The rise of fast fashion
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 is 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 organisation 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?
Why are chemicals used in clothing?
As Dr Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician 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.
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 coloured, 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.