Toxic Fashion's Worst Offenders and Nine Ways to Protect Yourself

Alden Wicker
·15 mins read
Photo credit: getty images/Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: getty images/Ingrid Frahm

From Harper's BAZAAR

In 2015, Andi, who lives in Pennsylvania, was hit by a drunk driver. Unsurprisingly, she sustained a neck and other minor injuries. But then, she started noticing that she had also developed debilitating reactions to fragrances, including scented detergents. Her throat would close, and she would start wheezing. Breathing deeply to calm herself would only make it worse.

Outside of these acute attacks, she moved through life in a brain fog. “I felt like I had Alzheimer’s,” she says. She had to leave her job and became housebound. “I would constantly be showering, not knowing what I wanted to get off of me,” she says. “I was always changing my clothes.”

“At the time all my doctors labeled me as crazy,” Andi says. (She declined to use her last name because of her shame around unemployment.) But eventually, an integrative medical doctor diagnosed her with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which can be triggered by overexposure to chemicals or — like in Andi’s case — trauma. People suffering from MCS are exquisitely attuned to toxic chemicals in our environment, and are a growing cohort. Diagnoses of MCS increased by 300 percent in the decade preceding 2018.

Along with air fresheners, perfumes, and newly painted offices, people who have MCS struggle to find non-toxic clothing. Andi tries to stick with castoffs from a friend who is a clotheshorse and is also sensitive to chemicals. But when her family buys her new clothes, she has resorted to hanging them outside on a line in the rain and sun for months to allow them to off-gas all the chemicals.

That may seem extreme, but the evidence is mounting that it’s not in her head. She’s just slightly more attuned to a real danger that affects us all.

In 2019, H&M and IKEA decided to test pre-consumer textile waste and post-consumer clothing castoffs (from other brands) that had been collected in Europe, in preparation for potentially recycling them into new products. The joint study found that 8.7 percent of all the samples contained traces of chromium, a heavy metal and carcinogen that can cause a rash when absorbed into the skin. It also found alkylphenol ethoxylates (also known as APEOs) in 27 percent of the post-consumer samples. These are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mess with your hormones. While H&M says that few of the samples were over industry limits, and cautions that more research is needed, it was a rare glimpse at just how pervasive toxic chemicals on our clothes are, even after years of use.

Those results weren’t surprising to anyone who works in fashion. “There are tens of thousands of chemicals used in commerce,” says Dr. Matteo Kausch, the director of technical development at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a voluntary certification for environmentally sustainable products. Nike estimates that there are more than 3,000 chemicals used in footwear and apparel manufacturing alone.

From detergents, solvents, acids, and scouring compounds, to dyes, anti-wrinkle treatments, and biocides, we have effectively exported the dirty business of making our clothes to developing countries with few workplace or environmental protections, mostly to save money. The evidence that these chemicals harm garment workers is abundantly clear — it’s been called a “global health crisis.” But if you think that the problem is all “over there,” it’s not. Because these brands are shipping many of these toxic chemicals right back over to us. You could call it clothing karma.

This isn’t new information. Greenpeace’s 2011 Detox report called out big brands for the hazardous contamination flowing out of garment factories in China and that spurred the creation of the industry group ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), which created a list of toxic chemicals that member brands then told their suppliers to start phasing out.

It was a big step in the right direction, but because some of the leading brands are doing their due diligence, a sense of complacency has settled over the industry. Recently, Greenpeace declared victory on its Detox campaign and took a “pause,” even though, according to the 2020 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, half of the 250 largest global brands don’t have a Restricted Substance List (RSL), and just a quarter have committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals from their supply chain by a certain time.

Ostensibly, because many brands share factories, even the big brands who do nothing to detoxify their supply chain get a free ride on the detox train when another brand tells a factory to clean up its act. But this still leaves gaping holes in chemical management you could drive a container ship through.

In 2018, the European Union recognized this danger to consumers and restricted 33 chemicals specifically for use in textiles. It now recalls a fashion product every few weeks for excessive chromium, nickel, or other toxic substances.

You won’t find similar recalls in the U.S., and it’s not because our clothing is safer. While some states have stricter regulations, on a federal level, the U.S. regulates only two substances — lead and phthalates — and only for children’s clothing. No one from the federal government is checking inside the boxes for toxins before they’re offloaded from container ships and planes and dropped off at our front step.

“It is the manufacturer’s (to include importer’s) responsibility to ensure that exposure to the product does not present a risk of injury,” a spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission told me via email. In other words, it’s up to fashion brands to regulate themselves. Those that do keep the results private.

Whenever non-brands rustle up enough money to do testing themselves and share the results with the public, they find some terrifying stuff. For example, in 2018, the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health tested adult jewelry sold by Ross and found that it was made of 40 percent to 90 percent cadmium, a metal that with prolonged exposure has been linked to kidney damage, bone loss, and at high enough doses, death. While California doesn’t regulate cadmium in adult jewelry, that’s more than 1,000 times the California legal limit for how much cadmium children’s jewelry could contain.

