I try to avoid clothing, bedding, drapes, upholstery, and other items made from synthetic fibers like acrylic, nylon, rayon, acetate, spandex, lastex and polyester, as well as anything labeled flame retardant, water-resistant, static-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, anti-odor, permanent-press, no-iron, stainproof, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, or moth-repellant. Our skin is permeable, so everything we put on it is absorbed into our bodies. The chemicals used to make these fabrics and finishes have been linked to many health problems including cancer, immune system damage, behavioral problems and hormone disruption, and they also harm wildlife and the environment. Recycled nylon and recycled polyester is less harmful to the environment because it is made from salvaged items and therefore reduces bio-degradable waste and as well as harmful emissions. However, it still can be harmful for human health.
Natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk, and wool are usually better choices in terms of human health and the environment. However, they can have problems too. Pesticides and herbicides that are known carcinogens will not only be on food that is not organic, but they will also be on cotton and linen that isn’t organic, including tampons, clothing, sheets and towels, and many other textiles. I have not thrown out my old sheets and towels, but when I buy new ones I only buy organic. Organic clothing is starting to become more available, especially online, and the prices are starting to come down.
Wool should be organic too, which means that it comes from sheep that eat organically grown feed and graze on land that is not treated with pesticides. Organic sheep are not dipped in pesticides or injected with any hormones. Organic wool processing must not include the typical bleaching and chemical processing used on conventional wool. There are also some naturally colored breeds of sheep that don’t require dyes. Recycled wool can be sourced from either from leftovers from the weaving and spinning process, or from post-consumer discarded material.
Conventional silk production treats the silkworms in ways too disgusting to mention here, but you can buy “peace,” or “ahimsa,” or “vegetarian” silk. In this process, the silkworms grow in the open forest and no hazardous chemicals are used. The silk is collected after the moth has emerged naturally from the chrysalis.
I don’t confine myself to organic wool and peace silk, but if I see them I will buy them in preference to conventional wool and silk. I imagine that they will become more and more available as people start to wake up to the dangers of toxins to our health and to the environment.
There are some less commonly used natural fibers that I like to buy. Viscose and Lyocell (trade name Tencel) are made from sustainably managed trees. Bamboo fiber is made from bamboo grass, which is fast-growing and does not require pesticides and chemicals. There are two types of bamboo fiber: natural bamboo (sometimes called bamboo “linen”), and bamboo viscose, or rayon (the most common). The process of making the second type is highly toxic and requires a lot of energy, and it can be polluting. However, bamboo is 100% biodegradable, and takes in more carbon dioxide and breathes out more oxygen than trees do.
I very rarely go to a dry cleaner, because most of my clothes are washable. Dry cleaning has some dangers, mainly from PERC (also known as tetrachloroethene, or perchloroethylene), which is a chemical solvent used in the dry cleaning process. It is also used in paint strippers, spot removers, and other solvent-based household products. PERC can harm the brain and central nervous system, damage the liver and kidneys, and is likely to cause cancer. The U.S. National Toxicology Program says that PERC “may reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” I have tried to avoid PERC by looking for “green” dry cleaners, but some non-PERC dry-cleaners use alternatives, sometimes called “hydrocarbon” treatments, that are also toxic. The best alternative I have found is to look for cleaners that use a process called wet cleaning. I get recommendations for local wet cleaners from Yelp.