The modern wardrobe is infamous for a plethora of problems. From environmentally-damaging manufacturing processes to the hazardous wastewater generated by your washing machine, not only are the fibres we chose to wear important factors in creating a healthier wardrobe, so is the way you take care of them.
In this article, I will run you through a few of the problems and how to solve them in order to protect yourselves and your family from toxins, while reducing your impact on the environment and saving money!
Choosing the right materials
This is worth an article entirely to itself, but let me just highlight the most important points. Not all clothes are equal in terms of environmental friendliness. While natural fibres such as wool, silk, cotton to name the obvious, might seem better for your skin compared to man-made synthetics such as polyester or viscose, a few factors would drastically reduce their eco-friendliness. If you have delicate skin, you’ll want to choose natural fibres that use:
- natural dyes (intense colours and fluorescent colours are obvious indicators of artificial dyes)
- have been produced with as little chemicals as possible (such as organic cotton)
- and are free from special finishings (these are treatments fabric manufacturers apply to the finished fabrics to give them special properties such as increased suppleness, moisture-resistance, water repellency etc).
Wool, albeit natural, is a skin irritant to some and thus best to test before buying 20 sweaters! Typically, technical clothing are made from synthetic fibres made from petrochemicals (polyester, nylon), whether blended with natural fibres or not, as they are very resistant to sweat and intense use, and all have finishes to further increase their performance. Today the vast majority of clothing uses man-made synthetics because they’re fast to make and relatively cheap.
By buying more organic materials, you encourage the production of responsibly sourced and sustainably produced materials. Side note: don’t go into your wardrobe and throw out all your synthetic clothing because 1. you will realise you have nothing left to wear and 2. by now, after many washes, the majority of added chemicals will have been removed. However, if you find clothes irritate you, do not keep them, and look for a clothing collector (do not throw in the bin).
New Clothes, New Wash
You can’t tell what’s been treated or not when you buy new clothes, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that at some stage, they will have been in contact with dirt, chemicals or other health irritants whether during manufacturing, packaging or transport.
In addition to the chemicals that have been directly used in manufacturing, clothes are shipped from manufacturers to retailers in boxes in a poly bag (polyethene), to protect them during transport from dirt, dust, and moisture. Polyethene has been proven to cause skin irritation, and inhaling of particles can cause health issues such as Raynaud phenomenon, joint involvement, pulmonary manifestation, or asthma, is considered toxic to the immune system and is a potential carcinogen. During shipment, the bags may be exposed to very varying temperatures, leaching toxins. Also, another skin (and throat, and lung and everything!) irritant, formaldehyde, is commonly used (prevents mildew when transporting and minimises wrinkles). Avoid items labelled “iron-free,” “wrinkle-free,” “stain resistant” or “permanent press”.
In order to remove as many toxins from new clothes as possible, I recommend you always wash them prior wear, as this precautionary measure will remove about 60% of formaldehyde for instance from the clothing, thus reducing risks of dermatitis and other similar skin conditions.
While many of us tolerate synthetic clothing, just as many develop rashes and skin irritations from the laundry detergents we use. There are so many detergent options nowadays that are “hypoallergenic” tested and promise to be kind to your skin, but the reality is that none of these artificial formulas is good for the environment, and if they aren’t good for the planet, then they surely aren’t good for you.
Give up the softeners
The first ones to eliminate (not replace) are softeners, which some garment care tags even tell you not to use. Why? They interfere with the finishing of the clothes (especially moisture wicking types for sports clothes) and in the same way a clogged straw cannot function, the softener coating builds up and prevents moisture evaporation (hence why your clothes might smell even after washing them!). Over time, it’s harder for water to permeate the fabric so they can’t be washed as easily. Also, they contain fragrances, sometimes indicated as perfume, of which the actual ingredients don’t require to be disclosed, but believe me, if they were using quality essential oils, they’d have it written in bold on the packaging for marketing purposes… so generally, a fragrance is not welcome (this is why many of the hypoallergenic types are fragrance-free).
Another common ingredient is quaternary ammonium compounds; while useful to prevent static and bacteria, they can cause epidermal and respiratory irritation, even asthma. Finally, they’re frequently toxic to aquatic organisms (more than a slight concern as detergents directly enter the water system) and contain petroleum or palm oil derived products (unlikely to ever be sustainably sourced).
If you are vegan by the way, many contain ingredients derived from animal fat (which you will never guess by the name). Alternative? Add a quarter or a half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle (although be sure not to use with bleach, which isn’t good for your skin either anyway). Personally, I have never needed to soften clothes! Air-dry your clothes to reduce static and thus the need for softeners, save yourself tons of money on electricity bills AND increase the longevity of your clothes (check the lint tray, all those fibres have been broken off or pulled from the fabric in the dryer). If you cannot live without your dryer, cut the drying time and softeners by using wool dryer balls instead.
Switch your detergents or use none at all
Detergents are not better than softeners, really, and the eco-friendly versions are usually “improved” versions. They are full of chemicals that you are in contact with day in and out (clothes, towels, bed sheets), so wouldn’t you want to spend a little time considering what would be better for you? There are natural alternatives, my favourite one being soap nuts, that a friend introduced me to back when I lived in Paris. The soapnut shells contain a natural saponin that works as a surfactant, enabling water to better permeate your clothes (now enter the clothes) to remove the dirt, and gives a slight smell similar to apple cider. Reusable several times in a cotton bag or even in a sock (they’ll look mushy and grey when need changing), they are then compostable. They are 100% natural and gentle, perfect for sensitive skin, suffer from neurodermatitis or have allergies. You can make liquid detergent is you prefer too from boiling them.
Another alternative to detergents is to just use water. Yes, that’s right. A bit like salmon can be cooked with heat or with lemon, detergents are just one way to clean clothes. Ozone laundry units – little devices that attach to your laundry water input – convert oxygen into ozone which is mixed and diffused into the water supply for your washer. Why is this helpful? Ozone (just oxygen with an extra atom) is a powerful oxidant thereby a powerful bleaching agent and has the ability to kill bacteria and viruses (woohoo!). They run best on cold water, thus saving a lot on electricity (and energy bills, yey!) and need only short cycles (save water/bills, again – yey!). While definitely expensive up front, the advantages on the long-term really make up for it.
Dry-cleaning is a bit of business person’s best friend until you know how bad it is for your skin and the environment. Dry-cleaning as opposed to wet -cleaning (what you do) requires chemicals and is not dry at all. Garments are immersed in a solvent, the most frequent one being perchloroethylene, aka “perc”, which remains on your clothes, thus off-gassing into your home. Short-term exposure is bad enough (ranging from dizziness and fatigue to fainting) but long-term exposure causes neurological, kidney and liver problems, as well as a fertility disruptor and probably carcinogenic. And then it contaminates the environment, of course. Even using the press only involves chemicals sadly, so all I can advise is to dry-clean and press as little as possible. This can be really simple for some, while so much harder for others – my husband works round the clock in shirts and suits, and only recently have I made a switch, to wash (cold) all his clothes and then steam them (because I suck at ironing and seriously, who still has time to iron today?