We often talk about the effects of the fashion industry on our planet. However, another very important topic is how this actually relates to our health. Many of the practices in the fashion industry could be having adverse effects on our bodies. Let's delve into how this is happening, what the repercussions are, and what we can proactively do about it.
The use of plastic in our clothing started in the 1950's. Chemical company DuPont introduced polyester into men's suits, which would be the start of a plastic revolution. Nowadays, around two thirds of our clothing is made of plastic. Polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide, are all common plastics in our clothing. Even cosmetics can contain microplastics and liquid polymer plastics.
Microplastics in our clothing can damage our health
Microplastics such as polyester and nylon used in our clothing can affect our health in different ways. First of all, we can breathe them in. They are tiny little plastics, we can't see them, our clothes release them into the air through general wear and tear. Then they can end up on our skin, in our throat, lungs, etc. This can cause inflammation over prolonged periods of time. Our body does a good job of clearing most out, but some do persist. A study suggested that these microplastics can penetrate deep into people's lungs, which is dangerous, especially for those working close with textiles.
Another way these plastics can damage our health is through pollution. When we wash our clothes, they shed up to 17 million microplastics each time. As they are so small, treatment plants do not catch all these microfibers. Unfortunately, they end up in our rivers and oceans with half a million tonnes of microplastics ending up into our waters every year. These tiny little fibers of plastic are then swallowed by marine life, and can end up on our plates.
Our drinking water also contains microplastics. Studies revealed that inhaling or ingesting microplastics can cause toxicity, oxidative stress, cellular damage, inflammation and immune reactions. They also may cause neurotoxicity, another study revealed.
What about textile dyes and other toxic chemicals?
Textile dyes and other chemicals found on clothes are highly toxic, and there are many ways this affects our health. The dying and finishing processes used on clothes have direct effects on textile workers and the contaminated water is not usually treated. This then pollutes our land, drinking water and oceans, leaving many rivers too polluted for direct human contact. In China, 1.4 million people cannot access uncontaminated water as 70% of their rivers are polluted.
Another way it can affect us, is simply wearing clothes that have traces of certain dyes and chemicals. The fashion industry regularly use azo dyes because they are cheap. This type of dye has carcinogenic properties and it our skin can easily absorb it. The EU has banned it, but other countries still use it.
What solutions are there?
Unfortunately the use of plastics in clothing is too widespread to stop. However, there are things we can do individually to minimise the impact.
Know what you are purchasing. Buy sustainable or recycled fabrics, and ones that are natural, or undyed.
Wash your clothes at 30 degrees or less. This is gentler and less microplastics be released.
You can buy a Guppyfriend washing bag. This is a very handy item, as you simply put your items inside the bag then wash them, preventing microplastics from contaminating the water.
Do not buy into fast fashion as these products will contain more plastics and harmful chemicals. The demand for cheap, fast fashion also means more contamination and more plastic.
Wash your clothes before you wear them for the first time. This will get rid of some of the traces of chemicals, such as Formaldehyde and PFAS.