Clearing our kitchens, makeup bags, and medicine cabinets of toxins has opened our eyes to many of the ways we’re inadvertently exposed to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors on a daily basis, from cleaning products, to perfume and personal care. And as it turns out, we also need to look inside our closets.
It’s not a small problem: Clothing manufacturers coat their wares in seriously toxic chemicals at several different stages, from coloring fabrics to finishing pieces, explains clean-fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff. (Never mind the significant environmental impact, or the human cost of underpaid workers in factories where most clothing is made.) Zaroff explains that the systemic nature of toxins in clothing often means that trying to wash them out of the clothes we buy is like trying to “wash” pesticides out of conventionally grown strawberries: Practically impossible.
The fashion space lacks a unifying regulator, like the USDA or the FDA, and the process of making clothes is complex and layered, so there are plenty of places it can go wrong (and frequently does, Zaroff says). That said, there are a lot of manufacturers getting things right, and a few certifiers making bold steps—below, Zaroff outlines the good, the bad, and the really really bad—and how to clean out your closet for real:
A Q&A with Marci Zaroff
What toxic chemicals should we be most worried about in our clothes?
Conventional cotton is grown with genetically modified seeds and sprayed heavily with Roundup (in which the primary ingredient is glyphosate, linked to cancer) and other toxic pesticides—and these persist in the fabric even after manufacturing. Many textiles also contain chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), ammonia, and/or other harmful chemicals. Add to that heavy metals, PVC, and resins, which are involved in dyeing and printing processes.
|Herbicide in cotton growing
linked to autism
|Whitening and stain removal
processing (like denim)
|Asthma and respiratory
|Mainly used for
wrinkle-free; also shrinkage;
carrier for dyes/prints
|Natural fabrics like
cotton, or anything
that’s been dyed
|Solvents used in all parts
of textile supply chain,
particularly for printing
(natural and synthetic)
|Off-gassing, which is a huge
issue for workers. VOCs
cause developmental and
damage, skin/eye irritation,
and liver and respiratory
problems. Some VOCs are
|Creating durable water
resistance; as stain repellant/
(natural and synthetic,
especially uniforms and
bio-accumulative (builds up
persistent, and toxic in the
|Used to stop clothes from
|Required on children’s
|Provides shrink resistance
|Absorbed into lungs;
can burn eye, nose, throat
|For dyeing; chromium VI is
used in leather tanning and
antimony is used to make
(natural and synthetic)
|Highly toxic; can cause
damage blood cells, kidney, liver;
|Used in printing
Are certain fabrics more or less problematic?
There are toxic chemicals behind treatments that make clothing wrinkle- or shrinkage-free, flame-resistant, waterproof, stain-resistant, mildew-resistant, or cling-free. All fabrics can accept these toxic finishes, so to avoid them, you need to specifically select products that haven’t been chemically finished.
Toxic surfactants called NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates) are commonly used as detergents in textile processing. When you wash these clothes, NPEs are released into the water, where they break down into nonylphenols—endocrine-disrupting chemicals that you are exposed to, and then which accumulate in the environment via the water supply and are highly toxic to fish and ocean wildlife.
My favorite fabrics are GOTS-certified organic cotton and wool—free of pesticides, herbicides, NPEs, and GMOs, and dyed without harmful chemicals such as chlorine bleach, formaldehyde and heavy metals.
I also love Tencel (which I have renamed “ECOlyptus”), which is made from the cellulose extracted from eucalyptus—a renewable resource. The eucalyptus is broken down using a non-toxic, recycled solvent, then manufactured in a closed-loop system (where all by-products are used in the process). Always choose Tencel over rayon or bamboo textiles, both of which are created using heavily toxic chemicals and processes, leaving just traces of the original fiber source.
How are these chemicals regulated? Does regulation differ for allergens versus generally recognized toxins?
Not enough! The magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals in the fashion and textile industries is out of control. Even though some carcinogens are regulated (for example, formaldehyde, linked to cancer, is regulated in the US), most brands are still manufactured overseas, where regulation is far behind. And only the most toxic chemicals are regulated in the US, which means there are a huge number that are unregulated but likely to cause allergic reactions.
Chemicals are regulated at the federal and state levels. TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), which has recently been reformed, regulates across the country, but state regulations vary widely. Since federal regulation is lacking on most levels, some states have chosen to enact dramatically stricter chemical regulations. In California, for example, Prop 65 and the Safer Consumer Products Regulations go much further than federal rules to protect safe drinking water and encourage manufacturers to find safer alternatives to harmful chemical ingredients.
Are there any certifiers of note that police this?
BlueSign and OEKO-TEX are standards that address and help to eliminate the harmful substances in textiles, increasing environmental health and safety. Both focus specifically on toxic chemicals that are added to many garments during the manufacturing process. Many brands also self-police, and issue their own restricted-substance lists.
