The Pros and Cons of Different Natural Fibers for Baby Clothes

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Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Baby clothes are cute and tiny, but as parents who have conquered Mt. Laundry know, they really add up!

If more people chose eco-friendly baby clothing and passed these items on, this would help keep millions of tons of material out of landfill, significantly reduce water waste and water pollution, reduce workplace exposure to toxic chemicals for those making baby clothes, and generally help clean up our environment.

So, what are your options for natural eco-friendly baby clothes?

The best natural fibers for baby clothes

Natural fibers are a great choice for breathability, comfort, durability, and all-round health for adults, so why would baby clothes be any exception. Two of your best options for natural fibers for baby clothes are organic cotton and hemp. At a push, you might also look at bamboo, which is a rapidly renewable material but typically involves a lot of deeply unpleasant chemicals to process it into soft enough fibers for use in making clothing and textiles.

Cotton baby clothing

Pros: Organic, GOTS certified cotton is very soft and cozy, which is great for a newborn’s sensitive skin.

Cons: Cotton garments can easily shrink and greenwashing is common.

I’ve mentioned the perils of conventional cotton a number of times on Leaf Score. To reiterate, conventionally grown cotton is resource-hungry and involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals that damage the environment and are bad for human health. In contrast, organic cotton is grown and processed without pesticides, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals and is very soft, making it an excellent option for cozy comforters.

Eco-friendly baby clothes that are made with organic cotton dyed using natural processes or left undyed and unbleached is arguably your best option for newborn clothing and other textiles. Look for the GOTS label on these items for confidence that the garment is certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard. There are a lot of companies out there peddling ‘organic’ baby clothing that has nothing to back up that claim and is very likely made with conventional cotton that has been chlorine bleached and dyed with toxic dyestuffs then given a high price tag.

Top tip: Cotton shrinks when washed in warm water and as babies have this strange tendency to keep getting bigger, this combination can prove somewhat troublesome. Be smart about things by looking for items that are ‘pre-shrunk’ or that give sizes based on initial shrinking and size up if in doubt. Your baby will grow into things just as easily as they grow out of things….

Hemp baby clothing

Pros: Hemp clothing is durable and very sustainable to manufacture.

Cons: Hemp baby clothes are hard to find and hemp fibers can take a few washes before being soft enough for a baby.

As for hemp, this natural fiber is a wonderfully sustainable, renewable resource and is one of the most breathable natural materials around. Babies aren’t all that great at regulating their temperature, which makes hemp even more attractive for baby clothes as this fiber manages to keep its cool even in hot and humid temperatures and helps wick moisture away from skin. Hemp is great for keeping clothing and bedding feeling fresh, especially as it is naturally anti-microbial and anti-bacterial, resistant to mold and mildew and doesn’t hold onto odors.

Unfortunately, hemp has a reputation for being scratchy, meaning few people consider it for clothing that will be in contact with delicate baby skin. This reputation is pretty unfair as hemp is actually very soft and comfortable, and hemp clothing gets softer with every wash, just like cotton.

Perhaps because of this reputation, hemp baby clothes just aren’t all that widely available, which means those that are tend to cost more than organic cotton clothing. You might want to look for clothing made with a hemp and organic cotton blend, however, as this can get you the best of both worlds.

As for hemp’s other reputation – as a go-to fiber for those who are super eco-friendly, dare I say, hippies – this is well deserved. The hemp plant is naturally resistant to pests and grows so thick that it prevents the growth of weeds around the plants. This means that farmers don’t typically need to use pesticides or herbicides when growing hemp, nor do they need fertilizers as hemp enriches the quality of soil all by itself. And, because hemp roots grow deep, the crop is great at using groundwater and can help reduce soil erosion.

What about bamboo baby clothing?

Pros: Bamboo is easy to grow and helps combat emissions by absorbing tons of carbon dioxide.

Cons: The process of making bamboo clothing can involve treatment with harsh chemicals.

Bamboo is an astonishingly versatile and strong plant that has a wide range of uses. Bamboo:

  • Can grow up to four feet in a day!
  • Absorbs five times more carbon dioxide than most other trees
  • Produces around 35% more oxygen
  • Regenerates itself quickly after harvesting
  • Requires little water and no pesticides to grow well

But… because bamboo is incredibly strong (it is used in bridge-building!), it has to undergo significant processing to create soft fibers. This can be done mechanically (the traditional method) but is most often done using harsh chemicals.

