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As many as 2,000 chemicals may be involved in making the clothes in your closet. They include pesticides, toxic dyes, and formaldehyde — a known carcinogen used as a mildew preventive in the fashion world (and as an embalming agent in the funeral  industry).

“Many of the chemicals used in manufacturing textiles have hazardous properties,” says Kirsten Brodde, PhD, of the Greenpeace Detox campaign, which is working to spark industrywide change. “Clothing should be toxin-free.”

Julietta Rodríguez-Guzmán, MD, of the Pan American Health Organization, warns, “Chemical pollutants in the fabric can be absorbed through the skin, especially when combined with sweat or products such as deodorants, creams, and colognes.”

This year, the Norwegian Consumer Council found harmful substances in one out of three children’s garments tested from major clothing chains. One offender is dibutyl phthalate (DBP) — an endocrine-disrupting plasticizer banned in toys but often found in screenprinting inks. It has been linked to cancers, type 2 diabetes, ADHD, fertility issues, and more.

These chemicals can be found in everything from exclusive luxury designs to budget fashion.” — Greenpeace chemicals expert Manfred Santen

To keep your clothes “clean,” follow these tips:

  • Wear clothing made from natural fibers, like wool, silk, cotton, and hemp, rather than synthetics like polyester and nylon, which are made from chemically produced fibers derived from coal and oil.
  • Buy clothes made from organic fabrics. Look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) logo to dodge chemicals commonly used during the growing and production processes.
  • Avoid  “wrinkle-free” and “no-iron” items. They are made with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) — also used in nonstick pans and carpet. The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed PFCs toxic, noting that they can cause a variety of reproductive and developmental problems.
  • Always wash new clothes before wearing. This will help remove excess dyes and certain chemical finishes. (Use nontoxic, plant-based laundry detergents whenever possible.)
  • Steer clear of “pre-shrunk” clothing, which often contains formaldehyde. (You might notice the chemical’s strong odor when you open a new package of T-shirts, for instance.)
  • Buy secondhand goods. Once garments have been worn and washed multiple times, they are less likely to contain chemical residues.
  • Avoid stain-resistant clothes. They rely on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), which can cause hormonal imbalances and dysfunctions, especially related to the thyroid.
  • Let your voice be heard. “Informed consumers can advocate for increased chemical safety,” says Agnes Soares da Silva, MD, MPH, an environmental epidemiologist with the Pan American Health Organization. “This is especially important in protecting children, who are the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”

These chemicals can be found in everything from exclusive luxury designs to budget fashion.” — Greenpeace chemicals expert Manfred Santen

In 2012 and 2014, Greenpeace tested clothing from a total of 30 global fashion brands (including Levi’s, Gap, American Apparel, and children’s clothes makers) and found harmful chemicals in at least one item from every brand tested. Source: Greenpeace International

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