While OEKO-TEX and BlueSign are making great progress on the toxicity front, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) takes things a step further by considering the fiber source and other layers of production—it’s really the platinum standard for a truly sustainable textile, from the farm to the finished product.
How can we avoid purchasing and supporting companies that use toxic chemicals to treat their clothing?
Look for GOTS, OEKO-TEX and Cradle to Cradle Certified products. Cradle to Cradle, an initiative that came out of William McDonough’s now-classic book, measures material health, as well as social justice, material reuse, renewable energy, and water stewardship, and they have a fashion-specific vertical.
Also look at brand websites to understand their chemical policies. This year, Target released a chemical-reduction policy with the goal of full ingredient transparency (including fragrances) for beauty and cleaning products by 2020; by 2022 they will remove PFCs and flame retardants across their product lines. Other mission-driven brands that are very active in pursuing safer and more ethical manufacturing practices include Outerknown, Stella McCartney (both Kering brands), Patagonia, Mara Hoffman, Eileen Fisher, Prana, and Coyuchi. Truly transparent companies will make their fiber and chemical strategies easily available on their websites.
How important is it to wash your clothes before wearing them?
It is very important! What we put on our bodies is just as important as what we put in our bodies, and many of the dyes and finishes added to conventional textiles contain chemicals that are known skin irritants. Many people think of cotton as “natural,” but between the pesticides and herbicides, chlorine bleach, and toxic finishes, even “natural” fiber clothing isn’t so natural. Formaldehyde (it’s in much of the clothing made overseas) is a known carcinogen (and less critically but significantly, it’s also a skin irritant). Consumers are particularly susceptible to rashes from harsh chemicals used in making athletic clothing, underwear, and socks because sweating is involved, opening the pores and allowing the body to absorb more chemicals.
Do these chemicals persist over time? Should we be worried about them in vintage clothing, for example?
In many ways, buying vintage is the best way to attack the problem of waste in fashion—the most sustainable piece is one that doesn’t have to be made in the first place. Additionally, most older clothes are much less toxic than what’s being produced today—chemical use in textile manufacturing wasn’t as ubiquitous until the last fifty years or so. That said, germs and bacteria (including mold) can collect on old clothing, so stick to vintage that’s well-preserved, and clean it before you wear it, like everything else.
People often ask me if clothes that are made conventionally become safer after many washes, and to some extent that’s true, since you scrub toxic finishes off of fabrics every time you wash them. But beyond the obvious problem that those chemicals are then released into the environment, there are many toxins that are embedded in the fiber in a systemic way that you can never truly be rid of. It’s sort of like thinking you can wash the pesticides off of conventionally grown strawberries—the story is much more complex.
What’s the role of organic textiles in this conversation?
Organic textiles—specifically GOTS-certified, meaning organic from farm to finished product—are a huge part of the solution. The methodology of organic fiber agriculture, like that of organic food, builds and protects our earth’s ecosystems, and benefits consumers, farmers, and manufacturing workers. It also supports practices to reduce climate change. Certified organic cotton is grown GMO-free, is never treated with fungicides, synthetic pesticides, or fertilizers, and uses 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy than conventionally produced cotton. Conventional cotton represents less than 3 percent of the world’s agriculture, yet accounts for 25 percent of the most harmful insecticides and 10 percent of the most toxic pesticides used on the planet. Sadly, in China, where many of today’s textiles are produced, you can often tell what colors are being dyed in the local factories by the colors of the rivers nearby. In fact, 20 percent of freshwater pollution globally comes from textile treatment and dyeing. Most consumers also don’t realize that 60 percent of a cotton plant goes back into the food stream as feed for dairy or for oils for many packaged products. If a product is GOTS-certified, it is also free of heavy metals, chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, and aromatic solvents, making it free of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, as well as many allergens.
What are the most important ethical and environmental changes we should demand from our favorite brands?
The worst and most hazardous chemicals are used in conventional textiles, so buying certified GOTS, Cradle to Cradle, and/or OEKO-TEX are the best ways to take action. It is imperative that we encourage our favorite brands and retailers to build chemical reduction strategies (with the support of OEKO-TEX and/or BlueSign if needed), especially in their dyeing and processing supply chains. Encourage brands to find ways to reduce chemical-, energy-, and water-use in manufacturing, and to collaborate with one another to eliminate hazardous chemicals before they get into the supply chain.
Marci Zaroff is an internationally recognized entrepreneur, educator, and expert in sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion and textiles. She is the founder and CEO of Metawear, founder of Under the Canopy and BeyondBrands, and Executive Producer of “THREAD Documentary | Driving Fashion Forward”. Board Member of the Organic Trade Association, Textile Exchange, Cradle to Cradle’s “Fashion Positive” and Fashion Revolution Day, Zaroff was a key figure in the development of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and first Fair Trade Textile Certification.