5 Toxic Fabrics and Healthier Alternatives

(WellnessNova.com) - Skin is the largest organ on our body, so it makes sense that we should be mindful of what we put on it. Absorbing nearly everything it is exposed to, including potentially harmful toxins, it’s important we know what the difference between good products and materials and bad ones is. Much like organic food is considered better for our health, natural, organic clothing is much safer for the skin than clothes made of synthetic fabrics that have been doused with chemicals.

With that said, here are five fabric to avoid, followed by safer alternatives.

Five Fabrics to Avoid

The following common fabrics are typically produced using methods that not only damage human health, but environmental health as well:

1. Nylon

Nylon is created from a synthetic polyamide, which is an organic compound that is a petrochemical. While there are naturally occurring polyamides such as silk and wool, nylon is the synthetic alternative to those natural fibers. The fabric is then treated with several chemicals such as formaldehyde to prevent shrinkage. Formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant that can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and nose and throat irritation. It’s also linked to cancer, and has been shown to cause an increased risk of asthma and allergies in kids. Nylon production also emits harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which harm our environment.

2. Polyester

Polyester or PET is modified ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid, which means it is also a petrochemical. Some of the emissions released into the air during production of polyester include volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and acid gases that can lead to health issues such as respiratory diseases. Exposure to polyester also results in traces of antimony on human skin. Antimony has been found to cause lung tumors in rats, making it possibly carcinogenic to humans. It can be harmful to the heart, lunges, liver and skin. Long-term inhalation of it can lead to chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Certain studies have even found the synthetic material to be an endocrine disruptor that can potentially harm fertility.

When manufactured, polyester requires large quantities of crude oil, which, when processed, releases harmful emissions into the environment. The waste water from the manufacturing of polyester contains harmful monomers and solvents, which are known to be harmful to the environment.

3. Rayon

Developed and manufactured by DuPont as the world’s first synthetic fiber, rayon is created from liquefied wood pulp. Turning wood into rayon is both wasteful as well as dirty, since lots of water and chemicals are required to extract usable fibers from trees. Its resource-intensive production contributes to deforestation around the world, with only about a third of the pulp obtained from a tree ending up in the finished rayon thread.

When rayon is bleached, a byproduct called dioxin is released that is known to be toxic to humans. The EPA notes that dioxin exposure causes cancer in lab animals and poses a high risk for humans as well. They say it is also a risk for damaged immune systems, reduced fertility, an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis.

4. Conventional Cotton

While cotton is a natural, biodegradable fabric, when it’s not organic, it’s filled with toxic chemicals. Often processed with chlorine bleach, while hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde are also applied in the processing of the fabrics. Dioxin, which is derived from chlorine bleach, is responsible for hormone disruption. The dyeing process of conventional cotton fabrics uses heavy metals that are harmful carcinogens.

Up to 200,000 tons of these dyes are lost to effluents every year during the dyeing and finishing operations as a result of the inefficiency of the dyeing process. Most of these dyes escape conventional wastewater treatment processes and linger in the environment. Anti-microbial agents resistant to biological degradation are also often used in the manufacture of textiles including conventional cotton.

The production of conventional cotton accounts for more than 10 percent of pesticide used and almost 23 percent of agricultural insecticide sales.

One-quarter of a pound of chemicals is required to produce one conventional cotton T-shirt, and one-quarter of a pound of chemicals to produce two pairs of conventional men’s boxer shorts. Pesticides from cotton can enter the human food chain by way of cotton seed oil used in processed foods.

5. Polyurethane

A plastic material that can be molded into shapes, polyurethane is a petrochemical. The material is used chiefly as constituents of paints, varnishes, adhesives, and foams.

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil, and requires two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates. A polyol is a substance produced through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also known as propylene-oxide), and toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, thought to be the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production. Both methyloxirane and TDI have been identified as carcinogens by the State of California, both are on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and both are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors. Furthermore, the EPA also considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants like methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.

Eco-Friendly Fabrics

While it might feel discouraging to know many fabrics you’re used to purchasing and wearing are top offenders for your health and the planet you live on, the good news is that there are healthier alternatives you can take advantage of.

One of the best ways to determine if a garment is eco-friendly is by touching it and rubbing your fingers together. This allows you to determine if it’s made of natural fabrics, in which case you’ll notice that a little bit of residue transfers from the clothes onto your fingers. It’s also important to look at the label, as clothing companies are required to provide all materials used in their products.

Here are four safer, greener fabrics to try out:

1. Tencel

Though it’s a man-made fabric, it’s actually harvested from the natural cellulose material found in wood pulp. It’s easier on the environment due to its closed-loop production in which 99 percent of the chemicals and solvents used in the process to break down the wood pulp are recovered and recycled. The result is minimal waste and very low emissions. The production even received the European Award for the Environment from the EU.

2. Modal 

A semi-synthetic fiber produced from the pulp of beechwood trees, it is also part of a closed-loop system that doesn’t emit harmful by-products into the environment. Sometimes referred to as “artificial silk,” the material is soft, smooth and drapes well, while also being breathable and extremely absorbent (50 percent more so than cotton).

3. Hemp

Considered a high-yield crop that produces a significant amount of fiber per square foot without exhausting the soil, hemp needs no pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers to be produced. It also requires very little water. Hemp doesn’t wear out, either, but rather, wears in. Valued for its strength and durability, it simply gets softer as you wash it.

4. Ramie

One of the oldest natural plant fibers, used as far back as ancient Egypt, ramie can be harvested up to 3 or 4 times a year with significantly less water needed than other plants such as cotton. Naturally resistant to bacteria, molds and mildew, it doesn’t require the use of pesticides or herbicides to grow healthily. Ramie is also one of the strongest natural fibers (up to 8 times stronger than cotton). It’s also stain resistant and highly absorbent.

Written by Alexa Erickson
Inspired by balance, Alexa finds that her true inner peace comes from executing a well-rounded lifestyle. An avid yogi, hiker, beach bum, music and art enthusiast, salad aficionado, adventure seeker, animal lover, and professional writer, she is an active individual who loves to express herself through the power of words. See more articles by this author
How to