Are Your Clothes Toxic? Detox Your Clothing 101: A Complete Guide to everything you need to know about Eco-Friendly Clothing
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
With more and more people becoming conscious of the effect toxic chemicals can have on our health and the planet, we have seen a rise in popularity of organic food, alternative medicine and natural skincare. But what about the clothes you wear every day?
Research has shown our skin absorbs up to 65% of what is put on it, with chemical exposure linked to both temporary and permanent health concerns including skin irritation and contact dermatitis, respiratory problems, organ damage and even cancer. This is particularly worrying when you consider that there are currently 8,000 chemicals used in clothes manufacturing, all with direct access to our bloodstream via the dermis.
It’s not surprising organic clothing brands have seen a surge in popularity, with an increasing number of conscious consumers seeking to buy organic cotton and other natural fibers.
However chemical-free clothing goes way beyond choosing organic natural fibers!
While this is an important and necessary first step, many natural organic clothing brands still resort to using chemicals throughout various stages of the manufacturing process. And the exposure to chemicals even continues at home in our own laundries!
So don’t just trust brands who classify themselves as “sustainable” or “slow fashion”. These are unregulated and subjective terms, which do not necessarily ensure clothing is chemical-free or even eco-friendly.
It’s up to us as consumers to do our research and choose brands who avoid chemicals throughout the entire manufacturing process from production to bleaching, coloring, finishing and packaging. Just as importantly, once we’ve got our clothes home, it’s important for us to avoid cleaning them with chemical detergents, stain removers and bleaches.
Chemical culprits: What to avoid when shopping for natural chemical-free clothing
Unlike food or skincare, our clothing doesn’t come with an itemized list of ingredients. So here is our list of products to avoid as well as some cleaner, greener alternatives to look for when shopping for chemical-free clothing!
Synthetic or plastic clothes
Synthetic materials like nylon, polyester and acrylic – all forms of plastic - now represent about 60% of the clothing worldwide. This is terrible news for both our bodies and the planet as these materials shed millions of tiny, plastic microfibers just through everyday use. In fact, recent studies suggest around 700,000 microfibers come off in a typical wash.
These tiny plastic microfibers, which don’t biodegrade, and which are small enough to pass through sewerage plants, end up in our oceans and waterways, our food chain, our drinking water and even our lungs! In fact, recent studies suggest these tiny plastic microfibers are already in 83% of the world’s drinking water and that we are ingesting at least 13,000 to 68,000 plastic microfibers each year!
While we are still unsure of the long-term health effects of these microplastics on both animal and human health, their consumption is particularly alarming because of their tendency to absorb other toxins from both our clothes and the natural environment.
And don’t be fooled by marketing terms such as “sweat wicking” or “performance fabrics” as these fabrics actually suffocate our skin and restrict our bodies from releasing toxins.
Natural alternative: Choose garments made from organic and wild-crafted natural fibers such as organic cotton, linen, hemp and nettles, which are naturally biodegradable and allow the body to breathe, detox and regulate its own temperature.
While cotton has always been considered pure and natural, conventional cotton is actually grown from genetically modified seeds and sprayed with Round-Up – a herbicide whose main ingredient glyphosate is linked to cancer.
In fact, conventional cotton now accounts for 25% of the insecticides used worldwide. Not only do these harm farm workers, kill beneficial insects and contaminate ground and surface water but they persist in our clothing even after manufacture and are almost impossible to remove.
Buy organic cotton and other organic natural fibers instead. Not only are no toxic chemicals used in the growing of organic cotton but it also kinder to the soil, has less impact on the air and uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton.
Bright white or stark white clothes
In general, fibers in their natural, unbleached state (referred to as greige) are not pristine white but rather off white or cream. To arrive at this stark white color, fibers are unnaturally bleached, with toxic chlorine-based bleaches that not only poison our waterways and ground soil but have also been linked to serious health concerns ranging from skin and eye irritation to respiratory problems and even fatal lung disease.
While the earliest forms of bleaching such as spreading out fabric in a “bleachfield” to be whitened by the action of the sun or using indigenous acid or alkaline baths could take up to six months, the discovery of chlorine-based bleaches in the 18th century saw this process reduced to just hours. This gives you a good picture of how strong they are.