In response to Harper’s Bazaar’s questions, Ross’s corporate spokesperson emailed this statement: “We have clear guidelines in place that require our suppliers to comply with all applicable product safety and labeling standards set forth by government agencies, including but not limited to, California Proposition 65. In addition, we have practices in place to review vendor compliance, including cadmium and other toxic chemicals. We would not knowingly allocate non-compliant products to stores.” Ross did not respond to Harper Bazaar’s specific questions about changes to its sourcing practices since 2018 (if any), or whether Ross has ever pulled items from shelves or prevented them from going to stores.

“It’s very hard to work with suppliers to change their chemistry to approved chemistry,” says Xiaofei Li, a research and development textile chemist at Eileen Fisher. “It has been many years, and we still haven’t gotten to 100 percent.”

I wanted to talk to Li because I had heard people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity trust Eileen Fisher to sell clean clothes. In 2007, Eileen Fisher was the first well-known fashion brand (after some outdoor apparel brands) to start working on getting toxic chemicals out of its supply chain with the help of bluesign, a third-party certification and consultancy. At the beginning of 2018, Eileen Fisher also started systematically testing its products for toxic residues. Even after a decade of detoxifying its supply chain, the testing still found two products containing APEOs. What followed was a long investigation down, down, down into the supply chain, all the way back to the raw fiber supplier, before the team could root the chemical out.

Outdoor brands, which rely on performance finishes, have especially struggled to go clean. In 2016, Greenpeace tested outdoor gear that it had bought in Europe and found that 34 out of the 40 products it tested had finishes containing perfluoral chemicals. Also known as PFAS, they’re a broad class of chemicals used for water and stain repellency that have been linked to developmental delays, cancer, and infertility. They also last forever and never biodegrade, traveling through our water systems and on the ocean currents to the remotest corners of the earth.

Many outdoor brands have switched from the worst type, PFOAs, to different perfluorinated chemicals that are supposedly safer for humans. Supposedly. This switching from a known hazardous chemical to a new similar chemical that later comes out as equally hazardous is so common, it has a name: Regrettable Substitution. In the U.S., we take an innocent until proven guilty stance with our chemicals.

The luxury sector isn’t innocent, either. PVC, a synthetic plastic used to create mock leather and see-through handbags, one of last year’s hottest luxury trends, often contains plasticizers like phthalates, another endocrine disruptor, and has been shown to leach these substances into water supply. (Stella McCartney and Gucci both banned it from their offerings, and Stella McCartney now uses a non-toxic polyurethane for her clear strappy shoes.) You’ll also find PVC in the prints on T-shirts, including on kids’ clothes.

So is anyone protecting us? Well, California’s Proposition 65, enacted in 1986, allows consumers to sue brands that don’t provide adequate warnings on products containing chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. It has been pretty effective at forcing brands that sell in California to get some toxic substances out of their clothing and accessories. Some brands won’t ship certain products to California customers. It’s not perfect, though, mainly because it has earned a reputation of being the Legislation That Cried Wolf in labeling products as carcinogenic even if they have insignificant trace amounts of a chemical of concern. (Remember the cancer-causing coffee debacle?)

So that raises the question you’re probably asking yourself...

What do we need to pay attention to?

When I asked Ben Mead, U.S. representative for OEKO-TEX, another well-respected company that certifies brands and products as free from harmful substances, if consumers should be worried about toxic chemicals in our clothing, he said, "They should be worried because they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Even brands that do test their products aren’t required to share the results with the public, and there hasn’t been nearly enough research on what exposure to most chemicals in isolation or in combination with each other does to the human body. “You don’t know which chemicals are used in which products,” Kausch says. “You don’t know how a human or animal would respond if exposed to some of them. During the use phase,” when you wear the clothing, “it’s very difficult to predict interactions and what these exposures will be. There’s just a lot of unknowns that make it very difficult to quantify the general risk. You need to do a comprehensive assessment for each specific application.” While brands that are certified by Cradle to Cradle do, Kausch admits they’re not representative of the fashion industry.

For example, let’s look at formaldehyde, one of the most well-studied chemicals. The U.S. does not regulate its use in clothing, but some brands voluntarily follow the most stringent international rules to keep it below 75 parts per million. Okay, fine. What if it’s in your underwear? What if you’re also wearing a wrinkle-free shirt while getting your hair straightened with a product made with an unsafe amount of formaldehyde at the salon, and breathing in formaldehyde from your furniture? What happens when formaldehyde is combined with a hundred other chemicals that are off-gassing from your entire outfit, your home, your office?

And what if you’re a woman? Toxicology studies are based on the average male body, largely because women’s pesky hormones introduce too many variables in the eyes of researchers. Meanwhile, one in eight women in their lifetime will develop a thyroid disorder, which stems from a hormonal imbalance, which can be caused by endocrine disruptors. It’s a huge catch-22 for our health.

