Sweater weather worries: What to know before you layer up

As temperatures drop and holiday shopping kicks into high gear, it’s time to talk about the many chemicals that might lurk in the clothes filling your gift bags.

Any garment that’s stain-, water-, weather- or wrinkle- resistant has probably been chemically treated. The “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, phthalates and bisphenol A, or BPA, are woven through everyday clothing such as protective outerwear, athletic clothes, and school and professional uniforms. These dangerous additives can cause a range of health harms, especially in children, who are particularly vulnerable because of their developing bodies.

The chemicals in clothing

PFAS are found in many types of clothing, but they’re most concentrated in outerwear and other heavily treated fabrics. They are known as “forever chemicals” because once released into the environment, they do not break down, and they can build up in the body. They’re associated with health concerns including cancer, reproductive issues, endocrine disruption, increased cholesterol, and reduced vaccine efficacy

Phthalates are commonly used to soften the ink printed onto our clothes and to incorporate plastic into garments and shoes. They cause skin and asthma irritation and behavioral issues in children, and they disrupt the hormone systemSome are possible human carcinogens

BPA is used as an anti-static treatment, protective agent, adhesive and chemical to improve the lifespan of a fabric. It can transfer to the skin on contact, and later be absorbed. It’s been linked to developmental and cardiovascular problems, respiratory irritation, breast and prostate cancer, hormone disruption and harm to the reproductive system. 

The extent of the problem 

Studies have shown levels of chemicals in clothing samples that far exceed state legal limits and manufacturing guidelines. Some are found in baby textile products.

In an EWG study, each product tested showed elevated levels of fluorine, an indication of the presence of PFAS. Bibs and baby clothing, two types of textiles regularly marketed as stain-resistant and easy-care, contained the highest concentrations of PFAS.

In another study, researchers tested children’s clothing labeled stain-resistant, and every item showed detectable levels of PFAS. School uniforms contained the highest amounts of PFAS – even more than outerwear treated to be weather-resistant. About one in four kids in the U.S. wears a uniform nearly every day, sometimes for more than eight hours a day, increasing their exposure to these toxic substances.

The Center for Environmental Health found high levels of BPA in socks, sports bras and athletic shirts from a number of well-known brands, including Adidas, Champion, Nike and others. Socks that were tested exposed consumers to BPA levels up to 22 times the legal limit in California. BPA can be absorbed through the skin after only a few minutes of contact; socks and athletic wear are worn close to the body for hours at a time, increasing the risk of exposure.

Companies are not always successful in keeping their own products safe. Brands can request third-party tests to ensure product safety, but certification can be faked or completed incorrectly, which leads to brands promoting hazardous products while claiming their safety. 

What’s being done

American consumers deserve to know that their clothes are free from toxic chemicals. But no federal laws regulate the chemicals used on clothing, and companies are not required to disclose what they use. 

The European Union has banned over 30 substances from use in fashion, as well as restricted phthalates and PFAS. 

In September 2022, California passed the Safer Clothes and Textiles Act, making it the first state to ban the use of PFAS in textiles, effective in 2025. This year, New York passed a law prohibiting intentionally added PFAS in apparel, which will also take effect in 2025. 

Washington and Maine have introduced similar legislation to phase out PFAS use in textiles. 

What you can do

Consumers should not have to shop their way around the problem of toxic chemicals in their clothing and outerwear. The government needs to regulate or ban their use in these textiles. 

Until that happens, here are ways to reduce your exposure:

  • Wash new clothing before you wear it. This helps to remove chemicals before you or your child are exposed.
  • Research clothing companies before you add items to your cart. Avoid unknown fast fashion brands that aren’t transparent about their manufacturing methods.
  • Look for brands dedicated to consumer health and for third-party verifiers that ensure good practice and product safety throughout the manufacturing process.
  • Steer clear of ultrabright, neon colors when you browse for clothing. Supersaturated neons, blacks and blues are generally treated to achieve their pigment
  • Be wary of apparel marketed as stain-, water-, weather- and odor-resistant and easy-care; these claims often mean the clothes contain toxic chemicals.
  • If you are trying to remove toxic chemicals from your environment, a good option is to shop for natural, untreated fabrics in light or earthy colors.
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