Let’s discuss clothing – can it be harmful to the body, or on contrary, contribute to the overall human health and well-being? We can sometimes feel whether the clothes are healthy to wear, but in some cases, we may need deeper knowledge. The first sign will be the fabric indicated on the label. Everything else is a matter of brand responsibility, sustainability of the production process, and transparency. Let’s discuss what fabrics are environmentally and human-friendly. How to choose what is beautiful for the eyes, as well as sustainable and health-friendly?
The skin is the largest human organ, with thousands of pores and hair follicles on its surface, through which the body breathes, absorbs moisture, releases sweat, and protects itself from dust and bacteria. The skin is like a fabric of a garment, it performs many functions: regulates body temperature, protects against dehydration, releases moisture, and protects it from injury and pain. So, as we increasingly wonder today about the ingredients of our daily food, we should consider the fabrics that we put on our bodies as well.
“I think every dermatologist has heard complaints from patients about intense itching, overly sensitive skin, redness, widespread rashes on the skin of the head, face, body, and limbs, notes Dailė Malinauskaitė, an oncodermatologist at Baltic Dermatology, certain clothing fabrics, for those with skin and allergic conditions, can exacerbate the disease or provoke new reactions.” Itching, rashes, allergies are visible consequences of the damage caused by harmful fabrics, however toxic substances of certain fabrics constantly permeate the body through the skin and eventually can seriously poison the inside of the body.
Fabric as a stress factor
Different fabrics can cause or, on contrary, help prevent stress. Synthetic, airtight textile causes itching, increases the sensitivity of the skin, thus stressing the whole body. For example, nylon, latex, and even natural wool can cause allergic reactions in some people or eventually cause conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. Chemical particles of certain fabrics penetrate the body through the pores and constantly increase the body's intoxication. It causes chronic stress and consequently, the adrenal glands are no longer able to release the right amount of cortisol. It causes adrenal fatigue syndrome and reduces the body’s natural ability to fight stress. This results in a lack of energy, inability to concentrate, insomnia, anxiety, constipation, uncontrolled weight gain, and an uncontrollable sense of hunger. Avoiding stress, and therefore irritating clothing is one of the vital factors ensuring proper adrenal function. Dermatologist D. Malinauskaitė adds that anxiety is caused not just by an imbalance in the endocrine system, but also by constant dissatisfaction with irritated, rashed, poor-looking, and itchy/painful skin. “For people with sensitive, dry skin, atopic dermatitis, acne, it is recommended to avoid woolen, synthetic, rough, and airtight clothing,” - the doctor shares her experience.
Label as a danger indicator
The composition of the material indicated on the label will prompt whether the clothing will fit our image and also will not harm our body. Both natural and synthetic fabrics can be friendly or harmful to the human body as well as to our environment. Polyester, nylon, and other synthetic fabrics are made of refined petroleum by-products - so they are not environmentally and human-friendly. Scientists agree that synthetic fibers can be very damaging to the surface layer of the skin.
Allergic reactions are usually caused by formaldehyde, resins, chemical dyes, adhesives, various additives, and fermentation substances used in textile production and processing. So seemingly innocent cotton-polyester composition can mean that the fabric has thousands of chemical ingredients. On the other hand, the pesticides used in the process of processing natural cotton are harmful to the human body as well as the environment: they can cause headaches, itching, harm the endocrine system, fertility, and even lead to oncological diseases.
The indication organic on the label suggests that such a piece of clothing is most likely friendly to people and the environment. Why most likely? A widely published study from Stockholm University says that sometimes even organic cotton does not guarantee that a garment is non-toxic. Initially, the fabric may be free of toxic substances, but it might get contaminated during transportation. During this study, most toxins were found in the polyester. Some chemicals are impossible to remove from the fabric even after washing the garment many times. Extremely unfriendly is easy-to-clean, stain-resistant, antimicrobial textile. Its processing uses strong chemicals, dyes, heavy metals, etc., which can irritate the bronchi, cause cancer. In addition, it pollutes the entire ecosystem. Unfortunately, we will not find such information on the label. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid fabrics with extremely sophisticated properties.
