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Our clothing is crawling with hinky chemicals. Some slough off in the wash, eventually entering—and later polluting—aquatic environments. Others, a new study claims, persist to a “high degree,” serving as a potential source of long-term dermal exposure by penetrating skin. In a preliminary analysis, a team led by Giovanna Luongo, a PhD student in analytical chemistry at Stockholm University, found a hundred identifiable chemicals in a sample of 60 garments from Swedish and international retailers. Present among them were several substances that were not on producers’ lists but might have glommed as byproducts and residues during transport.

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“Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effect for humans, as well as the environment. could possibly be related to these chemicals,” Luongo said in a press release. “Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity.”

Further examining four groups of substances, Luongo and her cohorts found that polyester harbored the highest concentrations of quinolines, a potential human carcinogen that has been linked to liver damage, and aromatic amines, which are found in tobacco smoke and diesel exhaust.

Cotton fared no better; even clothing made from organic cotton contained high concentrations of benzothiazoles, a group of rubber-related chemicals—the same ones found in synthetic turf—that can act as respiratory irritants and dermal sensitizers.

If that doesn’t rock your worldview, consider this: Some “eco-label”-branded organic garments contained 7 to 30 times more benzothiazoles than their so-called “conventional cotton” counterparts, Luongo found. How they got there, however, remains unclear.

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As a comparison, researchers measured chemical levels after running the clothes through a washing machine. “Quick release” compounds are discharged into household wastewater and then the environment. “Slow release” ones cling to clothes, where, depending on type, are either metabolized by skin bacteria or absorbed in the body, where they can pose local or systemic effects.

“We have only scratched the surface, this is something that has to be dealt with,” said Conny Ă–stman, a professor in analytical chemistry at the university. “Clothes are worn day and night during our entire life. We must find out if textile chemicals go into our skin and what it means to our health. It is very difficult to assess and requires considerably more research.”

+ Press Release

+ University of Stockholm