So while bright white is seen as clean and pure, it is fact one of the “dirtiest” colours of them all in terms of toxins, damage to workers health and environmental concerns.
Look for raw, unbleached fabrics and choose naturals colours like ivory, cream, ecru, tan or grey over “pure white”.
During the dyeing of clothes, a large percentage of dye (around 30%) does not bind to the fabric and is washed away into our waterways - killing aquatic life, ruining soils and poisoning drinking water. It is estimated that 20% of our planet’s industrial water pollution comes from the dyeing and finishing processes of textiles.
A number of Azo dyes (formerly the most popular dyes in the clothing manufacturing industry) have been found to release chemicals called aromatic amines known to cause cancer and birth defects. While synthetic indigo, used to make denim blue is made from a chemical cocktail which includes formaldehyde, and dark and black coloured clothing often contain high concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical that causes contact dermatitis.
Natural botanical alternative
When shopping for clothes in bright or vibrant tones, look for natural sustainable clothing brands who clearly identify their dyeing process on their clothes or website.
Focus on labels who dye their own clothes locally with botanical dyes or who use GOTS or OEKO-Tex certified organic, plant-based dyes.
Botanical dyes are not only a more eco-friendly option, but they also provide work opportunities for artisans, and can even have Ayuervedic health benefits by delivering the medicinal properties of herbs such as indigo, turmeric and aloe vera via the skin. This is referred to as Ayuvastra, literally “medicinal cloth”.
Weather-proof, stain resistant clothing
When clothes are marketed as waterproof or stain-resistant, in particular uniforms, outdoor and ski gear they are often saturated in per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - exposure to which has been associated with kidney and testicular cancers, liver damage and developmental issues.
PFAS became popular in the US in the 1940s as a way to resist heat, water, grease and stains. They are the same chemicals used to make non-stick cookware and cupcake wrappers, and today are known to be toxic. They also belong to a class of “forever chemicals” - labelled as such because of their persistence in the environment for thousands of years.
In order to avoid PFAS look-out for labels that contain the words Gore-tex or Teflon, or ask your manufacturer if their clothing contains PFASs.
Similarly, flame retardant clothes have come under fire lately with growing evidence they can affect the endocrine, immune, reproductive, and nervous systems and even cause cancer.
Clean green alternative
When in doubt look to our ancestors for guidance! Traditionally, organic wool has always been the weatherproof fiber of choice. Not only is it warm and naturally water and flame resistant, but it’s also hypoallergenic.
Wrinkle-free, iron-free or color-fast clothing
Watch-out for clothes marketed as wrinkle-free, antistatic or color-fast as these are often treated with formaldehyde, best known for its ability to preserve dead bodies. The clothing industry is particularly fond of it, using it to stop clothes from wrinkling or to hold colors or permanent pleats.
Formadehyde is particularly bad news for factory workers as inhaling it has been linked to cancer but also for consumers who can get contact dermatitis just from wearing it.
For those of you who hate ironing, wool, cashmere and silk are good natural options. Or for vegan options try organic cotton knits or crinkled textures such as organic cotton crepe.
Otherwise try your hand at a natural DIY wrinkle spray made with equal parts of filtered water and vinegar and a few drops essential oils. Just make sure you stick to colorless essential oils like lavender, peppermint and rosemary so as not to stain your clothes.
To use, apply in sweeping motions, while smoothing and tugging fabric with your hands.
Not only does leather get a bad rap for its treatment of animals but 90% of the leather products on the market today are tanned with chromium, a highly-toxic substance, known for its negative impact ton he environment and linked to a host of serious health concerns including respiratory and kidney problems, infertility and even birth defects.
Vegetable-tanning of leather is an ancient method that uses bark, leaves and roots that are high in tannins to tan hides. It is a slow and complex process that is done by highly-skilled workers over a period of 30 to 60 days.
Seen as a natural organic clothing option, bamboo has seen a huge surge in popularity over the last few years. But before you go stocking your wardrobe, it’s important to note that not ALL bamboo is what it’s cracked up to be.
While growing bamboo may require less chemicals than say conventional cotton, the manufacturing process still leaves a lot to be desired. In order for bamboo to be turned into the popular, silky soft fabric seen in sheets and underwear, it must go through a highly-intensive chemical process.