“It is important to find out where the garment is made, whether the brand communicates transparently about its production chain and the chemicals used for processing. Organic certified textiles are grown without harmful chemicals and do not pollute the soil and the environment in which the plants are grown. All materials of the ABOUT clothing brand are knitted here in Lithuania, the world's first factory to implement Greenpeace's environmental requirements. All clothing production processes take place here: dyeing, printing, cutting, sewing, packaging, marking,” says Giedrė Vilkė, CEO of Aboutwear.com. - This vertically integrated business model is unique these days. Usually, the processes of creation, production, storage, and administration take place in different and distant locations, which is, of course, unsustainable. Consolidating most processes in one place helps to avoid additional transportation therefore no extra CO2 emission and lesser contribution to the greenhouse effect. It also leads to saving time a better product quality assurance.”
Let your skin breath
The skin is the largest mechanism for removing waste from the human body. It detoxifies the body by excreting sweat through the pores and sweat glands. Synthetic, airtight fabrics impede natural body temperature regulation, cause chronic stress, and weaken the immune system. Thus, wearing the wrong fabric blocks the body's natural detoxification process.
Meanwhile, natural, sustainably processed materials will ensure proper skin breathing and body temperature balance. The market is full of innovative, smart clothes that "monitor" the condition of the body and adjust the heat level, depending on the air temperature and body needs: when a person is hot, the fabric allows more air to enter, and when it is cold, it closes and creates a heat block. This type of textile is widely used in specialized clothing for soldiers, athletes, and field workers. There are also garments with moisturizing properties, for example, T-shirts, scarves, which contain collagen and peptides - elements that strengthen, protect and soften the skin. Manufacturers that use Ayurvedic herbs to dye their fabrics declare similar functions.
UV protection, pH, and color codes
The harmful effects of ultraviolet rays are known to many. Clothing physically blocks UV rays from penetrating the skin: the best protection is provided by dense knitting, dark-colored fabrics. The lighter the color and the looser the weave of the fabric, the less protection from the sun it provides. In terms of innovation, textiles with the UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) label are already widespread in the market. A smart solution for everyday clothes - detergents with protection against UV radiation.
In recent years, in the context of the global pandemic, a unique fashion trend has emerged - the so-called dopamine clothing. Scientists agree that bright colors radiate happiness and joy because when you look at them, the production of the happiness hormone serotonin in the brain intensifies. As a response to the anxiety and negativity of a pandemic, bright clothes make people feel more uplifted and positive.
However, the most body-friendly clothes are those made of natural, undyed fabrics. Some argue that the second healthiest option is light-colored textile because darker, deeper shades require stronger chemicals (as mentioned before those chemicals can cause health problems: respiratory disorders, kidney failure, etc.). However, G. Vilkė, the head of the ABOUT brand, explains that everything is even more complicated: “While dark-colored fibers need to retain more dye, light-colored fabrics often use additional chemical treatment processes, such as bleaching, which we don't normally do with dark-colored materials. Finally, after all the processes, regardless of the color of the fabric, a neutralization procedure is performed, during which the fabric’s pH level is adjusted due to contact with human skin. The pH of healthy skin is about 5.5, so products with a lower or higher pH can irritate, make the skin itchy, the skin could become less resistant to bacteria, and so on. Textiles in direct contact with the body must have a pH of 4 to 8,5, and the ones with no direct contact with the skin must have pH of 4 to 9.”
Planet and human-friendly fabrics
Today, the healthiest choices are considered to be sustainable, natural, plant-based fabrics: organic or recycled cotton, organic hemp fiber, flax or bamboo, cork, and more. Semi-synthetic materials are also considered to be durable and, in many cases, friendly to the human body: lyocell, bamboo lyocell, vegan apple skin, Piñatex (pineapple leaf fiber), etc. These types of textiles are biodegradable, water-resistant, breathable, and extremely durable.
How is organic cotton different from regular cotton? During regular processing, cotton is sprayed with insecticides, using heavy chemicals, including carcinogenic dyes, that can penetrate the skin through the pores and can cause health problems. Organic cotton does not use strong chemicals, so it is best to look for organic and naturally dyed cotton fabrics. They are gentle, suitable for extremely sensitive skin, as well as for those with respiratory disorders. The garment industry is increasingly using recycled cotton made from post-industrial or post-consumer waste materials. It reduces fashion waste, but it is difficult to know whether the recycled material will be pure or will have some undesirable admixtures.
Natural linen fabric is one of the healthiest choices: protects the skin from toxins, dust, reduces exposure to sunlight by about 50%. Flax is antibacterial, hypoallergenic, has antistatic properties, adapts to body temperature, and absorbs moisture well. In addition, it is more sustainable than cotton, as it can grow with minimal water and fertilizer consumption, it naturally repels insects, so there is no need to use pesticides.
