When clothes shopping, we usually like to feel the texture of clothing with our hands and read the label to check for any additional perks like “stain-resistant” or “wrinkle-proof.” We make choices for our clothing that suit us economically as well as personally. But our clothing comes with hidden health consequences. We often consume without the consideration of how our clothing affects our bodies. The truth is that you are probably wearing plastic and chemicals on your body every day. Many clothing fabrics are created through processes that use dangerous synthetic materials. These materials are composed of microplastics that absorb into your skin and cause health complications.
While most people may not feel the effects of their clothes, the chemicals used in producing most clothing fabrics are enough to create short and long-term health risks, both on the surface and inside of your body. What you wear is not just an economic and aesthetic choice—it’s a health choice. Here is a list of common fabrics you should avoid because of their harmful health impacts.
While it is one of the most commonly-worn fabrics, polyester is not body-friendly. It is one example of petroleum-derived substances called polymers. Like these substances, polyester begins as a crude oil and the process of making polyester involves stringing together different monomers, or chemical building blocks, that eventually result in the end product of polyester. Most of these monomers are cancer-causing chemicals and all are poisonous. One example is antimony, which is toxic to the heart, lungs, liver, and skin. All the microplastics fused together in polyester are absorbed into your body through the surface of your skin as a result of your body heat and can cause long-lasting health effects like cancer.
Rayon and Viscose
Similar in composition, rayon and viscose are both chemically converted from wood pulp. While it sounds more natural, the production of the fabric is dangerous. The chemicals used to produce the materials stay embedded in the clothing afterwards. Rayon and viscose are broken down through a mechanical and chemical process that involves sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid. When these chemical substances are emitted during production, workers show neurological decline, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke. When we wear and inhale the contents of rayon and viscose, the emitted free radicals–or unstable molecules that can build up in cells and cause damage like cancer–cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, chest and muscle pain, and insomnia. Many first world countries do not produce rayon and viscose in factories because of the associated health risks to people and the environment, but the same harmful substance is sold for us to wear.
Acrylic fibres are made from acrylonitrile, which is a volatile, highly reactive, colourless liquid and does not occur naturally in the environment. The substance was classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1999 as a cancer risk in humans after animal experimentation trials. After testing the acrylonitrile on animals through methods of inhalation and water and food consumption, the study reported that animals had tumours in their central nervous systems, mammary glands, lungs, and other rare tumour sites. When humans inhale the acrylonitrile found in acrylic fibres, there is a risk of respiratory irritation and even neurological symptoms like dizziness, weakness, headaches, and impaired judgment.
Like polyester, nylon is a synthetic polymer. The manufacturing process of nylon uses benzene, a chemical identified by the American Cancer Society as a carcinogen to humans with the capability of causing cancers like leukemia. Another by-product of nylon production, ammonium sulfate, causes skin corrosion and irritation, serious eye damage and irritation, respiratory irritation, and organ poisoning. The Government of Canada classifies nylon as a “medium heath priority”–or a fairly urgent issue that needs reformation–due to the fabric’s toxicity.
Spandex, Lycra, and Elastane
Made of synthetic fibres, spandex, lycra, and elastane contain carcinogenic chemicals like polyurethane. Long-lasting contact with polyurethane can cause asthma reactions and lung irritation. Other risks include headaches and brain swelling because of the chemicals embedded in the fabric. Factory workers who are exposed to the fumes from the chemicals involved in this fabric’s production have reported several health disorders including vomiting, stomach pain, and dizziness. Although spandex is used in many exercise clothing and underwear, the fibres cannot absorb sweat. Once your body heats up and begins sweating underneath spandex, the chemicals are released into your skin from the dyes and formaldehyde used on the fabric. This can lead to contact dermatitis. Spandex’s inability to absorb sweat also makes skin an ideal location for different bacterial infections like folliculitis and impetigo.
What is Safe to Wear?
The reality is that we are exposed to all of these synthetic fibres and their chemicals every day, but we can still make the best choice for our bodies by investigating the materials used in clothing when we shop. Choosing clothing that is only made up of one material is the best route to ensure the purity of the fabric. Some of the best and safest materials to look for when buying clothes are cotton, linen, and silk because these textiles are not synthetically composed of microplastics. Instead, these fabrics come from natural sources like cotton plants, flax plants, and silkworms, respectively. Although we have many different options for clothing, we also face the responsibility of looking past the aesthetic to consider the consequences of what we wear.