Similar to the production of rayon from wood pulp, the chemicals used in this process are highly toxic to human health and the environment.
Choose bamboo linen spun from thread, or other natural organic fibers which can be processed without chemicals in the traditional manner.
Our Nettle Line at Seam Siren
At Seam Siren we are committed to making plant-based clothing that is not only chemical-free but so clean that is can be used as natural healing medicine!
Made out of the purest natural fibers such a wildcrafted Himalayan nettle and local homegrown organic cotton, the fibers are manufactured into fabric in the traditional way without the use of toxic chemicals.
The nettles are hand harvested, woven and spun into shawls and yarn in the Koshi district of Nepal while the organic cotton is spun domestically in a handful of states.
Each piece is then either left raw or is hand-dyed with botanical dyes in Seattle. Our color palette combines elements of Ayurvastra with the principles of Chromatherapy (an ancient therapy that uses color to balance energy).
When we are unable to harvest our own colors due to volume, we source our dyes from a company that has created fully GOTS certified organic plant-based dyes. So, you can be assured that our clothes are not only natural and chemical-free but actually expose skin and body to the healing properties of plants.
We also take care with our packaging – our tags are made from organic seed and hemp while our clothing is packed with ethically-sourced biodegradable plant materials and shipped to you in recycled packaging!
Shop our line of natural, chemical-free medicinal accessories and experience the healing good goodness now!
- Nettle Fiber Indigo Calming Shawl: Feel cool and calm shrouded in the beautiful blue of natural indigo, one of the world’s greatest antinflamatories.
- Nettle Fiber Grounding Yoga Towel: Ground yourself with the protective energy of the nettle plant, made from handwoven Nettle Fiber in Nepal and sewn in Los Angeles, CA.
- Nettle Fiber Positivity Shawl Strengthen your nerves and your mind with the sunny yellow goodness of weld flowers.
Air out your dirty laundry: Tips for toxin-free laundering
Once you’ve got your chemical-free garments home, it’s up to you to take care of them without the use of toxic chemicals.
Commercial laundry detergents contain a host of toxic chemicals including SLS and SLES, phosphates, formaldehyde, ammonium sulphate, ammonium quaternary sanitizers, dyes and chlorine bleach.
That said, your laundry isn’t going anywhere! Here are some tips to do your laundry in a greener, chemical-free fashion:
- Switch to a natural DIY laundry powder (recipe below). Or if you prefer the convenience of store-bought try Molly’s Suds Laundry Powder which is made from five simple ingredients and free from SLS and SLES, phosphates, petrochemicals, optical brighteners, synthetic fragrances and dyes, parabens and other nasties.
- For hand-washing and stain removal, try a natural an all purpose bar soap. They are also great for travel as they can often double up as a soap, shampoo bar, laundry soap or dish soap. These ones from natural skincare company Mama Bruja are 100% natural and fit for laundry, household cleaning, dishes and your body!
- Ditch chemical fabric softener and add a cup of vinegar to your machine instead.
- Swap chlorine-based bleaches for hydrogen peroxide, washing soda, lemon juice or an oxygen-based whitener such Nelly’s All Natural Oxygen Brightener, which is free from chlorine and comes in an eco-friendly tin. Alternatively try the DIY Natural Bleach Alternative recipe below.
DIY Laundry Powder Recipe
- 1 x natural all purpose bar soap, grated
- 2 cups of washing powder
- Lemon essential oil
- Grate the soap by hand or in the food processor. Only use your food processor if it has a good engine.
- Combine grated soap and washing powder.
- Add 20-40 drops of lemon essential oil. If you are using a food processor you may want to remove the powder before this step so as not to leave the smell of essential oils in your food processor.
- Store your laundry powder in a tightly sealed glass jar or tin in the laundry.
- Use as normal in your washing machine adding 2-3 heaped spoons per wash.
DIY Natural Bleach Alternative
- 12 cups of water
- 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide
- ¼ cup of lemon juice
Stir ingredients together in a glass bowl and store in a glass jar. To use, add two cups to each load of laundry. You can also store in a spray bottle and use as an all-purpose cleaner.
What are your tips for keeping your clothes clean and green? Tell us in the comments section below.