The Dangers of Synthetic Clothing

The Dangers of Synthetic Clothing

Unless you actively seek out natural fiber clothing, there is a good chance that your clothes are blended with highly processed synthetic fibers that have been found to be toxic to humans. Polyester, spandex, nylon, acrylic, and rayon/viscose are the most common synthetic fibers to avoid. Many of the dyes used are also toxic. The most popular option, AZO dyes, are high in heavy metals and are linked to causing cancer. Here’s what we know about the dangers of wearing synthetic fabrics, and what to look for in natural options.

In This Article

The Creation of Polyester

Before WWII, all clothing was made out of natural fibers. Today, more than 70% of the world’s fabric production is synthetic. Leftover chemicals from the war were the inspiration to create synthetic clothing using a process called polymer synthesis. This is when small molecules, typically from petroleum or oil, are chemically combined to create synthetic clothing.

It all started with polyester, which is made from petrochemicals derived from petroleum. Most polyester is made with antimony, which is a controlled substance and known carcinogen. It has been found to be toxic to the heart, lungs, liver, and skin.

Microplastics from Polyester Clothing

Let’s consider the environmental risks that occur as we wash or throw away our polyester clothing since polyester is basically a form of plastic derived from petroleum. Studies have shown that microplastics from washing synthetic clothing have been found to be the cause of 35% of the microplastic pollution on Earth and a major contributor to the microplastics found in the ocean. This can harm the health of marine life and their environments. While microplastics in the ocean get most of the press, recent studies have found microplastics in the lungs of 11 out of 13 lung patients, suggesting that we are breathing in microplastics, possibly from the clothes we are wearing. Microplastics have even been found in the placentas and fetuses of pregnant mothers. The long-term health risks of microplastic exposure are an area where more research is needed, but recent studies point toward serious health risks, especially in the disruption of our endocrine (hormone) systems.

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Early Toxicity Studies Were Ignored

Scientists have been striving to understand the toxic impacts of these synthetics for many years. In 1984, a study evaluated over 24,000 workers in a textile factory that produced synthetic fabrics. Researchers followed them over the course of 14 years and found that the synthetic fabric workers had a higher incidence of colorectal cancer.

In 1993, a study published in the European Journal of Urology entitled Effects of Different Textiles on Sexual Activity shed light on the endocrine disruption of wearing synthetic underwear. The study divided 100 male rodents into five groups. One group wore specially designed synthetic underwear. The second group wore a 50/50 cotton polyester blend, the third group wore all cotton, and the fourth group wore all wool. The fifth group was a control group and was naked throughout the study. All the rodents were exposed to estrous females and they measured the mating habits of each group.  Rodents wearing all polyester had the worst score, with more erectile dysfunction and lack of penetration than the naked control group. The all-cotton and all-wool groups actually fared better with more erections and penetration than the naked control group.

Wearing naturally-dyed (or undyed) organic fiber underwear is a good way to help mitigate the toxicity of wearing synthetic garments, especially while exercising in workout gear which is typically synthetic.

The Dangers of Formaldehyde

When making synthetic clothing, formaldehyde is an important (and dangerous) part of the process. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has linked contact with formaldehyde through inhalation or dermal contact to a variety of cancers, including leukemia and melanoma. Formaldehyde was found in 20% of the clothing samples worn by pregnant mothers, babies, and toddlers in a 2022 Spanish study. Formaldehyde was originally used in cotton and polyester to prevent wrinkling (thus, the infamous wash-and-wear clothing of the 1960s). It is still used today to prevent wrinkling and as an anti-mold agent and dye fixative.

Researchers also found that compared to the more inexpensive clothing, some higher-priced “eco-friendly” clothing actually had higher levels of formaldehyde. Trendy organic cotton clothes may be grown organically,  but are often highly processed with chemicals used in manufacturing. Washing the clothes helped remove formaldehyde levels from the clothing, but the study found many other toxic chemicals that may not be washed completely out of synthetic clothing. The chemicals and microplastics that are washed out may do even more harm as they leach into the water supplies.

Chemicals used in synthetic clothing have been linked to adverse skin reactions, dermatitis, allergies, and reduction of microbes. The textile industry commonly uses toxic metals, flame retardants, pesticides, dyes, and plastic inducers that are used to make manufacturing easier. They also use them to stop fabrics from wrinkling or to make them water-repellent, antimicrobial, color-fade resistant, or more breathable.

Generally, it’s good practice to wash your new clothing before wearing it. If you’re looking for formaldehyde-free fabrics, look for the OEKO-Tex Certification on potential clothing and brands. 

Heavy Metals in Synthetic Clothing

Let’s discuss the heavy metals involved here. Metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and antimony are commonly used in dying synthetic clothing and for making the fabrics flame retardant, antimicrobial, water repellent, odor suppressant, and much more. One study found the following elements in synthetic skin contact clothing: AL, As, B, Ba, Bi, Cd, Co, Cr, Fe, Hg, Mg, Mn, Ni, Pb, Sb, Sc, Se, Sm, Sn, Sr, Tl, V and Zn. While most of these were found at low levels, antimony (Sb) was above what was considered safe. These metals were also found in some natural fabrics due to the dye and processing added after natural or organic growing.

Synthetic Fabrics / Dyes to Avoid:

  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Rayon/Viscose
  • Acrylic
  • Spandex/Elastane
  • AZO Dyes

Natural Fabrics and Safe Dyes to Look For:

  • Organic Cotton
  • Any Organic Fabric
  • Hemp
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Linen
  • OEKO-TEX Certified Dyes
  • Natural Vegetable Dyes
  • Digital Printing instead of dye

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Gratefully,
Dr. John

3 thoughts on “The Dangers of Synthetic Clothing”

  1. Yep, and not only should one be aware of clothing, but sheets, blankets, mattresses, curtains, carpet, and upholstery fabrics are also an issue. You can find organic cotton sheets and blankets. Organic, silicone, or cotton mattresses that don’t off gas are available. It can help to “wrap” your mattress in organic cotton fitted sheets. You just really have to hunt to avoid these toxic chemicals. If it’s cheap and out of China, you can bet that it’s toxic. I’ve ordered cheap shoes online before only to have to return them because the chemical smell just about knocks you out when you open the box. For clothing, I often shop at online Irish wool stores like blarney.com and watch for the sales. The Irish use vegetable dyes to dye the wool. Once you get used to wearing cotton and wool, wearing synthetics becomes like eating a McDonald’s hamburger…yuck. You don’t want anything to do with it.

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