Chemicals in textiles

We (read me) cook with extra virgin oil for its supposedly chemical free composition, spend double to buy organic vegetables and even subject to the cruelty of the physical instructor (I bet he has something against me the way he makes me exercise) to remain healthy. But do we do enough thinking about exposure to chemicals in textiles we wear or use daily?

Clothes, fashion, fabric – all these are associated with happiness in my mind. I can never associate clothes with anything negative. I suppose it is so for you too. But behind this joy, there is a whole history, geography, and chemistry which may not be that good.

Clothing is no longer a necessity for us – it is now something we like to acquire more and more to look more desirable and powerful. Considering the eagerness with which we celebrate fashion and clothes for their power to bring us happiness, they are not without problems.

The indiscriminate use of chemicals in the production process of many textiles, greenhouse-gas emissions, water bodies polluted by dyeing, and other waste emissions from textile industries, and the resultant carbon footprint are serious problems that everyone should be addressing more than they are now.  

List of chemicals on clothes/fabrics

If you know the list of chemicals on the fabric you have, you may never ever touch a new one, atleast without washing it first.

According to this page, 8000 chemicals are used collectively in the textile and fashion industry to bring your fashionable clothes to you. 

The textile industry uses millions of tons of nonrenewable resources every year. These start with the nitrogen and phosphorous-based fertilizers used to grow crops for the natural fabrics you may have assumed are earth friendly.

A lot of chemical pesticides are sprayed on cotton plants and other natural fiber plants to keep them thriving. These pesticides are polluting waterbodies underneath the earth’s surface and destroying the usefulness of the earth for any other crops. 

According to this report, the global cotton industry accounts for 6.4% of worldwide pesticide sales, 14% of which are insecticides.

Processing of animal-derived fabrics like leather, wool, and silk also involves the use of a lot of harmful chemicals, that can harm the environment. If you have lived near a tannery you may know how this industry pollutes water bodies. 

Chemicals like trichloroethane (TCE) as well as nonylthenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are detergent-like substances used to prepare the fabric for dyeing. They are considered highly toxic to human body. Disperse dyes, acid dyes, and azo dyes used in textile dyeing are potentially hazardous. 

Use if synthetic materials in clothing started out as one single item – the nylon stockings. But today all of use have a lot of synthetic clothing materials in our homes. 

Polyester, nylon, microfiber, polyamide, and acrylic are all fabrics made of plastic derivatives. They are indestructible and remain in the landfill on which they are dumbed for the longest time – like hundred of years. Small particles from these materials enter the ocean and endanger the living things in the sea. 

Most of them have Polycarbonate with Bisphenol A (BPA) unless specially mentioned BPA-free. BPA is linked to many health conditions like breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive and brain development abnormalities. Read this article to know more.

To counter the negative publicity of BPA containing materials, manufacturers have come up with a new substitute Bisphenol-S (BPS). It decieves the general public who knows about BPA but not about BPS. If you see ‘BPA free’ in the label, but if you are not sure about BPS, be cautious. They are as bad to the health and environment. Read this article to know more about BPS.

Many chemicals are applied on the fabric’s surface as finishes – they may be inevitable in the manufacturing process of textiles and garments to give them certain functionalities. Fabric finishes that provide water, wrinkle, and fire resistance are all highly valued, but they all come to us at a cost.

Teflon coating is given on fabric surfaces to give it waterproofing qualities. PVC coating is done to make the material durable and waterproof. All these finishes may eventually leach out of the material over a period of time.

Related post : Finishes used on textiles.

Some health problems that can be caused by the chemicals in clothes


Contact Dermatitis 

Dermatitis is a skin problem in which skin can develop rashes and itchiness. It is called textile dermatitis when the problems associated are triggered by coming into contact with the fabric.

If you are prone to rashes wherever fabric touches skin, if your eyes start watering every time you wear a new dress, if a new sweater causes you to wiggle and squirm because of irritation, if you are always tempted to itch after wearing a particular dress you may have this condition already.

Neoprene is a material that can cause an allergic reaction which is termed dermatitis. 

If you are sensitive to these, you have to be very careful about what you wear. Do not forget to wash all the fabric you will be handling in sewing; new clothes should never be worn without washing.

If you have this condition, you may want to start wearing only organic and eco-friendly fabrics – they are specifically made without any chemicals. 

Read more here: Being allergic to clothes ; Neoprene allergy

Related post : Best eco friendly and organic fabrics.

Allergic reaction to new clothes or badly stored clothes is very common

Allergic Rhinitis or Asthma

Allergic rhinitis involves inflammation of membranes lining the nose. Anything that flares up and disturbs the lungs is bad news for someone with asthma. And most of the fabric has chemicals and dyes that contain poisonous materials and these hazardous materials can easily do that. Rhinitis may just involve running nose, sneezing and even cough but severe asthma can be a debilitating problem and you should take all precautions to not succumb to it.

Fabric softeners added to the washing cycle with very good intentions can prove to be very detrimental to your health if you are asthmatic. Read about fabric softeners here.

You can read more about the bad effects of fabric softeners here – Why fabric softener may be bad for you. 

I read about the asthma causing textile processing material Alpha amylases here:
List of things that can cause occupational asthma

Cancer

Fabric manufacturing is a very complex process and involves the use of many chemicals. Simple chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, to potentially hazardous chemicals like, formaldehyde, sulphuric acid, and perfluorinated chemicals are involved in the making of fabric. Out of these, some are carcinogenic, ie cancer-causing.

Many of the laundry products in the market are also said to contain some carcinogenic components.

Most of the coated fabrics available in the market are very appealing but you have to realize that the coating is a result of many processes involving different types of dangerous chemicals.

You can read about how to recognize Cancer Warning Labels in fabric here

Endocrine system disruption 

Water-resistant and flame-resistant fabrics have a coating on them, giving them their functionality. But when humans (for whom they are made) are exposed to it, their endocrine system cannot cope with it, resulting in many endocrine-disrupting problems like Thyroidism.

Read more about this here : Problems associated with non stick chemicals coated on water repellent fabrics.

Fungus

Unhygienic use of clothes can be a trigger for fungus growth. Regular cleaning of clothes used in homes with proper detergent is compulsory. Clothes should be washed in detergent, rinsed off, and then dried thoroughly in sunlight. 

Related post: How to disinfect fabric and clothes.; How to remove mold spots from clothes ; How to use bleach on clothes

I know how disturbing it is to read about all these and how important health is for all of us. Not all fabrics are bad. Some are more bad than others. This post is written as a cautionary note. After reading this I hope you will take a little precaution in handling new clothes and fabrics and more care in properly cleaning soiled clothes.

Carbon footprint of textiles – in the quest for beauty and being fashionable, we forget about the elephant in the room. One which is going to cost the earth a lot. According to studies, millions worth of clothing are sent to the landfill each year. Fast fashion trends are not helping.

62 million tons of fabrics are made every year. Most of them end up in the landfill. If enough people are willing to wear their clothes longer or buy less, a disaster can be averted. Are you doing enough? 

Related pots : Detergents and clearners used to clean fabrics

Updated on November 11, 2022 by Sarina Tariq

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