Toxic Chemicals in Our Clothing

In fashion school I learned about color, how to "read" it, how it can look different under certain types of lighting, reading hues, saturation, values, etc. I also learned about "innovative" treatments that have changed the world we live in today. The pumice stones giving jeans that worn in look. Or the smart tech moisture wicking garments we so often see in active wear. What I didn't learn about are the chemicals and the everlasting effect they have on the environment as well as the people who are using these types of treatments onto our clothing.

I've listed off some dyes and common treatments and what chemicals are used and how they pose a risk. Don't worry, I also gave some solutions too so it isn't all bad. I think it's important to be aware of what goes into your clothing. We wear clothing nearly 24/7 for our entire lives - who knows over time what the effect could be.

AZO dyes

60-70% of dyes used to dye our clothing are azo dyes. A percentage of which are found to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. These dyes do not break down easily, as they are meant to cling and stay onto our clothing to withstand the sun, heat, washing, etc. These dyes can still be found in water after treatment. That's if there even is a treatment plant at the dye house. Before anyone knew better, waste water was being dumped without undergoing treatment to filter out harsh chemicals. Now 1/3 of the rivers in China are labeled too polluted for human contact. Thankfully there have been more regulations in place for developed countries - like the US, EU, and China, but in other countries like Pakistan and India, regulations are often suggested and not mandatory. This put workers and the environment in danger. "1,4-diamino benezene is an aromatic amine whose parent azo dyes can cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis, chemosis, lacrimation, exopthamlmose, permanent blindness, rhabdomyolysis, acute tubular necrosis supervene, vomiting gastritis, hypertension, vertigo and, upon ingestion, oedema of the face, neck, pharynx, tongue and larynx along with respiratory distress." There was a study done in 1992 found that exposure to aromatic amines is linked to the development of bladder cancer. A dye house in Germany had 100% of its workers who worked on the distilling of dye developed bladder cancer. While the risk of those who wear the clothes after being treated is relatively low, but are still present.

Leather Tanning

Leather tanning is an extreme chemical-heavy process, which is typically made in developing countries that do not have the proper protection or waste management systems to dispose of the chemicals. In India and Bangladesh - early death, respiratory disease, and cancer are not uncommon for those who work in a leather tannery. Chromium, which is what is often used to tan the leather is a carcinogen, it affects the upper respiratory tract, and can increase the chances of contracting lung cancer. Those who work in the factories or live nearby have higher rates of developing asthma, bronchitis, polyps of the upper respiratory tract, and pharyngitis. When Chromium comes in contact with your skin it can cause dry, cracked, scaled skin or even ulcers, which are commonly known as "chrome holes" While there are different ways to tan leather, such as vegetable tanning that uses natural resources such as tree bark to create the notable brown color. Approximately 80-90% of the leather made today is from chromium tanned leather. To read my entire post on the leather industry click here.

Wrinkle Free

Formaldehyde is a common chemical used to make clothing "wrinkle free". Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen. There are now government restrictions on the amount that can be present on clothing before selling, and for most won't cause any problems. Those with sensitive skin may get itchy from wearing clothing with this type of treatment. If you have sensitive skin steer clear of wrinkle free clothing or before buying- smell the shirt or garment, and if it has a strong "chemical" smell, leave it be.


Polyfluoroalkyl, or PFA's are also commonly refereed to as "forever chemicals" because they have a lasting environmental footprint of thousands of years. PFA's are used to treat clothing to be sweat resistant or moisture wicking. There are now ongoing concerns about the chemicals, specifically PFA's used in firefighters gear linking to early occupational cancer.

"PFAS have been linked to four of the top eight cancers which have been found more commonly in firefighters including testicular cancer, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and prostate cancer." PFAs are also commonly used in fast food wrappers, non stick pans, firefighting foams as well as car seats. The PFA's for fire foam suppressant have been found contaminating drinking water and now is required to replace with a safer alternative by 2023.

While the exposure is minimal for the end user, and often not enough to cause damage from wearing, there still is some level of exposure. the CDC stated that the PFA's in our clothing are "low level".

How to Avoid

While many of these chemicals are low risk for us wearing, the idea of wearing carcinogens that potentially harm another person is unsettling. Certifications are key here, shop from brands that have certifications like:

The topic of sustainability is so broad and is often marketed as using "sustainable" fabrics like recycled polyester. But there are so many more practices within the garment's supply chain that has a negative impact on the environment. There is so much more to grow sustainability wise besides just choosing a fabrication. Dyes, washes, water use, packaging, shipping, fair wage, finishing, etc. By simply changing the material of the garment, and nothing else - I wouldn't consider the brand to be sustainable.