Healthy living isn’t only about what you put directly into your body. It’s also about what you use to cover your body with. If you’re trying to avoid toxins that may enter your body, you’re probably well aware of the harmful ingredients in cosmetics, which ones you should avoid and why you should avoid them. But did you know that even your clothes can be harmful to your health?
This is especially the case with synthetic fabrics. Polyester, rayon, nylon, acrylic, and acetate are just some of the synthetic fibres that we find in most commercial clothing. Even that cotton T-shirt often contains quite a bit of polyester, Lycra, spandex or other manmade fibres. These fibres help to improve stretch, make your clothes more resistant to wrinkles and increase the fabric’s ability to dry quickly, for instance. However, synthetic fibres aren’t always good for you and here's why it’s better to opt for natural fabrics instead.
1. The Risk of Fabric Finishes
We are surrounded by chemicals every day. Synthetic fabrics are usually made through chemical processes that turn polymers, often derived from petroleum, into the fabric that makes up your fashionable clothes. These fabrics get their colours and patterns with the help of dyes that are chockfull of chemicals too and just to add to the soup, chemicals are often added in a thin layer to coat the fabric too.
The Teflon that coats your frying pans and makes them so easy to clean can do the same for your clothes, for instance: It makes the fabric stain resistant and easier to clean, in addition to being wrinkle-resistant. Teflon is one of the chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. Research has so far linked PFCs to conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, reduced fertility, lower birth weights, an increase in bad cholesterol, an increase in uric acid that can put you at risk for hypertension and certain types of cancer. (For an overview of this research, see ncceh.ca
Another nasty that’s often used as a finishing agent on fabrics is formaldehyde. Yes, the same chemical that is used to preserve the remains of dead animals or to embalm corpses is also used to keep your clothes from creasing. However, formaldehyde is toxic and can cause skin and eye irritations, among other health problems. It has even been linked to cancer. (For more information, see cancer.gov Some governments, including some in the EU, have placed restrictions on the levels of formaldehyde that certain products, including clothing, may contain.
While natural fabrics are obviously much less likely to contain harmful chemicals, it doesn’t mean that all-natural fabrics are safer to wear than synthetics. Commercially produced textiles made of natural fibres may still be finished in chemicals like formaldehyde and it’s a good idea to carefully check the label. If it says that the fabric is ‘crease-resistant’, ‘easy care’, ‘water repellent’ or ‘flame retardant’, for instance, there’s a very good chance that it’s been drenched in nasty chemicals.
2. Deadly Dyes
It’s not only the finishes on fabrics that can be harmful. Commercial dyes can be very toxic too, causing conditions like asthma and other respiratory problems and even cancers like leukaemia. This is why there are usually health and safety regulations for textile workers to follow when working with fabric dyes.
Once again, natural fabrics aren’t much safer to wear than synthetic fabrics if they’re drenched in harmful chemicals from the dyeing process. To minimize the risk without having to skimp on style, it’s best to wear organically produced fabrics that were dyed in natural dyes. Common vegetables and flowers, including onions, artichokes, beets, roses, irises, and daylilies can be used to produce fabrics in colours ranging from earthy browns and greens to vibrant pinks, reds, blues and purples.
3. Natural is (usually) Better for Your Skin
Anyone who’s ever suffered from itchy nether regions from wearing nylon underwear will tell you that it’s much better for your skin to wear natural fabrics. Synthetic fabrics usually don’t breathe as well as natural fabrics and don’t absorb moisture as well. This means that sweat and bacteria get trapped on your skin where they can cause rashes. If you’ve ever worn polyester on a hot day, you’ll also know that those trapped bacteria can make you rather smelly. However, not all-natural fabrics are better. Silk isn’t much more breathable than synthetic fabrics, for instance, while some people can suffer from wool allergies.
4. The Environmental Factor
It goes without saying that natural fabrics are generally better for the environment than synthetic ones. Simply the fact that they’re made from renewable resources like cotton, flax or bamboo makes them a much more sustainable option than petroleum-derived synthetics. They are biodegradable too, unlike most synthetic fabrics.
However, you need to bear in mind exactly how those natural fabrics are produced. Conventional farming practices can cause terrible environmental damage. The use of agrochemicals like inorganic fertilizers and pesticides can pollute soil and water and upset the ecological balance. Unwise farming practices can also cause problems like soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity. Cotton is especially notorious as a water-wasting crop too.
If you decide to go for natural fibres, what are your best choices? Try to opt for organically produced textiles because they’re grown in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Also, go for more water-wise cotton alternatives hemp or bamboo. Finally, be sure that they get their colours from natural dyes and make peace with the fact that you’ll have to work a little harder to get the wrinkles out when your clothes haven’t been covered in wrinkle-resistant finishes.