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Are Your Clothes Harming Your Health?

December 20, 2016

How are we doing today when it comes to our health and fashion?

In 1881, the Rational Dress Society challenged the fashion industry of its day. The Society protested against dress that “either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure health.” Seeking to do away with constricting and deforming garments such as corsets, the Society sought to insure each person would be “dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully.”

Our modern clothing industry is a $7 trillion enterprise utilizing more than 8,000 synthetic chemicals. Are we sacrificing our health in the name of fashion yet again?

The environmental watchdog group Greenpeace International released Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up in 2012. After purchasing 141 items of clothing from 29 countries, Greenpeace noted the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs).

All of the brands included in this study had one or more products that contained detectable levels of NPEs. They were also detected in one or more products from 13 of the 18 countries of manufacture, and also in products sold in 25 out of the 29 countries and regions of sale.

Clothing manufacturers like H&M, The Limited, and Levi Strauss have promised to eliminate these chemicals in response to the Greenpeace report.

Where does this leave us when it comes to our clothing purchases? Many organizations are encouraging a return to natural fabrics.

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly initiated the International Year of Natural Fibres. Highlighting the health benefits of natural textiles, the initiative emphasized the breathability of non-synthetic fabrics.

Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibres cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way.

When looking at your wardrobe, note that only three items are required on labels: fiber content, country of origin, and manufacturer or dealer. Specific chemicals such as formaldehyde, triclosan, and fire retardants need not be disclosed. Factory conditions are not mentioned either. Are the workers being treated fairly? The Fair Trade Certified Apparel program is the first of its kind offering consumers an opportunity to consider the social, economic, and environmental impact of their shopping decisions.

The following chart may be helpful when reading clothing labels. (Note: linen is derived from flax and is therefore an excellent natural option.)

The above chart will also help when trying to reduce static cling. See All Natural Fabric Softener Solutions.

When trying to avoid synthetic chemicals, be aware that the following types of clothing indicate a higher use of chemicals such as formaldehyde, triclosan, and nanoparticles:

  • Wrinkle-free
  • Easy Care
  • Waterproof
  • Perspiration-proof
  • Moth-proof
  • Antistatic
  • Chlorine-resistant

Dozens of manufacturers now produce safe, organic, natural clothing. A few of them are listed below.


Nature’s Fabrics

NearSea Naturals

Organic Cotton Plus



LOOP Organic

Anna Sova Luxury Organics


Soaring Heart Natural Bed Company

Amana Woolen Mill


Our Green House

Organic Grace


The Ultimate Green Store

Adults and Children


Blue Canoe


Faerie’s Dance



Fair Indigo


Groups and Organizations that Promote Safe Clothing

Textile Exchange

Wear Organic

Organic Trade Association

Labour Behind the Label

Eco Fashion World


By Andrea Fabry



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