How to Choose Healthy and Sustainable Clothing

Most of us know about the slow food movement, which promotes local food from sustainable, organic farms and traditional cooking methods vs. fast food from conventional factory farms. But did you know the fashion industry has developed its own version known as “Slow Fashion” or the “Ethical/Sustainable Fashion” movement? This lesser-known movement was created in response to “Fast Fashion,” which encompasses a variety of ethical issues including inhumane labor practices, textile pollution (which accounts for 8.1% of the world’s greenhouse gases1), unfair trade, chemical exposure, excessive water use, and other environmental and human rights issues.

But, the problems with fast fashion, just like with food, aren’t limited to human rights and environmental concerns (though those issues are very, very important!), the lesser known truth is how textile toxins directly impact the end-user. Take for example a child’s pajamas made with synthetic polyester treated with flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals have been proven carcinogenic2 and are designed to stay on the fabric almost indefinitely. Which means the child is exposed to them every night they sleep in those pajamas. That equates to a significant amount of compounded chemical exposure via the respiratory system and the skin during a time when the body’s supposed to be restoring and repairing itself (and that’s just one example!).

We believe everyone deserves clothing that is healthy for people and the environment. Fortunately, the slow fashion movement is making healthier garments more accessible and affordable than ever. Making the switch only requires awareness, a bit of new knowledge, and an optional (yet recommended) openness to a less is more concept…much like switching to healthier food!

5 most common toxins hiding in clothing

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the chemicals it takes to make a single garment (to do that, we’d have to write a novel!). However, these are some of the “heaviest hitters” in terms of their documented negative impacts on human health.

  • Flame retardants—as mentioned above, these chemical cocktails have proven carcinogenic activity3, and they also disrupt the brain, thyroid, reproductive system, and entire endocrine system4. In the clothing industry, flame retardants are most commonly found on baby or children’s sleepwear and bathrobes.
  • Formaldehyde—a “complete carcinogen”5, meaning it affects cancer at every stage, that also causes exacerbation of asthma, skin irritation, and eye, nose, and throat problems. It is part of the chemical process used to deter wrinkles in clothing. 6 It is found in wrinkle-free, wrinkle-resistant, anti-static, or “easy care” garments. It is not fully removed by multiple washes as its purpose is to deter wrinkles and static for the life of the garment.
  • Waterproofing and stain resistant chemicals—considered “forever chemicals,” these contain a toxic class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a cousin of Teflon, which have been linked to ADHD, infertility, increase in bad cholesterol levels, preeclampsia, birth defects, heart disease, cancers, and developmental issues in children7, 8. These are most commonly found in outdoor gear, leather, GoreTex, synthetic clothing, and anything labeled “stain resistant.”
  • Phthalates—these chemicals are typically found in plastics and clothing made from synthetic substances including sportswear, outdoor gear, jeans, etc. Phthalates have been linked to cancers, obesity, endocrine and reproductive issues9 and have been shown to remain on clothing after washing10.
  • Plastics—synthetic fabrics made of polyester, nylon, acrylic, or polyamide are plastic in fabric form. These are hazardous to our health due to the chemicals they’re made with and because these microfibers slough off during laundering and contaminate our water. This means we wind up ingesting them in our drinking water! 

8 Simple Ways to Avoid Harmful Chemicals in Clothes

#1: Choose fabrics made from natural fibers

The safest fabrics are made from 100% natural materials. This includes:

  • Cotton
  • Hemp
  • Silk
  • Linen
  • Bamboo
  • Cashmere
  • Wool

#2: Choose fabrics made from naturally grown plants

Choosing natural fabrics is a wonderful way to reduce your chemical exposure and reduce plastic pollution. However, many natural fabrics like cotton for example, are made from highly-sprayed crops which require a ton of water, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to produce…which is not great for the environment.

The simple solution to this is to buy organic cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo if you can. For wool and cashmere you’ll want to look into the brands’ sustainability practices, as the eco-friendliness of these materials varies widely brand to brand. Check out our recommendations in the next section for our favorite brands (and how to find them at a bargain).

#3 Sun new clothes

The best way to reduce chemicals in clothes is to sun them before washing.  This can cut down the number of times they need to be washed before wearing. Make sure you also turn clothing inside out and bring in at night to avoid the morning dew. Sun until you no longer detect that new clothes smell. This is especially helpful for clothing made of synthetic material.

