Article by Jared Boles for Plastifree™What are you wearing? Seriously, it’s no laughing matter actually. Chances are, your shirt, pants, and even undergarments are at least partly, if not fully made of an inorganic petroleum-based plastic material. Ok, it’s not what our ancient ancestors wore, but so what? This is a modern time for modern materials, right? Well yes, if a status quo of rising cancer rates, developmental disabilities, and dropping fertility rates are acceptable to you and are a part of the future you want for future generations. What am I talking about? I’m talking about plastics, the chemicals leaching from them, and the clothing covering your largest organ. Namely, in this article, I’m talking about polyester.
To keep things simple, polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Was that simple, or just a mouthful? Basically, the PET composing polyester is the same exact plastic that those disposable water bottles you see at the supermarket and floating in the lake are made of. Believe it or not, a majority of about 60% of the global production of PET is used for polyester fiber rather than all those billions of bottles(1)! In fact, most of the bottles that are (usually) sent to China for recycling are processed in Chinese factories to become any of the multitudes of textile products exported all over the world (2). From here, the cycle usually ends, as polyester cloth is almost never recycled and instead ends up in the landfill or on the side of the road. Ok, so littering is terrible, but what about all that stuff about cancer and fertility? Well, beneath the visible bright colors and faux fur on your slippers (or whatever crazy style you’re into) hide a multitude of invisible chemicals readily seeping right through your skin.
Through its basic composition, the PET plastic of polyester does not biodegrade. However, PET does break down, the difference being that while something like natural leather or a banana peel would be broken down by bacteria and turned into nourishing soil, plastics like PET simply become brittle, break into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics) and release toxic chemical byproducts. By itself, not considering any of the many multitudes of undisclosed toxic chemicals often added to plastics as a “trade secret “, the main chemical leaching from polyester is called acetaldehyde(1). Have you ever accidentally left a water bottle somewhere hot like your car in summertime and noticed a peculiar sweet taste to the water that didn’t seem quite normal? That’s the taste of acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen shown to damage DNA and potentially linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease(3). That’s not from hot water, it’s from hot plastic.
Besides heat, plastics of all kinds such as polyester and nylon begin the degradation and leaching process in the presence of UV rays (sunlight), acids, and salts. Guess what comes into contact with each of these catalysts on a daily basis; your clothes. See, when you wear artificial fibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc, you put them between you and the sun. Plastic fibers generally are not very breathable, so you get warmer and expose the surface of your skin to temperatures higher than the blood’s usual 98.6 Fahrenheit, which you counter with the cooling power of sweat. Sweat is an acid, and full of salt. Plastic is a moisture barrier, and as much as artificial clothing is often labeled as “moisture wicking”, most of your sweat will sit between your skin and your clothes, breaking down the plastics and carrying toxins back through your pores (2).
Other Quick Noteworthy Points
- Polyester fiber is often treated with other chemicals to aid in the production process, or to add certain desirable traits like waterproofing. Unlike food labels, clothing labels do not need to list these “incidental” additives and yet they are there saturating the skin and blood of you and your family all the same. In fact, companies are often protected from disclosing what additives they put in their plastic products, because they are considered “trade secrets” that would in theory jeopardize the company’s place in the market if other companies knew how to replicate their toxic recipes. We do know that the list of additives known to be used in plastics is thousands of items long, but which of these are in any given product is usually unknown (4).
Some of the toxic chemicals commonly used in the textile industry on fibers like polyester include:
- Formaldehyde: A well known carcinogen famous in its use as an embalming fluid for dead bodies (5, 6).
- BPA: Bisphenol-A, that nasty stuff in canned food liners that made news when studies showed it affected the endocrine system and caused dramatic damage to hormone development and fertility. The chemical has largely been replaced in canning with other bisphenols like Bisphenol-S, which still has the exact same effect but allows companies to market their goods as “BPA free” on the basis of a technicality (7). Until recently, it was believed that BPA was not used and could not be found in the textile industry. As of the date of this writing, if you do an internet search on whether BPA can be found in polyester, you will find numerous results that say that it absolutely is not found in polyester fabric. However, this idea was based on a false assumption, because until recently, little or no research had been done to actually test the chemicals in consumer fabrics. However, in 2017 a study with the American Chemical Society found that in 77 items of infant clothing purchased in New York and sourced from international manufacturers, 82% contained BPA and 53% contained BPS. In fact, the authors concluded that “concentrations of BPA and BPS in clothing made primarily of synthetic fibers were approximately 72 and 13 times greater than those found in clothing exclusively made of 100% cotton or a 60% cotton blend.” While PET plastic itself does not require bisphenols for synthesis, the authors found evidence that these chemicals are added to polyester clothing through dyes, chemical finishes, and the addition of spandex (8).
- Azo dyes: Very common synthetic dyes that readily leach off amines in the presence of sweat(specifically 1-naphthylamine, which the body then absorbs and converts to the toxic 2-naphthylamine), chemicals related to ammonia which have been shown to cause bladder cancer in textile workers (9).
Phthalates: A plasticizer chemical used to make plastics pliable, phthalates can be found in everything from clothes to makeup, adhesives, paints, toys, just about anything with artificial ingredients(9). Studies have shown phthalates to disrupt normal reproductive development and function; proven in rodents to damage brain tissue and function in adults; and to pass through the mother to developing offspring, leading to infant rodents with lower than normal cognitive skills and literally smaller brains than those in the control group (11, 12). Scary to think what the plastic environment surrounding us has done and continues to do to our own children!
