3 Major Toxins Have Been Found in Popular Clothing Brands—Here’s What to Know
Fast fashion may go easy on your wallet...but is it secretly tough on your health? Here's why one toxicology doctor says she's "most concerned" about what you and your family are putting on.
Fast fashion may cycle through trends at the speed of light—but it certainly has staying power. As PC Magazine reported this past July, the online retailer Shein dethroned Amazon as the most popular shopping app in the world. But the meteoric rise of some comparable fashion brands is troubling some health experts. In 2021, a team of researchers at the University of Toronto ran tests on some popular clothing and accessories brands. For one fast fashion brand in particular, they found that one in every five items contained unsafe levels of lead.
And it’s not just fast fashion—or, just lead—that are prompting concern about unsuspected toxins in our everyday products. The University of Toronto report also identified another group of chemicals, called phthalates, that the researchers stated were present in some of the clothing they tested. Plus, earlier this year, Environmental Protection Agency-certified labs detected PFAs (per- and polyfluorinated substances) in activewear from popular consumer brands that also may contain PFAS, according to the non-profit consumer organization Fashion FWD.
From cosmetics and soaps to plastic bottles and even our food, we’re surrounded by chemicals in our daily lives. But just how much should we worry about the chemicals lurking in our clothes?
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Why are chemicals used in clothing?
At the federal level, the US regulates only two chemicals for the fashion industry—lead and phthalates—and that’s only for children’s clothing. According to Fashion FWD, The Toxic Substances Control Act requires more stringent testing and oversight around chemicals used in clothing made in the US. It sounds reassuring—however, apparel made in the US only accounts for about 3% of American fashion.
As Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicology physician and the co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center explains: “Fast fashion clothing is often manufactured in developing countries that may not have stringent standards for keeping harmful chemicals out of clothing.”
This means that almost all of the clothing items in our closets and drawers are more or less unregulated, meaning we’re relying on retailers to self-police their factories’ chemical usage. And according to the 2021 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, only 26% of the world’s major clothing brands use a “Manufacturing Restricted Substances List,” which aims to eliminate hazardous chemicals in their factories.
It’s worth noting that back in the US, restrictions may be tightening up at the state level. In both California and New York, legislators are pushing for stricter regulation around PFAS in textile products. Federally, the US still lags miles behind the European Union, which currently restricts 33 chemicals in textiles.
But why are hazardous chemicals used in clothing in the first place? Let’s look at three of the main fashion offenders:
Lead is often used by manufacturers for dyeing fabrics—particularly those that are brightly colored, says Trevor Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician and author of the September 2022 book, Natural Beauty Reset.
PFAS generally turn up in clothing items as a coating to make products waterproof, stain-resistant, and breathable, according to a study by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.
Phthalates work to soften plastic and make it more durable, and so they’re sometimes spun into fabrics to make them soft and pliable, according to the Office of Science and Society at McGill University. They’re also common in waterproof items like rain jackets, faux leather, screen-printed t-shirts, and see-through accessories, like clear shoes, bags and umbrellas.
How do fashion chemicals affect your health?
The goal of the 1978 ban on leaded paint was implemented to prevent accidental lead ingestion, such as from kids putting paint chips in their mouths or inhaling lead-containing dust. “Lead is definitely associated with adverse health effects—including developmental delays,” Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains.
A 2018 study published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research International illustrated what can happen even if lead is not consumed by mouth. The study suggested that chemicals from clothing can transfer to, penetrate and accumulate in our skin. (The study authors noted that more research was needed for a closer analysis of each specific hazardous chemical of concern.) However, a 2019 peer-reviewed study looked specifically at phthalates in infant clothing and found that clothing does play an important role in exposure to textile chemicals.
“Lead is a heavy metal,” Dr. Cates says. “And what happens with heavy metals is that our body takes them up and stores them in our bones, our blood, and our tissues.” So, while exposure to high levels of lead is dangerous (lead poisoning can cause anemia, weakness, kidney failure, brain damage and death, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention)—prolonged, low-grade exposure can grow problematic.