#4 Wash new clothes before wearing

This simple practice can remove a ton of chemicals, toxin-harboring dust, and disperse dyes—commonly used in synthetic fabrics which cause many cases of contact dermatitis11. Most experts recommend washing new clothes at least 2-3 times in the warmest water the fabric will permit before wearing. Some garments will also benefit from a few good hot runs through the dryer, in addition to the washing.

#5: Wash your clothes in non-toxic laundry soap

If you’re going to put in the extra effort to avoid chemicals in clothes, be sure to keep them free of toxic laundry detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets! Branch Basics Concentrate can be diluted with water and made into a laundry soap that’s fragrance-free, 100% natural and non-toxic, super effective, and completely biodegradable. We also offer Oxygen Boost to help brighten clothes and remove stains, and 100% American Wool Dryer Balls to replace fabric softeners and laundry sheets.

View our Laundry Kit here and learn more about how to choose safer laundry soap in: Dangerous Detergent: Is my Laundry Detergent Toxic?

#6: Buy used clothing

Buying used clothing is a fun and affordable way to reduce environmental pollution and chemical exposure. Environmentally, it takes a huge amount of natural resources and manpower to produce a new garment. For example, it takes hundreds of gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans! Given that many brands of jeans are made in developing countries where clean water is at a premium, you can see why it makes sense to buy used clothes whenever possible. The main benefits for human health is that used clothes have had plenty of time to outgas their factory chemicals and cost less so you can buy healthier brands.

Check out: How to Remove Fragrance from Used Clothes and Hand-me-downs for tips on detoxing chemical detergent residues from your vintage finds.

#7: Wash synthetic clothes wisely

Most of us already have some synthetic clothes and/or may choose to wear some for active wear, bras, outdoor gear, etc. In these instances, we recommend Guppy Friend wash bags to reduce the amount of microplastic shedding that takes place during laundering.

#8: Adopt a less is more approach to fashion

While it can be tempting (and fun!) to stay “with the trend” and buy a new wardrobe every season, scaling back on impulse buys is a very effective way to reduce our clothing footprint. The “new” way of doing this is to create a Capsule Wardrobe, where you pair down your clothing to a few essential favorites (pants, shirts, skirts, etc.), then augment them with seasonal touches and accessories. Also, learning to mend, getting good at stain removal, washing your clothes carefully, being mindful about the brands and quality of clothing you buy will all help your clothes last longer.

Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist has a great article on how to pair down your wardrobe here.

Our favorite healthy clothing brands

Most of these sites have great sales and offer a discount on your first order. We also like using sites like PoshMark and ThredUp to find great deals on quality used organic clothing (just type in “organic” or the specific brand to search).

For more organic cotton brand suggestions for baby, check out: “Our Non-Toxic Baby Registry”.

Remember, small changes make a big impact

It can be a little upsetting to learn that the clothes you’ve been wearing and LOVING for years aren’t so healthy for you or the planet. However, with what you’ve just learned you have everything you need to start making small changes—like washing synthetic clothes in a guppy bag or paring down your clothing collection to create a more eco-friendly capsule wardrobe—which will make a big impact over time. Our best advice is to choose one or two action items to start then continue your journey from there. 

What brands of eco-friendly clothing do you love? What’s helped you adopt a “slower” approach to fashion? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

  1. https://quantis-intl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_full-report_quantis_cwf_2018a.pdf
  2. https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2015/8/science-flameretardant/index.htm
  3. https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2015/8/science-flameretardant/index.htm
  4. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/flame_retardants/index.cfm
  5. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1048AppC
  6. https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10875.pdf
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3855507/
  8. https://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf
  9. https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/phthalates
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27007912/
  11. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cod.12001

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3 Comments

  1. I would like to add a couple resources to this list.
    Etsy has lots of beautiful well made linen clothes that support small businesses. Not Perfect Linen is amazing.
    Primary is a great resource for kids.
    Able is a great company.

    Kidizen is like Poshmark for kids. It’s amazing!

  2. I shop almost exclusively at PACT now — excellent prices. I also bought a bunch of their camisoles and tank tops that I wear under most of my conventional clothes purchased elsewhere so that the fabric doesn’t directly touch my skin. I do love Coyuchi although a bit pricey. I bought a chemise and robe from them plus towels, pillow and duvet cover. Everything is top quality organic and worth the occasional splurge!

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