Toxic Chemicals in Your Clothes

Consumers are becoming aware of toxic chemicals in their food and food packaging, water, furniture, flooring, home care and personal care products, but many do not think about the source that touches their largest organ each day: their clothes.  Clothing has been found in laboratory tests to contain an array of toxic chemicals like phthalates, lead, brominated flame retardants and even PFAS forever chemicals.


What’s the harm?

Exposure to substances like lead and phthalates may directly harm the people manufacturing clothes more than consumers, but remember that it is chemical build-up over time from numerous sources in food, cosmetics, personal care products, home care products, furniture and the general environment that can trigger serious health conditions.  Additionally, some consumers may face increased risk from the toxic chemicals getting into the body through pores in the skin. 


Toxic Chemicals in Clothes:

  • Chromium, used in leather products that can weaken the immune system and lead to liver and kidney damage.

  • Phthalates, which are used to soften the ink on screen prints.  Phthalates has been linked to early deaths in adults, especially due to heart disease, and can disrupt the body’s hormones.

  • Brominated flame retardants, which can still sometimes be found in children’s pajamas to protect them from house fires. These chemicals, which are banned in Europe, can change thyroid functions and shift the way the body processes fats and carbs. Researchers are studying whether a link exists between flame retardant exposure and ADHD.

  • PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are linked to a host of health conditions like liver damage, asthma, and chronic kidney disease. The substance is water resistant and can commonly be found in waterproof or stain-resistant gear.

  • Lead, is a low-cost pigment and may sometimes be used as a cheap metal for zippers. Lead exposure can cause cognitive problems for adults and significant childhood lead exposure can lead to long-term developmental problems.

Specific Clothing Manufacturers Using Toxic Chemicals


The following clothing manufacturers are just the ones that have been tested for toxic chemicals. There may be many other brands of clothing–especially those made in countries that are lax with enforcing regulations for consumer safety–that contain toxic chemicals.


PFAS chemicals in clothing:

Yoga pants and gym leggings sold by Lululemon and Old Navy contained PFAS, according to testing done by consumer health activist blog Mamavation.

Outdoor apparel brands Columbia, REI, and L.L. Bean received either a D or F grading for PFAS by Fashion FWD, a non-profit educating consumers about toxic chemicals in clothes.


Phthalate chemicals and Lead in clothing:

A 2012 sample of clothes from popular retailers detected phthalates in 31 garments, and lead had been found in baby bibs sold in Walmart and Babies R Us. (source)


Why toxic chemicals are used in clothing these days:

Textile and clothing manufacturers may add these chemicals to make them waterproof or stain-resistant, or to soften ink on screen prints. Lead is sometimes found in low-cost pigments and inks, as well as zippers, and chromium can make leather more pliable.


What should you do?

Consumers can do a little research on specific clothing manufacturers and brands, but again, if those brands have not yet been tested for toxic chemicals, there will be no useful information that is publicly available. For the time being, the best thing consumers can do is to (a) avoid clothing that has already tested positive for containing toxic chemicals (listed above); (b) avoid leather goods that are not specifically marked “chromium free”; (c) avoid screen print t-shirts and other clothing unless specifically marked “lead free”; and (d) avoid clothes marked, “stain-free” and “waterproof” as they may contain toxic PFAS forever chemicals PFOA or PFOS.