As lead stores up in our bodies, chronic symptoms can start to emerge, Dr. Cates explains. These may include abdominal pain, constipation, forgetfulness, nausea, and depression. “Lead in particular has been connected to infertility,” she adds. The CDC says that people with long-term exposure to lead are also at a greater risk for high blood pressure, kidney disease, and heart disease.
These symptoms can also worsen with age—especially for women. When estrogen levels drop after menopause, bones can start to deteriorate, Dr. Cates says. “The lead that’s stored in the bones will then start to be released in the bloodstream, it’s like you become toxic all over again.”
“These are known as ‘forever chemicals,'” Dr. Cates says. “They persist in the environment, and they also don’t easily get out of the human body.”
PFAS are also considered “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” because they can mimic hormones in the body—and they’re extremely common in our lives. In fact, almost all adults in the United States have some level of PFAS in their bloodstreams, says Dr. Johnson-Arbor.
Dr. Cates says that since the use of PFAS became so widespread, signs of hormonal imbalances are on the rise: greater rates of thyroid disease, breast and prostate cancer, breast development in young boys and the number of women having menstrual problems.
The CDC adds that current research suggests high levels of PFAS exposure may also cause high cholesterol, low infant birth weight, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure) in pregnant women, decreased vaccine response in children and an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
Phthalates are another group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. While Dr. Johnson-Arbor emphasizes there is still plenty to learn about the health effects of phthalates (and PFAS), a 2022 review of research found strong evidence that phthalate exposure is associated with low semen quality, childhood asthma and neurodevelopment problems. The researchers said that there’s also moderate evidence that phthalates can increase the risk of low infant birth weight, endometriosis, low testosterone, ADHD, Type 2 diabetes, and breast or uterine cancer.
Plus, here are 10 toxic things you didn’t know you were feeding your kids
How to shop safely
You can’t sell a $4 t-shirt without cutting some health and safety corners, so Dr. Cates’ main recommendation to limit your chemical exposure is to avoid fast fashion retailers altogether. Look for sustainable brands that prioritize natural fabrics and materials, such as cotton, linen, hemp, silk or bamboo. And keep a lookout for chemical keywords such as “stain-resistant,” “waterproof,” and “shrink-proof.”
“Since lead is most harmful to young children, people can avoid dressing their infants and children in fast fashion clothing to avoid childhood exposures,” adds Dr. Johnson-Arbor. “I am most concerned with children’s potential exposure to these chemicals, specifically lead.”
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Trevor Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician and author of the upcoming book Natural Beauty Reset
Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicology physician and the co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center
PC Magazine: "Shein Unseats Amazon as Most Downloaded US Shopping App"
CBC: "Experts warn of high levels of chemicals in clothes by some fast-fashion retailers"
Mamavation: "Non-Toxic Activewear Guide: PFAS "Forever Chemicals" in Workout Leggings & Yoga Pants"
Fashion FWD: "Going out of fashion: US apparel manufacturers must eliminate PFAS "forever chemicals" from their supply chains"
Fashion FWD: "US policies fall short"
Fashion Revolution: "Fashion Transparency Index 2021"
DLA Piper: "California and New York propose banning textiles containing PFAS; California moves to impose significant reporting obligations"
European Chemicals Agency: "Substances we don't want in our clothes"
Colorado Public Interest Research Group: "Going Out of Fashion: U.S. apparel manufacturers must eliminate PFAS 'forever chemicals' from their supply chains"
Office of Science and Society at McGill University: "Are we at risk from wearing clothing with detectable amounts of PFASs or phthalates?"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Health Problems Caused by Lead"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What are the effects of PFAS?"
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International: "Chemicals from textiles to skin: an in vitro permeation study of benzothiazole"
Science of the Total Environment: "Phthalates in infant cotton clothing: Occurrence and implications for human exposure"
Environment International: "Human health impacts of exposure to phthalate plasticizers: An overview of reviews"