Even though most toxins used in clothing manufacture will affect workers far more than wearers, it’s still a good idea to exercise precaution and avoid even a little exposure to toxic clothing. Use these seven tips to stay safe at home.
1. Buy less toxic clothing.
The more new conventional clothing you have hanging in your closet, the more chemicals were unleashed in its manufacture—and may still be lingering.
2. Buy used
Used clothing has generally been washed many times, meaning that most of the toxic finishes have already been scrubbed away. In addition to scouring your neighborhood thrift stores and garage sales, along with online auction sites like eBay or visit the Green Business Network directory for a list of our favorite eco-friendly clothing websites.
3. Make what you have last longer
You won’t need as many new items with new chemical dyes and finishes. See "Make Do and Mend." Don’t forget to wash your clothes less, and hang them up rather than putting them in the dryer. The more you run them through machines, the faster the fabrics wear out.
4. Beware of the “new clothing smell.”
Green-living expert Annie B. Bond, author of Home Enlightenment (Rodalem, 2005) says that the “new clothing smell” so ubiquitous on back-to-school clothes is actually a sign of toxic chemical finishes. If you already have new clothes bearing the telltale smell, Bond advises: “Place the clothes in the washing machine with enough water to cover. Sprinkle one small-sized box of baking soda (or 1 cup) into the washing machine. Soak the clothes overnight. When convenient during the soaking, agitate the machine for a few minutes. Launder as usual. Repeat the method until the clothes don’t smell anymore.”
Some strong-smelling clothes are coated in potent formaldehyde residues that are nearly impossible to get out. If the “new clothing smell” is overpowering on a given clothing item, avoid purchasing it at all costs, says Bond.
5. Buy green and high-quality.
Clothing from green companies in Green America’s National Green Pages® is made from eco-friendly fabrics, without toxic dyes and finishes. It’s also often made to last much longer than clothes sewn in a sweatshop for a big-box store like Walmart. Green America staff members generally feel that it’s easy to tell which clothes in our closets are from green companies: The fabrics are often thicker, the stitches tighter (meaning it’ll take a minor act of nature to make a seam fall apart), and they still look almost as new as the day we bought them.
6. Forego toxic detergent and fabric softener.
Conventional detergents, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners, even when “fragrance-free”, contain a whole host of chemicals—and they’ll coat your clothes with those chemicals when you use them. To avoid toxins, use eco-friendly detergents and fabric softeners from green companies. Or, make your own detergent. Find an easy recipe here.
For fabric softener, simply pour half a cup of white vinegar into the fabric softener dispenser in your washing machine (or put it in during the rinse cycle if your washer doesn’t have one). To get your clothes smelling extra sweet, add six drops of essential oil like lavender or lemongrass to a scrap of cotton from an old shirt, and toss in the dryer.
7. Don’t dry clean.
Conventional dry cleaning requires the use of perchloroethylene, a nasty recognized carcinogen that’s also a suspected neuro-, reproductive-, respiratory-, developmental-, kidney-, skin-, and gastrointestinal-toxicant. You can get away with washing silk and wool items at home. Follow Bond’s instructions here. You can always have them professionally pressed at the dry cleaner without toxic cleaning. If you need to have an item professionally cleaned, look for wet cleaners and CO2 cleaners, which use less-toxic, perc-free methods. Find one at nodryclean.com.
Toxic clothing is close to our skin and it affects the safety of our homes. Clothing with toxic finishes are also dangerous to the workers and communities in which they are manufactured. Visit the Green Business Network directory for a list of our favorite eco-friendly clothing websites.