The Ultra-Processed Chemicals In Fashion

  • by Vivienne Austin

We hear that every single product we consume is "bad for you" every day in the news. We can almost consider this a trend evident in food, medicine, and drinking water, all of which are reported to contain carcinogens, hormone disruptors, forever chemicals, and toxins. As we previously mentioned in our “The Forever Chemicals In Fast-Fashion” blog post, these harmful substances are also prevalent in the textile industry and our wardrobes. With approximately 25% of global chemical output originating from textiles, the health implications are extensive. Given that textiles are an integral part of our daily lives, ensuring their safety and reliability is paramount.



Within the apparel industry, around 8000 synthetic chemicals are used, from material acquisition to the final product. These include flame retardants, PFAS, lead & chromium, phthalates, chlorine bleach, AZO dyes, and volatile organic chemicals like formaldehyde. Though these chemicals serve specific purposes, their adverse effects raise concerns.


  • Flame retardants, essential for preventing clothing fires, have been associated with health risks like infertility, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and cancer due to bioaccumulation.
  • PFAS materials, known for their water, oil, heat, and stain resistance, are prevalent in various products but have unintended environmental consequences, being both persistent and carcinogenic.
  • Lead & Chromium (VI), used to stabilise colours in dyeing processes, can lead to cancer or contact dermatitis when high concentrations are absorbed or ingested.
  • Phthalates, found in activewear and anti-odour clothing, are linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
  • Chlorine bleach, a common whitening and stain removal agent, can cause respiratory issues and asthma, especially when inhaled or in contact with the skin.
  • AZO dyes, responsible for vibrant colours in textiles, release harmful aromatic amines upon skin contact, potentially causing allergies, dermatitis, and cancer.
  • Various VOCs released during the production process, like formaldehyde and toluene, can lead to health issues such as skin irritation, respiratory problems, and developmental damage, despite enabling easy-care finishes like wrinkle-free fabrics.


We’ve talked about how these toxic chemicals can harm the communities working on and dying our textiles, but this “being bad” doesn’t just stop at these rural communities, it also extends to whoever is wearing these clothes, sleeping in them, and so on.



One of the most known cases of how these toxic chemicals can harm human being’s health was one of Alaska Airlines' uniforms back in 2011. Upon receiving a new, high-performance uniform in the spring of 2011, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant experienced a series of health issues, starting with a hacking cough, followed by a rash on her chest. Subsequently, she faced migraines, brain fog, a racing heart, and blurred vision.

This attendant was among many who reported similar reactions to the uniforms that year, including blistering rashes, swollen eyelids, hives, and even severe allergic reactions causing breathing difficulties. Tests conducted by Alaska Airlines and the flight attendants' union revealed various harmful substances in the uniforms, such as tributyl phosphate, lead, arsenic, and other chemicals known to trigger allergies.


Despite these findings, the uniform manufacturer, Twin Hill, avoided legal responsibility by claiming that no single chemical was present in high enough concentrations to cause such diverse reactions. Alaska Airlines decided to replace the uniforms in 2013 without admitting fault. A lawsuit filed by the attendants against Twin Hill was dismissed in 2016 due to insufficient evidence too.


The Alaska Airlines case study is only one in a myriad of cases where the chemicals caused health issues in whoever was wearing the clothes. We recently came across Alden Wicker’s book “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back” and found this a fountain of insightful information on the chemicals present in fashion and what we can do to stay safe. Check it out here.


Given that textiles are an integral part of our daily lives, ensuring their safety and reliability is paramount. When evaluating your wardrobe and thinking about safety, we need to opt for natural materials like cotton, wool, silk, and leather over synthetic ones. How? Look for third-party certifications such as Oeko-Tex Standard 100, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), EU Ecolabel, or bluesign® certification to ensure sustainable practices.


[information sourced on and

All images sourced on]


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