Article by Fee Widderich, Baltic Environmental Forum Germany

Synthetic fibres consist of synthetic polymers, in other words, plastic. They are obtained in a chemical process from fossil raw materials such as petroleum. Chemical additives are then added to give the fibre, and ultimately the finished garment, the desired colour, shape and other properties. The most common chemicals used in the garment industry include dyes, bleaches, solvents, softeners and impregnators. Some of these chemicals can be harmful to human health and the environment.

Clothing is being produced increasingly cheaply in ever larger quantities, in line with the trend of so-called “fast fashion”. With the rapid growth of the clothing industry, synthetic fibres have become increasingly popular and now make up 70% of all garments. The most common fibre types are polyester, polyamide, elastane and polyacrylic.

By the way: fibres such as wool, cotton, linen, silk or hemp, on the other hand, belong to the natural fibres and are obtained from renewable, plant- or animal-based materials. Although the production process is different, many chemicals are used here as well: for example, cotton is grown in monocultures and with the use of pesticides, and sheep’s wool is heavily bleached. Natural fibre clothing is also enriched with chemicals to achieve the desired properties or to protect it from mould for transport in shipping containers.

How can clothing endanger our health?

We can absorb chemicals through food, skin and breathing. When we wear clothes that have been treated with many chemicals, we absorb them mainly through the skin, because regardless of natural or synthetic fibre, additives dissolve from our clothes over time, especially through body heat.

Why are synthetic fibres particularly problematic?

Plastic is a polymer that is enriched with additives. You can imagine the polymer structure as a grid and the additives as small dots in this grid. They are not anchored there as solid components but can increasingly dissolve with progressive use. Prolonged skin contact, strong exposure to heat and sweating can intensify the effect.

What are the health risks?

Dangerous chemicals can trigger various diseases in our body. For example, they often affect our sensitive hormone system. This in turn can lead to all kinds of health problems, such as infertility, immune deficiency or developmental disorders in children and infants. Hormone-disrupting properties can be found, among others, in azo dyes, which are a popular synthetically produced agent for dyeing clothes.
Another example of dangerous chemicals in clothing are biocides and nanosilver, which have the property of killing bacteria. Therefore, they are often contained as an additive in the synthetic fibre acrylic, which is among other things used to make sportswear.

Why do legal guidelines not protect us?

There are legal guideline values for the use of chemicals in clothing – per item of clothing. However, these do not take into account that we come into contact with many different chemicals (not only from clothing) every day, some of which accumulate in the body. There is a risk that the chemicals interact with each other. The effect is called the “cocktail effect” and concrete long-term effects are the subject of current research.

What can I do?

In general, it is advisable to choose natural fibres instead of synthetic fibres to reduce the risk of ingesting chemicals. However, you should choose products with an eco-label (e.g. GOTS) to be safe from dangerous chemicals. You should also wash new clothes before wearing them for the first time, as many chemicals are already dissolved in one wash cycle. For the same reason, it also makes sense, not only for the sake of the environment, to buy second-hand clothes, which in most cases have already been washed many times. Otherwise, the rule is: quality instead of quantity! This will not only protect your health, but also the environment.

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