From bamboo fiber, we get an antibacterial, breathable, odor-absorbing fabric. It easily and quickly removes sweat and moisture. It allows the skin to stay dry without clogging pores. Bamboo removes 5 times more greenhouse gases, so it does not need to be replanted (harvesting does not damage the plant), as well as fertilized with pesticides. It is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet that can live off of rain alone. However, the bamboo raw material can be unsustainable and polluting, when it is processed with lots of chemicals. Only utilizing a "closed-loop" system bamboo lyocell is produced using minimally toxic chemicals.
Hemp is the most elastic of all plant fibers, so its fabric is durable and does not wear out for a long time. Over time, it becomes softer and even warmer than wool, also extremely breathable. Hemp textiles retain color longer than other fabrics, so fewer chemicals are needed to dye them. This fabric protects from the sun and has antimicrobial properties.
Silk is suitable for people with the most sensitive skin due to its natural protein structure. It absorbs moisture well, adapts naturally to body temperature, effectively protects against dust and bacteria, is light and gentle, making it especially suitable for people with problematic, hypoallergenic skin or eczema, as well as after chemotherapy.
Semi-synthetic fabrics can also be friendly to the human body and the environment. For example, lyocell is a semi-synthetic, cellulosic fabric made from wood pulp but gentle to the touch. It absorbs moisture well, is antibacterial, suitable for sensitive skin, easy to dye, so fewer chemicals are used in its production.
“The main material of ABOUT clothing is obtained by mixing food industry waste with organic cotton or Tencel™ modal. Soybean oilcake is used, which would end up in a landfill, if not an innovative technology that allows the processing of soybean waste protein into textile yarn,” - explains G. Vilkė, a representative of the brand. – “Tencel™ modal is a cellulose fiber extracted from beech trees growing in Austria and the surrounding European countries. The Tencel™ represents a patented modal produced by the Austrian manufacturer Lenzing, which uses only wood from responsible forestry (fallen, diseased trees, etc.). It uses less water and energy than the yarn production process which makes the conventional modal or other cellulosic fibers. In addition, Tencel™ is manufactured using a "closed-loop" system where up to 99.5% of solvents can be reused.”
The Lenzing™ brand has also developed a new type of viscose, the EcoVero™. Their fibers come from a variety of sustainable sources of wood and pulp: they meet the highest environmental standards due to 50% fewer emissions and water consumption than usual.
Innovative materials are being rapidly developed for sustainable, ecological, environmentally, and human-friendly fashion alternatives. We've already mentioned vegan leather made from apple or pineapple waste, labeled Apple Leather, Piñatex, and maybe we'll hear or see the name SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) leather, which is made from the same live cultures, like kombucha drinks. S.CAFE yarn is extracted from ground coffee bean raw materials. Its products dry extremely quickly and provide natural UV protection. Japanese QMONOS tissue is made from germs and spider silk genes. Brewed Protein is a silk protein fiber produced by the fermentation of plant-derived biomass. It can be processed into thin silk strands, cashmere-like threads, or hardened into a resin resembling a turtle shell. Although such a fabric is extremely rare, The Moon Parka jacket from The North Face has already appeared on the market.
Does ‘healthy’ mean ‘sustainable’?
Seems like it is true: if a product is healthy for the human body, it is harmless to the planet as well. The good news is that such clothes are manufactured not only by luxury brands but also by the fast fashion industry. “Everything that is recycled and environmentally friendly contributes to reducing the negative impact of human activities on the environment, which also affects our health. However, by delving into specific fibers and their particular effects on our health, more circumstances arise and must be considered. For example, clothes made of synthetic fabrics, whether recycled or not, cause allergies much more often than natural fibers. Synthetic fabrics "breathe" less, which creates a favorable environment for bacteria and fungi to grow, explains G. Vilkė. – When we wash synthetic clothes microplastic particles are released into the seas, oceans, other water reservoirs, and eventually, these microplastic particles return to our bodies via food and water.” According to oncodermatologist D. Malinauskaitė, the most skin-friendly fabrics are natural cotton and linen. The doctor suggests that we should be extra careful when choosing clothes for children.
In summary, it is safest to choose fabrics made from natural, plant-based fibers that use fewer new trees or plant resources which have been cultivated in chemical-free and pesticide-free soil.