Health Implications of Chemicals in your Clothes

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When most people dress up, their primary concern is being decent and fashionable. However, there is also a health angle to consider in our choices of clothing or textiles. Textiles refer to materials that are made from various types of fibres, yarns, or fabrics, which can be found in clothing, furniture, bedding, carpeting and as well as upholstery for vehicles. Put simply, textiles comprise any cloth or material produced by weaving, knitting, or felting.

Textiles can be made from natural sources such as cotton, linen, wool, or silk or from man-made materials such as polyester, nylon, or rayon. They can take a variety of forms and have many functions. Whichever form they take or the function they serve, however, it is paramount that we pay attention to the health impact of clothing as it is one of man’s basic need for survival.

Chemicals and clothing

Here is a fundamental truth: The conversion of textile fibres into clothing is subjected to lots of physical and chemical processes. Many of the of chemicals which are employed during rigorous processing of these fibres have been proven to be hazardous to humans, impacting negatively on our health. These synthetic chemicals are employed in the textile industry manufacturing processes from the material procurement to the final product.

Some chemicals used in processing textiles include flame retardants, polyfluorinated substances (PFAs), lead and chromium, phthalates, chlorine bleach, azo dyes, and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) such as formaldehyde. These chemicals do perform their intended purpose but can also have adverse effects in the long run if they find their way into our bodies (through the skin).

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Uses and side-effects of clothing chemicals

As indicated above, both functional and performance fabrics are treated with chemicals. The exact uses of these chemicals and their potential adverse effects are detailed below:

Formaldehyde: It is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is primarily used to prevent wrinkling. It also has water proof and colour fastness properties. This compound can cause respiratory tract problems, allergic contact dermatitis, skin irritation, or exacerbation of asthma. Therefore, there are limits to the quantity of this compound permitted in consumer products.

Azo dyes: These belong to the class of colourants used in manufacturing processes. When these chemicals break down, they can release chemicals which have been reported to cause cancer and contact dermatitis.

Heavy metals: These includes antimony, cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium VI. They can cause liver or kidney health problems when absorbed and accumulated in the body.

Organotin compounds: These aid in the prevention of body odour in clothing and also serve as antimicrobial agents. When accumulated in the body, they can distort the immune system and the reproductive organs in the body.

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Chlorobenzenes: These are equally employed in the dyeing process as carriers or levellers and are mostly used in polyester blend textiles. They can be toxic by inhalation or skin contact and can accumulate in the body overtime causing harm to the liver, thyroid and the central nervous system.

Phthalates. These are used in active wears and anti-odour clothing. They serve as plasticizers, used with rubber to print images onto garments. They are predominantly known to be cancerous and are also linked to endocrine disruption.

Chlorine bleach. This is a whitening and stain removal agent. It is also employed in the processing of natural fibres like cotton, and also to prepare polyester for dyeing. Chlorine bleach and solvents such as chlorobenzenes can be toxic by inhalation or contact with the skin. They can also cause severe asthma and respiratory issues.

Polyfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs). These are fluropolymer coating/products which are known for their ability to resist water, oil, heat, and stains. They could readily be found in the production of raincoats, shoes, cosmetics, mattress pads, printed natural and synthetic fabrics, and finished textiles labels, as water or stain repellents. They are used for performance fabrics as listed above and can get attached to the body and stay forever, causing a lot of health issues including prostate andtesticular cancer, distortion of body hormones, as well liver and kidney problems.

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In addition, the dyeing process which is an essential process in clothing manufacturing leaves a deposit of neurotoxic heavy metals, potentially hazardous trace elements, which eventually get embedded in the clothing and constitute some health havoc. Many of these substances are generally tolerated in small amounts but can give rise to unforeseen reactions with higher levels of exposure.

The skin as access point

The skin is the body’s interface with the environment. It serves as an external barrier, protecting us from aggressive environmental influences. Therefore, what we wear affects our skin and our health as a whole. In particular, when high concentrations of chemicals used in processing textiles come into contact with the skin, they are absorbed or ingested, which could pose serious health hazards.

It is therefore important to choose clothing made with materials that are considered natural (cotton, wool, silk, hemp, linen, leather etc.) rather than synthetic materials. Opting for natural and organic fabrics that will have minimal residue of chemicals in the fabrics is a smart and healthy approach to grooming. This may involve becoming deliberate in checking clothing brands and labels to reduce health risk.

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