Our skin is our body’s largest organ. Protecting it and treating it well is essential, especially for athletes who need to be performing at their maximum every day. But did you know most athletic clothing could be harming us, instead of benefiting us?
Active clothing is often made from synthetic fibres with additional properties applied such as ‘moisture wicking,’ ‘quick drying,’ ‘anti-wrinkle’ and many more. Although these are easily applied using chemical treatments - these often-harmful chemicals do not legally have to be listed on the final garments, and more often than not, brands themselves are even in the dark about what dangerous residues linger on the clothing that they sell to unknowing customers. As customers, we have a choice to continue purchasing activewear as normal, or to avoid known fabrics that are linked to health issues. Yet, athletes and sports teams do not have this choice, as their yearly kit is often provided by their brand sponsor, known for creating these health hazards.
Synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are derived from petroleum-based fossil fuels. Heavily mass-produced and have become an incredibly cheap material to buy. In too many cases, the materials have toxic chemicals embedded as finishing's on the fabric to create the desired properties listed above, which release plastic molecules as gas whenever they are heated. When these clothes are dried in a clothes dryer, these gases are released into the environment affecting air quality, and being breathed in. Additionally, when body heat releases these chemicals into the air, they can be absorbed through the skin into our own bodies.
The polymers created in developing synthetic fabrics do not occur in nature naturally, meaning our skin and our bodies have not evolved to deal with them. Our skin’s function is to keep us healthy by venting up to a pound of toxins per day, but this is made more difficult when we wear harmful clothing which rubs toxins against the skin, suffocating our pores and preventing our body from removing them. When toxins are absorbed through the skin, they bypass the liver, the organ responsible for removing toxins, and have a more harmful effect. This can lead to a toxic build-up in the body, whilst the combination of multiple chemicals interacting together creates worse problems than individual chemicals on their own.
Example chemicals used in the manufacture of activewear:
FORMALDEHYDE - Mainly used for wrinkle-free clothing and to prevent shrinkage. This is a known carcinogenic.
VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) - Solvents used in all parts of textile supply chain, particularly for printing. Off-gassing, which happens when VOCs are heated and the compounds are released into the air, is a huge issue for textile workers. VOCs cause developmental and reproductive system damage, skin/eye irritation, and liver and respiratory problems. Some VOCs are carcinogens.
PFCS - Creating durable water resistance; as stain repellent/ manager, Carcinogenic, bio-accumulative (builds up in bloodstream), and toxic in the environment.
BROMINATED FLAME RETARDANTS Used to stop clothes from burning, required on children’s clothing and contains Neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens.
AMMONIA provides shrink resistance in natural fabrics, and can be absorbed into the body, causing burning in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
Lately, some activewear marketed as ‘Performance’ is made from a new type of microfiber fabric that contains an inorganic bacteriostatic silver ion component – a technology solution that reduces the development of bacteria (cause of unpleasant odours) ensuring freshness, hygiene, and comfort. To achieve this, the fabric has silver nanoparticles woven in to enhance its antibacterial and anti-odour properties. Multiple studies have reported that nano silver leaches out of textiles when they are laundered, and that nano silver fibres may be toxic to humans and aquatic and marine organisms. Although it is widely used, little is understood about its fate or long-term toxic effects in the environment and our health. We do know that in humans, exposure to silver can harm liver cells, the skin, and the lungs. Prolonged exposure to large doses can cause a condition called Argyria in which the victim’s skin turns permanently bluish grey.
When these garments are laundered and nano silver fibres are washed down the drain, they end up at wastewater treatment plants, and can potentially harm the bacterial treatment processes - making them less efficient. More than 90 percent of silver nanoparticles released in wastewater end up in nutrient-rich biosolids left over at the end of sewage treatment, which are often used on land as agricultural fertilizer. This poses multiple risks; if plants take up silver from soil, they could concentrate it and introduce it into the food chain. It also can leach into groundwater and wash into rivers via rainstorms or erosion. Silver is toxic to many microbes and aquatic organisms, including zebra fish, rainbow trout and zooplankton.
There is little need for these harmful materials to be used in our clothing, especially when evidence suggest that their components not only cause great damage to the natural environment, but also a significant risk to human health, especially when there are so many more natural, renewable alternatives. Please consider the clothes you are wearing, and consider supporting brands who avoid these materials in favour of a natural, non-toxic solution.
[v] http s://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/fact-sheet-nonylphenols-and-nonylphenol-ethoxylates#risks