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Toxic Fabrics and the chemicals that make them

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We are all highly concerned about health and consider many things when it comes to our well-being. We buy extra expensive cooking oil, supposedly with a chemical-free composition, spend double to buy organic vegetables, go for daily walks, and read countless blog posts on eating right to remain healthy. But do we think enough about exposure to chemicals in the potentially harmful toxic textiles we wear or use daily?

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Clothes, fashion, and fabric: these are all associated with happiness in my mind. I suppose it is so for you too. But behind this joy is a whole history, geography, and chemistry that may need improvement. And the reasons are:

  • The indiscriminate use of chemicals in the production process of many textiles
  • Greenhouse-gas emissions
  • Water bodies polluted by dyeing and other waste emissions from textile industries,
  • The resultant carbon footprint

Toxic Fabrics

Some fabrics are more toxic than others (and ironically these are the fabrics we all use the most). If you were aware of the list of chemicals present in these fabrics, you might think twice before touching a new garment, at least without washing it first.

Natural fabrics like Cotton

The cotton that is available so readily comes at a very high cost to the climate and the environment. A lot of pesticides and insecticides are used during the cultivation of cotton plants. The process of making cotton, bleaching it, dyeing it, etc, involves a lot more chemicals. And add to this, the sheer volume of cotton made every year makes this problem all the more severe.

Many chemical pesticides are sprayed on cotton plants and other natural fiber plants to keep them thriving – like the nitrogen and phosphorous-based fertilizers used to grow crops for the natural fabrics you may have assumed are earth friendly. These pesticides are polluting waterbodies underneath the earth’s surface and destroying the usefulness of the earth for any other crops. 

According , the global cotton industry accounts for 6.4% of worldwide pesticide sales, 14% of which are insecticides.

Alteratively you can use Organic cotton material which is grown without harmful pesticides.

Animal derived fabrics like Leather, wool and silk

Processing these animal-derived fabrics like leather, wool, and silk involves many harmful chemicals, which can harm the environment. If you have lived near a tannery, you may know how this industry pollutes water bodies. 


Polyester today is the most used fabric. It is made of petroleum-based substances. The production process of polyester fibers often involves chemicals which can be harmful to our health.


The use of synthetic materials in clothing started as one single item – the nylon stockings. But today, we all have a lot of synthetic clothing materials in our homes.  

Nylon, a very similar synthetic material to polyester has very similar environmental and health side effects. In some places, It is treated with formaldehyde and other chemicals during the production. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and exposure can lead to respiratory problems and skin irritation.

Polyester, nylon, microfiber, polyamide, and acrylic are all fabrics made of plastic derivatives. They are indestructible and remain in the landfill on which they are dumbed for the longest time – hundreds of years. Small particles from these materials enter the ocean and endanger the living things in the sea. 

Rayon, Viscose and other cellulosic fabrics

Rayon is derived from cellulose, and its production involves harmful chemicals like carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, and ammonia. These chemicals can cause nausea, headaches, and even neurological damage among workers.

Many chemicals are applied on the fabric’s surface as finishes – they may be inevitable in the manufacturing process of textiles and garments to give them certain functionalities. Fabric finishes that provide water, wrinkle, and fire resistance are all highly valued, but they all come to us at a cost.

Teflon coating is given on fabric surfaces to provide it with waterproofing qualities. The PVC coating is done to make the material durable and waterproof. All these finishes may eventually leach out of the fabric over some time.

Related post : Finishes used on textiles.

Chemicals like trichloroethane (TCE) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are detergent-like substances used to prepare the fabric for dyeing. They are considered highly toxic to the human body. Disperse dyes, acid dyes, and azo dyes used in textile dyeing are potentially hazardous.  

Dirty fabrics

Unhygienic use of clothes can be a trigger for fungus growth and fungus has been known to cause a lot of problems for our body.

Wearing damp or sweaty clothes for extended periods, can create a favorable environment for fungal growth. Fungi thrive in moist, warm conditions, and clothing can often provide such an environment. Common problems include skin infections like athlete’s foot and jock itch. Regular cleaning of fabrics and clothes used in homes with proper detergent is compulsory. Clothes should be washed in detergent, rinsed off, and then dried thoroughly in sunlight. 

Related post: How to disinfect fabric and clothes.; How to remove mold spots from clothes ; How to use bleach on clothes

Some health problems that the chemicals in textiles can cause

Contact Dermatitis 

Dermatitis is a skin problem in which the skin can develop rashes and itchiness. It is called textile dermatitis when the associated problems are triggered by contact with the fabric.

If you are prone to rashes wherever fabric touches skin, if your eyes start watering every time you wear a new dress, if a new sweater causes you to wiggle and squirm because of irritation, if you are always tempted to itch after wearing a particular dress you may have this condition already.

Neoprene is a material that can cause an allergic reaction called dermatitis. 

If you are sensitive to these, you must be careful about what you wear. Remember to wash all the fabric you will be handling in sewing; new clothes should only be worn with washing.

If you have this condition, start wearing only organic and eco-friendly fabrics – they are made explicitly without chemicals.  

Read more here:

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Allergic reactions to new clothes or badly stored clothes are very common

Allergic Rhinitis or Asthma

Allergic rhinitis involves inflammation of membranes lining the nose. Anything that flares up and disturbs the lungs is bad news for someone with asthma. And most of the fabric has chemicals and dyes that contain poisonous materials, and these hazardous materials can easily do that. Rhinitis may involve running nose, sneezing, and even coughing, but severe asthma can be a debilitating problem, and you should take all precautions to avoid succumbing to it.

Fabric softeners added to the washing cycle with very good intentions can be detrimental to your health if you are asthmatic.


Fabric manufacturing is a very complex process and involves the use of simple chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, and potentially hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, sulphuric acid, and perfluorinated chemicals. Out of these, some are carcinogenic, i.e., cancer-causing.

Many of the cleaning products in the market are also said to contain some carcinogenic components.

Most of the coated fabrics available in the market are very appealing, but you have to realize that the coating results from many processes involving different dangerous chemicals.

Endocrine system disruption 

Water-resistant and flame-resistant fabrics have a coating on them, giving them their functionality. But when humans (for whom they are made) are exposed to it, their endocrine system cannot cope with it, resulting in many endocrine-disrupting problems like Thyroidism.

Read more about this here :

Not all fabrics are bad. So, what are those non toxic fabrics; Read about them : Choices you have for Eco friendly and organic fabrics.

There are regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) which stipulates rules regarding the permissible levels of certain chemicals in textiles. If you buy from brands which abide by these rules, I guess you are safer. You should choose fabrics and clothing made of natural fibers made under organic conditions and go for textiles with certifications like OEKO-TEX, which guarantees that products are free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances. Reference:
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Author: Sarina Tariq
Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.
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