linen that have been dyed with plant-based dyes or certified by independent third-parties such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX®.

I've created a table below comparing the chemical restrictions in the US, EU and Australia, with the restrictions of GOTS and the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX®. We can see that GOTS and the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX®  are far stricter than national government restrictions.

SUBSTANCES USED IN TEXTILE

US (CPSIA)

EU (REACH)

Australia (NICNAS, ACCC)

Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX (Class 1)

GOTS

AZO (aromatic amines)

Not restricted.

22 are restricted to 30mg/kg (0.003%) and 2 restricted to 0.01%.

22 are restricted to 30mg/kg (0.003%).

All are restricted to 20 mg/kg (0.002%).

Prohibited in production.

Brominated flame retardant

Banned on children’s products in 17 states.

Restricted to 0.1% in an article.

Not restricted.

Prohibited.

Prohibited in production.

Formaldehyde

Restricted to 10,000 mg/kg (1%). (Banned on children’s products in Minnesota.)

Requires suppliers to report if the amount in an article exceeds 1000 mg/kg (0.1%). Restricted to 75 mg/kg (0.0075%) from 1 November 2020.

Restricted to 30mg/kg (0.003%) for infant’s clothing and 0.01% for other garments that contact the skin.

Restricted to 16 mg/kg (0.0016%).

Prohibited in production.

 

PFCs (per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals)

Not restricted but subject to reporting.

Listed as “substance of very high concern” with restriction to apply from 4 July 2020.

Not restricted.

Restricted to 1 mg/kg (0.0001%).

Prohibited in production.

 

Phtalates/plastisol (DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, DNOP)

Not restricted for textiles or children’s garments even though they are restricted to 0.1% for toys.

Not restricted for textiles or children’s garments even though they are restricted to 0.1% for toys and hygiene, feeding or sucking products.

Not restricted for textiles or children’s garments even though they are restricted to 0.1% in children’s plastic products.

Sum of 22 phtalates restricted to 0.00001%  (tested to Annex 4).

All prohibited in production.

 

NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates)

Not restricted but subject to reporting.

Restricted to 100mg/kg or 0.01%, effective after 3 February 2021.

Not restricted.

Restricted to 20 mg/kg (0.002%).

Prohibited in production.

 

Lead and its compounds (heavy metal)

Restricted to 0.009% (90ppm) for ink that can be scraped off the textile and 0.01% for ink that bonds with the textile.

Requires suppliers to report if the amount in an article exceeds 1000 mg/kg (0.1%). Restricted to 0.0001% from 1 November 2020.

Restricted for toys and finger paints but not children’s fashion jewellery or garments.

Restricted to 0.2 mg/kg (0.00002%).

Prohibited in production.

 

Antimony (heavy metal)

Not restricted but subject to reporting.

Under evaluation, as of 2018.

Restricted for toys and finger paints but not children’s fashion jewellery or garments.

Restricted to 30 mg/kg (0.003%).

Prohibited in production.

 

 

Research findings:

A 2012 investigation by Greenpeace on twenty major adultwear brands found that all the brands had one or more product that contained NPEs ranging from just above 1 ppm up to 45,000 ppm. Phthalates were detected in all samples that had plastisol prints, with some containing very high concentrations (at levels of up to 37.6 per cent by weight). Azo dyes releasing cancer-causing amines were also detected.

A 2014 Greenpeace investigation of twelve well-known childrenswear brands detected a broad range of hazardous chemicals in their clothing. All of the brands had at least one article where NPEs were detected, with some levels as high as 17 per cent by weight. Of the articles with plastisol prints, 94 per cent had phthalates, two of which contained levels way above what is permitted by the EU for toys and childcare products. Antimony was detected in all clothing articles that have polyester content.

In 2015, the Washington State Department of Ecology tested 50 children’s clothing samples and found that 48 of them contained the metals molybdenum, cobalt, arsenic, lead, cadmium, or antimony. Almost a third of the samples tested contained phthalates and one quarter of the samples tested contained solvents. All of these are listed as Chemicals of High Concern to Children in Washington.

In 2015, Stockholm University tested 60 garments from Swedish and international brands and found thousands of chemicals in the clothes, some of them suspected or proven carcinogens and some have high aquatic toxicity. The chemicals most highly concentrated were quinolines and carcinogenic aromatic amines from azo dyes, found in polyester.

References:

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Children’s plastic products with more than 1 per cent diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). A guide to the interim ban. 2010
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Options to limit consumer exposure to hazardous AZO dyes in certain clothing, textiles and leather goods. Draft regulation impact statement. 2015
Greenpeace. A little story about monsters in your closet. 2014
Greenpeace. Toxic threads: The big fashion stitch-up. 2012
Luongo, G. Chemicals in textiles: A potential source for human exposure. Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry. Stockholm University. 2015
KEMI. Swedish Chemicals Agency. Chemicals in textiles: Risks to human health and the environment. 2014 
Mathieu, C. and S. Sekerak. Chemicals of High Concern to Children in Children’s Clothing, Footwear, and Accessories. The Department of Ecology. State of Washington. 2015 
WHO/UNEP. State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals. 2012

What I adore about this brand is that we're creating pieces that children will want to wear over and over because they love it that much.

Evelyn Leow, Creative Director of Lily & Lord