And if you develop breast cancer someday, as one in eight women also do, you could never attribute it to one aspect of your lifestyle or one chemical. Much less one fashion brand.

What can you do to detoxify your closet?

Compared to all the other ways we’re exposed to hazardous chemicals — personal care products, our homes and offices, that “new car smell” — experts say that fashion may be the least of our worries. But it’s still one aspect of your health that you can take control of. To reduce your chemical load, here are some expert-recommended steps you can take:

1. Focus on the brand, not the material. Some people try to avoid synthetic materials, but that’s not an accurate rule of thumb. Remember H&M and IKEA’s test that found toxic residues? It was on cotton samples. Real leather versus faux leather is also a toss-up when it comes to toxicity, depending on how each material is made. “Everyone thinks that organic is safe. It only protects the farmer,” says Alexandra McNair, founder of the nonprofit Fashion FWD, which provides resources and education for consumers to shop responsibility and demand safer products and legislation.

Even 100 percent organic cotton clothing could have been bleached, dyed, scoured, and finished with toxic chemicals. It’s better to focus on who made it. Fashion FWD will soon release a list of APEO-free, phthalate-free, and PFA-free brands. Sign up for its newsletter to get that list when it comes out.

2. Avoid cheap knockoffs. Dr. Martin Mulvihill, co-founder of Safer Made, which works with companies to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products, says the riskiest brands are the cheapest ones. McNair agrees. “It’s expensive to care. Chemicals that are safer are usually more expensive. The suppliers that are sourcing to meet the bottom lines of the [cheap] brands are sourcing the cheapest options.”

So, that weird boutique you found via a Facebook ad selling $15 cocktail dresses? Even if the product that arrives looks like the one in the picture (doubtful), it could contain harmful chemicals. This also holds true for cheap metal jewelry, which is a hot spot for carcinogenic heavy metals that can irritate your skin.

3. Choose brands that have a toxic chemical policy. When shopping for new clothes, look for membership in ZDHC, a Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Certification. A Restricted Chemicals List or a Manufacturer Restricted Substance List (MRSL) is better. The best when it comes to specifically protecting your and your family’s health is a membership in AFIRM, another voluntary industry group that helps brands test products for toxic residues. According to AFIRM’s director, Nathaniel Sponsler, member brands spend millions of dollars every year testing their products and will stop products from landing on shelves if they’re deemed unsafe for the consumer.

4. Look for certifications. For small brands that can’t afford the kind of fees required by the above organizations, look for certifications, including OEKO-TEX Standard 100, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Cradle to Cradle, or bluesign. It’s best if the certification applies to the whole brand or product you want to buy, but a certification for the factory the brand sources from is better than nothing.

5. Take a whiff. If something smells like chemicals when you take it out of the packaging, believe your nose. Send it back for a refund and lodge a complaint with the brand.

6. Wash your new clothes before you wear them. Many of the biggest substances of concern will start to come off your clothes in the first wash, but if you’re particularly sensitive — or the finish is especially tenacious — it may take up to 20 washes. Also make sure to avoid scented laundry products like detergents and dryer sheets, which can leave their own toxic residue on your clothing. Check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database for laundry products that are rated safe.

7. Buy secondhand or swap with your friends. It’s an affordable way to build a sustainable and non-toxic wardrobe. To be extra sure, ask your favorite thrift shops if they apply chemical disinfectants or scents to the clothes before putting them on the floor for sale.

8. Be suspicious of performance products. Try to avoid products with waterproofing or stain-repellency, which contain PFAS chemicals. "Those chemicals will not only leach off in your wash, they also create dust in your home, they last forever, they get into your cat, into your kid,” Mulvihill says. Also avoid wrinkle-free or easy-care cotton products, which are achieved through the application of formaldehyde, and anti-odor finishes, which can irritate your skin. “It’s not actually that effective,” Mulvihill says of anti-odor finishes. “Doing a good job with cleaning the clothes is probably a more effective way to deal with stink.” Many anti-odor brands use merino wool to do the job naturally.

9. Support action for clean clothing. Finding non-toxic clothing shouldn’t be this hard. “It’s a basic human right to know what you’re putting in your body and on your body,” McNair says. Fighting for a cleaner fashion industry isn’t just for you, either. When you demand non-toxic clothing, it forces brands to also get these toxic chemicals out of factories, where they cause many times the harm to garment workers.

“Brands have a responsibility to care for their workers,” McNair says. ”People are harmed and are suffering because of them, and they need to own up to that.” Find scripts for letters to the editor, letters to your representatives, and communicating your concerns to brands at fashionFwd.org.

This article is part of Sustainable Style, a series in partnership with the New Standard Institute, which highlights stories devoted to the fashion and beauty industry's effects on the environment.

You Might Also Like