Toxic Textiles

Anyone who knows me, will tell you that I’m a mad-keen ‘Charity Shop or Op Shop’ shopper!  A seasoned pro - walking in, my beady eyes twinkle, my nose twitches for a bargain (or is it the dust!) and the hunt is on!  Never leaving empty handed, my buzz of satisfaction is a happy one but the most important part – the toxic chemicals of ‘buying NEW’ that I’ve avoided!

‘New’ comes with a hefty price tag, not only monetary but a hidden cloak of chemicals on your ‘soon-to-be-absorbed-directly-through-your-skin’ clothing – leaving you with a potential, toxic budget overload.  Avoiding a subsequent rash, eye or breathing irritation of just walking into a clothing store leaves me feeling that buying new is as criminal as the impact fast fashion is having on the environment.

Chemicals are used at nearly all stages of turning raw materials into clothing. According to a report by Green America 2019, The Textile Industry uses 43 million tons of chemicals, an additional 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers, annually. (1)  

Toxic Textiles – what are they?


People who choose organic food want to avoid pesticide exposure but the chances are, they’re wearing it.  Glyphosate, the active ingredient in ‘Roundup’ has been identified as a probable human carcinogen and is the most heavily used agricultural chemical herbicide used to grow cotton and found in cotton textiles. 


All cellulosic protein (including cotton, flax, hemp, jute, and ramie) and synthetic fibers such as nylons and polyesters use synthetic aniline and azo dyes. Even organic cotton T-shirts use synthetic dyes to obtain the colours pink, green and blue. Azo dyes are the most hazardous and account for up to 70% of global dyes used. Carcinogenic aromatic amines used in producing the dyes can be released from a finished textile by perspiration or saliva, causing health risks from skin contact or ingestion. If you're sensitive, dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin. (1) 


For crisp white, bleaching is necessary and mostly involves chlorine, which can produce dioxins and other by-products (DBPs) such as trihalomethane. Dioxins are extremely toxic, with risks including reproductive and developmental problems, damaging the immune system, hormonal and endocrine disruptors and can be a carcinogen. (2) 


Formaldehyde is widely used in many stages of textile production – including the dyes and can cause contact dermatitis. For example, underwear, sportswear or tight clothing which is in constant close contact with the skin - together with friction, the body’s heat and perspiration- the more formaldehyde can be leached out affecting the skin.   PolyCotton sheeting is synonymous with Formaldehyde resin.

Polyflourinated chemicals (PFCs)

These chemicals are increasingly being added to all newly manufactured clothing for ‘hanger quality’ giving them a wrinkle free, crease-resistant appearance and are widely used in uniforms and outdoor clothing.  PFCs create a ‘teflon’ surface in textiles and bioaccumulate in our bodies with potential and multiple long term toxic effects.  In 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined PFCs as a likely human carcinogen. (3)  The chemicals are also known as endocrine disrupters; birth defects, reproductive problems, and other serious health problems have also been linked to their use.

  • NEW clothing – ‘non-iron’, anti-cling, anti-static, anti-shrink finishes, perspiration proof, stain repellent and flame retardant
  • chlorine resistant finishes – branded swimwear
  • waterproof finishes – outdoor clothing and tents
  • stain guard/repellent – sofas and new upholstered furniture
  • moth and mildew proof finishes – carpets and underlay
  • stiffening on lightweight nylon knits, suede and chamois

Brominated flame retardants

Common household items such as couch cushions, carpeting, mattresses and electronics can be a source of exposure to toxic flame retardant chemicals in your daily life. The chemicals can migrate out of consumer products to permeate and persist in the environment — eg, house dust, even infiltrating jars of peanut butter and in our bloodstreams. (3)

Many of these chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays,1 reduced IQ and behavioural problems in children, hormone disruptions and cancer (4).


Even organic cotton isn’t perfect, unless it’s certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards), as it still requires chemical processing in order to become a textile. However, organic cotton certified by GOTS restricts the chemicals that can be used during manufacturing, making them preferable options.

The next time you head to the shops for your summer wardrobe must-haves, perhaps think ‘short term gains for long term pain’ – quite literally! The reality of avoiding these ubiquitous chemicals is practically impossible but awareness is key, multiple washes, vinegar rinses can help to reduce the resin coating over time - which is why buying pre-worn, pre-loved clothing and ‘stuff’ is a ‘must do’ for anyone with chemical sensitivities and wanting to dodge the next rash!


  • Be sure to sniff out any toxic fragranced washing powders – put back and move on!
  • For those with a dust allergy – keep shopping short and sweet or stick to online 2nd hand purchasing and be sure to check which detergents have been used. 
  • Look for quality fabrics and styles that are timeless - think “fashion fades only style remains” Coco Chanel
  • Note - Buying 2nd hand (pre worn & washed over time) HELPS to reduce the toxic chemical cloak but does not necessarily mean it’s completely toxic free.

Happy Op Shopping and see you there!


Sources and References

  1. Green America, Toxic Textiles report 2019


Other interesting links:

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