Chemicals in Synthetic Clothing and our Health

July 27, 2023 7 mins to read
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It’s difficult to find clothing that doesn’t contain some sort of synthetic fiber. Our skin is our largest organ, and while it a protective part of our immune system, it’s semi-permeable and especially susceptible to chemical toxins. The fact is these synthetic fibers in our clothing, like polyester and spandex, contain toxic chemicals like Phthalates and PFCs that our skin absorbs when we put them on, which can disrupt hormones, put stress on the immune system, increase inflammation and contribute to a variety of diseases, including cancer. It’s no wonder rates of cancer are going skyhigh…everyone is wearing toxic plastic clothing 24-7!

List of Synthetic Fabrics

  1. Nylon: Developed in the 1930s, nylon was initially used for women’s stockings and has since been used in a variety of applications, from clothing and swimwear to parachutes and car tires. It’s highly durable, resistant to insects, fungi & mildew, and dries quickly.
  2. Acrylic: Acrylic is lightweight, warm & soft. It’s often used in sweaters & fleece clothing, as well as outdoor fabrics & craft yarns. However, it can be prone to pilling.
  3. Spandex (also known as Lycra or elastane): Is known for its exceptional elasticity and is therefore used in a wide range of active wear including: athletic apparel, swimwear, and fashion garments that require a high degree of elasticity.
  4. Rayon: Although derived from a natural polymer, cellulose, rayon is considered semi-synthetic because of the significant processing needed to turn the raw cellulose into a usable fiber. Rayon fabrics are soft, breathable, and highly absorbent, but they don’t insulate body heat, making them ideal for use in hot & humid climates.
  5. Polypropylene: This plastic-based material is often used in activewear, as it wicks moisture away from the body. It’s also lightweight and warm, making it suitable for thermal undergarments.
  6. Acetate and Triacetate: These fabrics mimic the feel and appearance of silk, which is why they are often used for linings, blouses, wedding and evening dresses, and home decorations. Acetate fabrics are smooth, lustrous & drape well.
  7. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Used to create shiny, glossy materials. PVC is often the compound of choice for jackets, shoes, and upholstery.

List of Toxic Chemicals in Synthetic Fabrics

  1. Phthalates: These are plasticizers often used in the production of synthetic fibers. They can disrupt hormones in the body, potentially causing reproductive and developmental issues. [1]
  2. Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs): These are used in clothing, particularly active wear and outdoor gear, for their water- and stain-resistant properties. They have been linked to various health problems, including thyroid disease, cancer, and immune system issues. [2]
  3. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs): These are used in the manufacturing process of synthetic textiles. NPEs are known to be bio-accumulative (accumulate in body tissues) and can disrupt hormones, potentially causing reproductive and developmental problems. [3]
  4. Dyes and Colorants: Many synthetic dyes contain heavy metals and other toxic compounds, which can cause skin irritation and allergies. Some have been shown to be neurotoxic, and have been linked to cancer & other health problems. [4]
  5. Formaldehyde: This chemical is often used as a finish in clothing to prevent wrinkles and is a known carcinogen (cancer causing), which can also cause allergic reactions & respiratory problems. [5]
  6. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Often used in the production and treatment processes of synthetic textiles. VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, allergic skin reactions, and respiratory problems. In severe cases, they can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and even the nervous system. [6]

Sweat It Out, or Soak It In?

When these synthetic fibers sit on your skin all day, they can be absorbed through the skins semi-permeable membrane, and enter the bloodstream. When you are hot, such as during exercise, your pores open up which can increase skin permeability [12, 13] and absorption of those toxic chemicals into your skin can potentially be enhanced. If I was a conspiracy theorist that didn’t believe in coincidences, I’d suspect these chemicals were put into active wear intentionally…knowing their negative health impacts would be enhanced when used in the activities they were designed for.

Oh, what about my lungs!?!

Naturally, these micro fibers can break up over time, and be released into the air, where we can inhale them. They can then find their way into various areas of the respiratory tract such as the lungs. One study found microplastics in all regions of the human lungs, particularly polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate fibres, which results showed were inhaled. [7, 8]

Oh yeah, and the environment too!

Additionally, synthetic fibers are a major source of microplastic pollution. When washed, synthetic clothes shed tiny plastic fibers that can end up in the ocean and other water bodies, impacting marine life and eventually entering the human food chain (because yeah most of us eat fish and other animals). [9, 10, 11]

Please dollar vote 🙁

Dollar voting is a thing, especially in our demand side economy…in other words the more people that spend money on natural fabrics instead of synthetic, the more available and cheaper they’ll become and the less companies will produce synthetic clothing. You have all the power , and you use it every single time you swipe your debit/credit card at the store.

Conclusion

For me it seems like a no brainer…Why wear toxic synthetic clothing when natural fabrics are readily available, super comfortable and often cheaper? It’s better for my health (skin and lungs), the oceans and the environment at large. All I do when I go out to shop is look at the tags, or if I shop online I just add “100% cotton” to my search terms e.g. “100% cotton briefs”. It’s really not that difficult, so there’s no excuse not to buy natural fabrics. But, some people just can’t be bothered with minor inconveniences, and if they end up with some illness or cancer they’ll probably just chalk it up to it being “the luck of the draw” and not connect the rise in use of synthetic fabrics as a contributing factor to the rise in disease and cancers. But then again I’m in college to become a nutritionist, so you can always come to me once you get sick.

References

  1. Meeker, J. D., Sathyanarayana, S., & Swan, S. H. (2009). Phthalates and other additives in plastics: human exposure and associated health outcomes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2097–2113.
  2. Barry, V., Winquist, A., & Steenland, K. (2013). Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) Exposures and Incident Cancers among Adults Living Near a Chemical Plant. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121(11-12), 1313–1318.
  3. Soares, A., Guieysse, B., Jefferson, B., Cartmell, E., & Lester, J. N. (2008). Nonylphenol in the environment: A critical review on occurrence, fate, toxicity and treatment in wastewaters. Environment International, 34(7), 1033–1049.
  4. Sostaric, M., & Bračič, M. (2020). Health and environmental impact of textile dyeing—a case study. Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 84, 397–404.
  5. National Cancer Institute (2021). Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk.
  6. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2021). Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality.
  7. Pauly, J. L., Stegmeier, S. J., Allaart, H. A., Cheney, R. T., Zhang, P. J., Mayer, A. G., & Streck, R. J. (1998). Inhaled cellulosic and plastic fibers found in human lung tissue. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers, 7(5), 419-428. Link
  8. Schwarz, A. E., Ligthart, T. N., Boukris, E., & van Harmelen, T. (2019). Sources, transport, and accumulation of different types of plastic litter in aquatic environments: A review study. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 143, 92-100. Link
  9. Browne, M. A., Crump, P., Niven, S. J., Teuten, E., Tonkin, A., Galloway, T., & Thompson, R. (2011). Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(21), 9175–9179. Link
  10. Rochman, C. M., Hoh, E., Kurobe, T., & Teh, S. J. (2013). Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Scientific Reports, 3, 3263. Link
  11. Gago, J., Carretero, O., Filgueiras, A. V., & Viñas, L. (2018). Synthetic microfibers in the marine environment: A review on their occurrence in seawater and sediments. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 127, 365-376. Link
  12. Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical Medicine & Research, 15(3-4), 75–87. Link
  13. Jiang, S., Ma, C., He, L., Li, H., Han, D., & He, L. (2018). Mechanisms for an effect of acupoint application treatment on sweat secretion. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 18(1), 313. Link

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