Fashion is a way for us to showcase our identity and express ourselves in a non-verbal manner, and we shouldn’t have to be afraid of how it affects our health. While we are all aware of the impact fashion as an industry has on the environment, far less of us know about the implications we bring on ourselves by not reading the labels that come with our garments.
What we don’t always think about, is the potentially hazardous chemicals that are used in clothing manufacturing which, and I’m sorry to break to you, a lot of the most popular clothing brands use. Our skin is our body's largest organ, and it absorbs anything we put on it, including the chemicals in our clothes. And these can present a real danger to our health.
What to stay away from
While it’s unlikely we’d find a high amount of toxic chemicals in our wardrobes, the fact any are used at all is very concerning. Make no mistake, the majority of what we wear is treated with some type of chemical; but there are four main ones that raise alarm bells more than most: azo dyes, nanosilver, phthalates and formaldehyde.
These are primarily used to dye clothes at a lower temperature - this allows for brighter colours that have a lower probability of running in the wash. The chemicals used within this dye have been linked to cancer, which is why they are restricted in the EU.
Used in clothing to kill any bacteria and fungi, nanosilver can cause irritation to our eyes and skin, while also being extremely harmful to the environment.
Mostly found in jeans, activewear and faux leather, phthalates are used in clothing manufacturing to make garments more durable and has links to known cases of cancer and skin irritation.
This is used in our clothing to prevent wrinkling (which means less ironing time, YES!). However, if you read the label and see formaldehyde there, you might suffer from eczema or dermatitis because of this.
If you remember way back in 2019, it came to light that PrettyLittleThing was using ‘cancerous chemicals’ in their manufacturing factories. A screenshot of their terms and conditions got shared all over social media resulting in tens of thousands of worried customers. If you scrolled down through these terms and conditions, you could see that PrettyLittleThing’s US website states that their products may contain “traces of lead”. It’s been proven that high exposure to lead can damage our organs and in some cases cause cancer, which is extremely concerning to say the least.
The company came out and said due to the legislation in California, any harmful chemicals they use must be stated in their terms and conditions. California's Proposition 65 states that chemicals which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive damage are banned by the state. Organisations are forbidden from intentionally exposing their workers and consumers to these substances without giving them a clear warning of the matter.
How to help
You all probably have the same question, “Won’t the chemicals just wash out our clothes?”. To give you the short and sweet answer, no, they don’t fully wash out. But washing your clothes before you wear them is one way that can definitely help.
How to get rid of that ‘new clothes’ smell: which more than likely contains azo dyes, nanosilver, phthalates and/or formaldehyde. One of the most popular home remedies to help with this only requires two ingredients. Run the clothes through a hot cycle (60 degrees Celsius) with a generous amount of dish soap, or whatever you’ve got in the cupboard. Once this cycle is complete, do the same again but with ½ cup of vinegar. If you’re wanting a less ‘faffy’ solution, soaking your clothes in warm water and baking soda overnight should also do the trick.
One green flag you can look for next time you’re shopping, is for clothing that is GOTS Certified. This means that absolutely everything to do with this product has been done safely and ethically - including the fabrics and working conditions.
You’ll find that a lot of sustainable online fashion brands are GOTS Certified but if you’re out shopping on your local high street, don’t be afraid to ask before making a purchase - it’s better to know!