No, it’s not that we want to give you fashion tips, we want to talk to you about the quality of the fabrics that we wear every day. If much is made of atmospheric pollution and contaminated food, we don’t often worry about the pitfalls hidden inside the clothes or footwear we wear, and don’t give this issue the attention that it deserves.
For example, did you know that about 8% of dermatological diseases found in health care centres in our country originated from contact with dangerous chemicals released by clothing? So much so that Rapex, the Community Rapid Alert System for non-food consumer products, has placed clothing at the top of the table for the possible presence of harmful chemicals.
This is because the clothes we wear are often subjected to a series of treatments to make them more beautiful or functional (dyes, anti-crease treatment, waterproofing, etc.) which means that they come into contact with potentially harmful chemicals. And, if this work is not done with due care, the risk is that fabrics become potentially harmful chemicals that are then gradually released into the environment or, worse, our skin. The Italian Health and Textile Association, established in 2001 to protect consumers of textiles and footwear products, warns, above all, about products imported from outside the EU: if Italian and European producers operate within a strict legislative framework that prohibits the use in the work processes of certain chemicals considered to be hazardous to health and are subject to the European REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization of Chemicals), many imported products are manufactured in countries where the same substances are allowed or tolerated, thus posing a higher degree of danger.
There are a wide variety of chemical compounds that clothing can come into contact with in the long chain that begins with the raw fabric until it reaches the end consumer. Here is a list of the ones most commonly considered most dangerous.
Alchiphenols: used in detergents and dyes, they can accumulate in living organisms and reach humans through the food chain, interfering with sexual development. Europe applies particularly strict regulation to nonylphenols which, since 2005, cannot be used in most applications.
Azo dyes: are some of the most widely-used dyes used in the textile industry because they are inexpensive, but in Europe their use has been banned since 2002 because they can release potentially carcinogenic aromatic amines.
Chlorophenols: are a group of chemicals used as biocides (active ingredients that can suppress any harmful organism) in a wide range of applications, from pesticides to wood preservatives and fabrics. PCP (pentachlorophenol) is highly toxic to humans and aquatic organisms. The EU has banned the manufacture of products containing PCP since 1991 and has now drastically restricted the sale and use of all products that contain this chemical.
Phthalates: The textile industry uses them in artificial leather, rubber and PVC to make them more flexible and also in some dyes. In Europe, DEHP and DBP phthalates (Dibutyl phthalate) are classified as toxic to reproduction and their use has been limited.
Formaldehyde: in textiles, it is traditionally used in anti-slip and anti-crease treatments. Until the advent of COEX technology - the only fireproof treatment that does not involve the release of formaldehyde and other toxic substances (such as halogenated molecules) - it was also an inevitable by-product of all commercially available “wash resistant” fireproof treatments. In addition to being highly irritant by contact and inhalation, it has been classified as a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) since 2004 and, since 1 January 2016, the European Union has restricted its use within certain limits.
Chlorinated solvents: Chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethane (TCE) are used in the textile industry to dissolve other substances during production and to clean fabric. TCE is a harmful substance for humans and the environment; for this reason, since 2008, Europe has drastically restricted its use in both products and in washing fabrics.
Heavy metals: those considered most dangerous (cadmium, mercury, lead and chromium VI) may accumulate in the body for a long time, are highly toxic and may result in irreversible effects, including damage to the nervous system and the liver. Their use has, for a long time, been subject to strict restrictions in Europe, including some specific uses in textile products. Regarding nickel, European standards prohibit its residues because they are strong allergens.
Chlorinated Short Chain Paraffins: used in the textile industry as flame retardants and finishing agents for leather and fabrics, they are highly toxic to aquatic organisms, they do not degrade rapidly in the environment and have high potential for accumulation in living organisms. Their use in some applications has been restricted in the EU since 2004.
Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants: Many brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are persistent chemicals (which do not degrade easily) and bioaccumulative (which can accumulate in the food chain). Polybrominated diphenylphenols (PBDEs) are one of the most common BFRs and have been used to eliminate the risk of flammability of a wide range of materials, including textile products. According to European legislation, the use of certain types of PBDEs is subject to stringent restrictions and one of the PBDEs has been included in the list of “priority hazardous substances” under European legislation water.
Greenpeace, through its “Detox My Fashion” campaign launched in 2011, has encouraged textile companies to work with their suppliers to eliminate hazardous compounds from the production chain and products on the market. Several large international textile groups have already joined the campaign; while others have chosen to submit their products for voluntary Oeko-Tex® certification, which aims to control the presence of harmful substances in fabrics and thus provide consumers with the guarantee that the garments have been made according to ecological and consumer protection criteria (for more in-depth information about made of COEX fabrics and Oeko-Tex® certification read here). However, these are still isolated cases in the international textile landscape and - in the absence of legislative obligations and systematic controls - consumers just have to rely on the sense of responsibility of the manufacturers and the voluntary certification system.
However, a good rule is to read the label stating the composition of the fabric (required by law) by favouring natural fibres and light colours (particularly in the summer months) and the products manufactured in Italy or Europe. Secondly, always wash new garments before wearing them, repeating any washing that may be necessary in case of dyeing. A rule that becomes essential when it comes to underwear or children’ clothes.