The Chemicals Found in Clothing
Generally, when we purchase clothing, we think about style, fashion or function. Most people probably don’t think of clothing as a source of chemical exposures. Unfortunately, research has documented a concerning number of chemicals found in clothing.
Chemicals in clothing can act as an irritant or allergen. There are even concerns for adverse health effects from clothing chemicals, including cancer and endocrine or hormone disruption (Rovira 2019, Antal 2016).
What Chemicals Are Found in Clothing?
One study analyzed 15 different new clothing items and found more than 40 different chemicals present in clothing samples. The main chemicals of concern were (Antal 2016):
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates — likely derived from cleaning detergents
- Phthalates — plasticizers, likely associated with polyester and other synthetic fabrics
- Azo dye derivatives — from the dye used to produce different colors of clothing
- Quinoline derivatives — potentially used in conjunction with dyes or as a solvent for other chemicals and as corrosion inhibitors on manufacturing equipment
Other chemicals that have been shown to be present in clothing include:
- Heavy metals (Rovira 2015)
- Dioxins and furans (Horstmann 1994)
- Bisphenols (Xue 2017)
- Flame retardants (Saini 2016)
- Fluorinated stain repellents (Lv 2009)
- Formaldehyde from anti-wrinkle chemicals (Groot 2010)
- Pesticides (Zhu 2009)
- Petrochemicals from fuel (Lentini 2000)
Stain Repellents and Permanent Press
Some chemicals in clothing are added specifically for a function. Stain and water repellents used on clothing often include fluorinated compounds, chemicals similar to what is found in teflon non-stick cookware. Testing has found levels in clothes that have raised concerns for exposure with calls for increased regulations on their presence (Supreeyasunthorn 2016).
“Permanent press” chemicals used for wrinkle control are well-known to be contact sensitizers (Reich 2010), In other words, for some individuals, these chemicals can strongly promote the development of skin sensitivities and allergies. A study out of China evaluating textile workers, found that almost 11% of workers had skin lesions found primarily on their hands and wrists from work-related chemical exposures (Chen 2017).
Chemicals Transfer into the Body
If the chemicals were firmly bound to the clothing, concerns might be somewhat reduced. However, data indicates that chemicals can migrate from clothing into the body. An old study focused on children’s pajamas that contained flame retardants known to cause cancer and sterility in animals. They found increased levels of the chemicals in the children’s urine after wearing them. Some of the pajamas had been well washed and still transferred chemicals (Blum 1978). Due to concerns, that specific flame retardant was discontinued. However, it was found in baby mattresses and house dust in a study from 2009 suggesting its continued presence and use in commercial products (Betts 2009).
A separate class of chemicals, the dioxins and furans, also have been shown to migrate from new clothing to human skin (Horstmann 1994). According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are highly toxic, damaging the reproductive system, disrupting immune function, causing hormonal disturbances and developmental problems. They are also carcinogenic and persistent in the environment. These chemicals don’t break down quickly, accumulating in the natural environment and ending up in the food chain (WHO 2016).
More recently, a study found that workers wearing commercially-produced, pesticide-impregnated pants for use against ticks had higher levels of the pesticide in their urine. With repeated laundering, pesticide levels did decrease over time (Rossbach 2014, Rossbach 2016). Notably, some researchers have argued that the pesticide transfer is low enough to be of only minimal concern. They did find some minor changes in reported skin sensations likely due to effects of the pesticide on wearer’s peripheral nerves (Appel 2008).
The data on chemicals found in clothing and the impact on human health is limited. However, what is available raises concerns. Numerous chemicals are found in clothing and some don’t necessarily wash out quickly with laundering. Further research is needed to understand the issue, and it’s likely regulations are needed to reduce or eliminate the chemicals with more health or environmental concerns. For now, the simplest approach is likely to not buy clothing that is water-proof, stain repellent or permanent press. In addition, always launder clothes before use.
While organic clothing may reduce exposure, I was unable to find any research documenting or confirming lower levels of chemicals in organically produced textiles.