Other things to know about plastic garments like polyester:
Studies have shown that wearing polyester underwear dramatically reduces men’s sperm count, and can lead to permanent damage after long term use. Studies done in the 1990’s were inconclusive as to why polyester had this effect, but it was theorized that high charges of static electricity inherent in the material were to blame (13). Combined with the toxic leaching of reproductive damaging chemicals like BPA and phthalates, it’s just one more reason to stay away from plastic clothing.
A recent study found that plastic-based cloth like polyester and acrylic are major contributors to the amount of microplastics saturating the environment, a global threat that you sometimes need a microscope to see. In the study, 6kg loads of laundry, each entirely of acrylic, polyester, or cotton-poly blend, were washed in a controlled environment under various conditions (water temperatures, detergents, etc). The study found that the artificial acrylic and polyester garments released by far much more microplastic fibers than those garments that had at least some cotton content (in this case, just 35%). In fact, the study concluded that the average 6kg load of poly-cotton will release an estimated 137,951 fibers, but the same size load of polyester or acrylic will each release approximately 496,030 and 728,789 fibers respectively. Once all those tiny fibers reach the water treatment plant, most make it through to the rivers and ultimately to the ocean (14) where they are ingested by tiny creatures like shrimp and krill, which are in turn eaten by fish where the microplatics bioaccumulate in their bodies much like toxic lead and mercury. When microplastics become small enough, they have been shown to flow through the bloodstream and accumulate in muscle and fat tissue. This is a newly documented threat we fear will lead to as yet unknown varieties of illness in both animals and mankind (4).
In conclusion, numerous studies have linked the chemical components of plastics, namely in this article PET/polyester, to damage affecting the proper function of the brain, and the proper development and function of the reproductive system. We encourage you to read our source studies yourself which, though dry would be an understatement, are also fairly terrifying. The fact is, very very few people are aware of the toxins we expose our environments and our bodies to on a daily basis; they are unaware of what is happening inside their bodies, the bodies of their children, and even the damage yet to be seen in future generations. This is a matter of extreme urgency; the toxins keep accumulating as the factories roar day and night to meet the demands of an unsuspecting public. In the principle of supply-and-demand, the greater the economic demand, the more that need will be supplied. This principle is as reasonable as it is unchanging. In order to remove the toxic nature of plastics, we must change what we demand of the supply. If you vote with your dollar, and demand a higher standard of products free of plastics just like they were made in “the good ‘ol days”, suppliers will quickly notice a change and a strong new market will emerge to meet your demands. It’s self-interested, but the system works, provides employment, and can make our world healthy once again. We see the problem, it’s time to demand more, and to inform others; it’s time to do something about it!
- Polyethylene terephthalate. (2019, June 29). Retrieved August 5, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate
- Plotner, Becky. (2016, November 21). Could your clothes be damaging your health? Retrieved from https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/environmental-toxins/clothes-damaging-health/
- Acetaldehyde. (2019, June 4). Retrieved August 5, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetaldehyde
- Smith, M., Love, D., Rochman, C., Neff, R. (2018, August 16). Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 5 (3) 375-386. Doi: 10.1007/s40572-018-0206-z. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132564/
- Amatulli, Jenna. (2016, October 28). Why you should watch out for these 5 gnarly chemicals in your clothing. HuffPost News. Retrieved August 5, 2019 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/these-are-the-gnarly-chemicals-in-the-cheap-clothes-we-buy_n_57d6e494e4b03d2d459b92ff
- Plell, Andrea. (2018, January 5). There are hidden chemicals in our clothing. Remake. Retrieved August 5, 2019 from https://remake.world/stories/news/there-are-hidden-chemicals-in-our-clothing/
- Bisphenol S. (2019, July 12). Retrieved August 10, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_S
- Xue, J., Liu, W., Kannan, K. (2017, April 3). Bisphenols, benzophenones, and bisphenol a diglycidyl ethers in textiles and infant clothing. American Chemical Society, 51 (9) 5279-5286. Doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b00701.
- Chavan, R.B. (2011). Environmentally friendly dyes. Handbook of Textile and Industrial Dyeing: Principles, Processes, and Types of Dyes, 1, 515-561. Retrieved August 10, 2019 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/azo-dye
- Phthalate. (2019, July 18). Retrieved August 10, 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phthalate
- Ma, P., Liu, X., Wu, J., Yan, B., Zhang, Y., Lu, Y.,… Yang, X. (2015, October 1). Cognitive deficits and anxiety induced by diisononyl phthalate in mice and the neuoprotective effects of melatonin. Scientific Reports, 5, 14676. Doi: 10. 1038/srep14676. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589782/
- Kougias, D., Sellinger, E., Willing, J., Juraska, J. (2018, August 1). Perinatal exposure to an environmentally relevant mixture of phthalates results in a lower number of neurons and synapses in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreased cognitive flexibility in adult male and female rats. Journal of Neuroscience, 38 (31) 6864-6872. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0607-18.2018 . Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/38/31/6864#ref-16
- Shafik, A. (1993). Effect of different types of textile fabric on spermatogenesis: an experimental study. Urological Research, 21(5), 367-370. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8279095
- Napper, I. & Thompson, R. (2016, September 13). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Elsevier. Retrieved from http://www.inquirylearningcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Napper2016.pdf