Environment & Health

How even your clothes may be harming you

As if it wasn’t hard enough to stay healthy, your clothing, including cotton garments, may be loaded with pollutants, a hazard for humans and the general environment.


Written by Michael Beshai

You might’ve read about the adverse health effects of wearing synthetic fabrics and thought to yourself, “It’s no problem– I’ll just wear cotton clothing!”  Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to stay healthy, your clothing, including cotton garments, may be loaded with pollutants, a hazard for humans and the general environment.  These include, but are not limited to: carcinogenic (azo) dyes, chlorine from bleaching, odor preventative agents, fire retardants, softeners, water repellents, metals, and pesticides like Glyphosate.1,2,3,4,5,6,7

Exposure to even low levels of the toxic elements that make up those pollutants, over time, can lead to a slew of negative health effects.8,9,10  Even elements considered essential for our nutrition can be harmful in sufficient dosage.11  This is of particular concern, because although diet is the most common source of exposure to metals, metals and chemicals (like Glyphosate) in clothing and other textiles, including carpets and even upholstered furniture, can be absorbed through our skin as well and may cause irritation.7,12,13  Metal extraction from clothing and absorption through skin is more likely while playing sports, when your clothes are hot from the sun and stick to your body due to perspiration.5,13

Elements in clothing commonly exceed the safety standards set for the textile industry by the esteemed organizations, International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology (Oeko-Tex) and Global Organic Textile Standard International Working Group (GOTSIWG).1

According to one study,1 chromium, which is a skin sensitizer,11 may be more prevalent in black and green nylon.

High levels of lead were found primarily in cotton textiles made in Egypt.1  Lead accumulates in the body and is especially toxic to the brain.14  It leads to a decreased ability to cope with minor stressors, and has also been shown to increase frailty in the elderly, along with age related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and osteoporosis.14

China, India, and Egypt seem to be the worst culprits with regards to polluted clothing, consistently showing higher metallic concentration levels in the aforementioned study.1

It’s also noteworthy that clothes dyed with dark colours, especially black, seem to contain higher levels of metal than lighter ones.1,15

In the same study, cream coloured clothing contained relatively fewer metal contaminants, with the exception of creme coloured nylons, which had high levels of aluminum.1

These findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Since different manufacturers add different chemicals to their products, it can be difficult to predict the toxicity of clothing based solely on colour.  In fact, the presence of graphics seems to be a more consistent predictor of certain chemicals.15

So what can you do to minimize pollutants in your clothing?

Next time you go shopping you can select clothes with minimal dyes and graphics and/or pick lighter colours if you can.  You can also buy organically produced cotton, wool, or silk, which are generally not treated with Glyphosate pesticide.

While finding organic clothes can be difficult enough, organic clothes that are also coloured with natural dyes synthesized from food do exist.  Before you splurge on an outfit for health’s sake, you might want start by replacing your socks, which are some of the worse violators in your wardrobe when it comes to toxic exposure.15  That’s likely due to their tightness on your skin and the moisture of your feet.

Lastly, regardless of the clothes you buy, make sure you wash them before wearing them, since that can remove a lot of chemicals and metal contaminants.15


Check out the sources below for further reading on this subject!

1 Nguyen, T., & Saleh, M. A. (2017). Exposure of women to trace elements through the skin by direct contact with underwear clothing. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A, 52(1), 1-6.

2 Nguyen, T., & Saleh, M. A. (2016). Detection of azo dyes and aromatic amines in women undergarment. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A, 51(9), 744-753.

3 Derden, A., & Huybrechts, D. (2013). Brominated flame retardants in textile wastewater: reducing Deca-BDE using best available techniques. Journal of cleaner production, 53, 167-175.

4 Simoncic, B., & Tomsic, B. (2010). Structures of novel antimicrobial agents for textiles-a review. Textile Research Journal, 80(16), 1721-1737.

5 Stefaniak, A. B., Duling, M. G., Lawrence, R. B., Thomas, T. A., LeBouf, R. F., Wade, E. E., & Abbas Virji, M. (2014). Dermal exposure potential from textiles that contain silver nanoparticles. International journal of occupational and environmental health, 20(3), 220-234.

6 Wöhrle, D., Schnurpfeil, G., Makarov, S. G., Kazarin, A., & Suvorova, O. N. (2012). Practical applications of phthalocyanines–from dyes and pigments to materials for optical, electronic and photo-electronic devices. Macroheterocycles, 5(3), 191-202.

7 Wester, R. C., Quan, D., & Maibach, H. I. (1996). In vitro percutaneous absorption of model compounds glyphosate and malathion from cotton fabric into and through human skin. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 34(8), 731-735.

8 García-Esquinas, E., Navas-Acien, A., Pérez-Gómez, B., & Artalejo, F. R. (2015). Association of lead and cadmium exposure with frailty in US older adults. Environmental research, 137, 424-431.

9 Rodríguez-Barranco, M., Gil, F., Hernández, A. F., Alguacil, J., Lorca, A., Mendoza, R., … & Rohlman, D. S. (2016). Postnatal arsenic exposure and attention impairment in school children. Cortex, 74, 370-382.

10 Roy, A., Kordas, K., Lopez, P., Rosado, J. L., Cebrian, M. E., Vargas, G. G., … & Stoltzfus, R. J. (2011). Association between arsenic exposure and behavior among first-graders from Torreon, Mexico. Environmental research, 111(5), 670-676.

11 Simonsen, A. B., Deleuran, M., Mortz, C. G., Johansen, J. D., & Sommerlund, M. (2014). Allergic contact dermatitis in Danish children referred for patch testing–a nationwide multicentre study. Contact Dermatitis, 70(2), 104-111.

12 Domingo, J. L., Perelló, G., & Bordonaba, J. G. (2012). Dietary intake of metals by the population of Tarragona County (Catalonia, Spain): results from a duplicate diet study. Biological trace element research, 146(3), 420-425.

13 Matoso, E., & Cadore, S. (2012). Determination of inorganic contaminants in polyamide textiles used for manufacturing sport T-shirts. Talanta, 88, 496-501.

14 García-Esquinas, E., Navas-Acien, A., Pérez-Gómez, B., & Artalejo, F. R. (2015). Association of lead and cadmium exposure with frailty in US older adults. Environmental research, 137, 424-431.

15 Liu, W., Xue, J., & Kannan, K. (2017). Occurrence of and exposure to benzothiazoles and benzotriazoles from textiles and infant clothing. Science of the Total Environment, 592, 91-96. 

An avid researcher with a passion for life and writing about health.