Mechanical processing of bamboo is very labor intensive and time consuming, so not very economically viable. That said, some companies are so enthusiastic about bamboo that they do go to the trouble of mechanically processing the plant fibers and go on to create beautiful bamboo clothing with a price tag to reflect the effort of all that labor.

Most bamboo clothing, however, is chemically produced, which means the bamboo has been subjected to chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid to create a product called viscose rayon. These chemicals cause air and water pollution and endanger factory workers.

What about Tencel, you might well ask. Well, Tencel (the generic name is lyocell) is a slightly better option for bamboo which is chemically produced using a (mostly) closed loop processing system. This means that while the chemicals are still bad, they don’t escape into the environment (for the most part).

In general, then, bamboo is best suited as a building material or for furniture or flooring, assuming minimal processing without chemicals. If you do find some bamboo baby clothes that are created using a traditional, chemical-free method, great! The bulk of your baby’s clothes, though, are likely best made with organic cotton or hemp.

Wool baby clothing

Pro: Wool fibers are natural flame retardants, and are anti-microbial.

Con: Like bamboo, wool can be treated with harsh chemicals.

Once you announce a pregnancy, chances are that someone in your life will get to work knitting a cute hat or sweater. While this is lovely and generous, wool can be irritating to skin, so watch out for any discomfort, redness, and irritation. You might also want to give any wool items a good wash before use to help strip out any lanolin that could cause irritation to sensitive skin, and where possible use a layer of cotton between your baby’s skin and the wool.

If buying new, consider that while wool is a natural fiber it may contain traces of pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants depending on the sheep it comes from. Wool may also be processed using chemicals including bleach. And because wool is naturally quite resistant to dyes, it is typically treated with quite harsh chemicals to make it more porous, so it will soak up those dyes. Look for the GOTS logo if buying wool and if you don’t see it, ask how the yarn is dyed (natural, plant-based dyes are best, and avoid azo dyes).

On the plus side, wool is a natural fire retardant, does not give off harmful emissions, and has a natural capacity to inhibit the growth of bacteria and dust mites. It also tends to be hardwearing, keeping its shape over many years, making it a great hand-me-down.

Because wool is sourced from sheep, there are also concerns around animal agriculture with this natural fiber. While wool might look pretty eco-friendly, the reality is that producing wool in any great quantity takes an environmental toll, in addition to the issue of animal exploitation and cruelty.

Clearly, some sheep farmers love what they do and truly care for the sheep in their charge. However, sheep used for their wool have been bred over the years to have extra skin folds, so as to produce more wool. Unfortunately, this also increases the incidence of painful skin infections, leading to an unpleasant practice called mulesing. Some companies specify that they only use yarn from non-mulesed sheep who are sustainably grazed on organic land.

Greater demand for wool also means an increase in land use for sheep farming and all the problems associated with animal agriculture (less land for growing food crops for humans, greater methane production, animal feces polluting water sources, etc.). Modern sheep farming can look very different to the pastoral image presented to consumers of so-called ‘natural’ fiber products.

It should also be noted that wool is not non-allergenic. Some people have an allergic reaction to lanolin, a fatty substance found on the skin, and the wool, of sheep. Buying a whole slew of cute wool baby clothes would be a costly way to discover you or your baby have a lanolin allergy, so consider just getting one or two items as hand-me-downs before you commit to buying. Wool is also fun food for moths and carpet beetle larvae, so be careful where you store any wool clothing or blankets and make sure the wool hasn’t been treated with insecticides.

Reducing your baby’s exposure to toxic textiles and dust

Avoiding certain types of fiber and choosing natural fibers for baby clothes is a great start to reduce your newborn’s exposure to toxic textiles. Bear in mind, though, that your baby spends most of the first few weeks and months or their life sleeping in their bassinet or crib. As such, crib linens and clothing, which are in close contact with your baby’s skin for many hours every day and can off-gas chemicals in their immediate breathing zone, is a priority for reducing chemical exposure.

Your baby is also exposed to the chemicals in household textiles outside of the nursery. This is because fiber molecules and bound chemicals make up a significant proportion of household dust, and infants and children are exposed to chemicals when they suck or chew on blankets, clothing, towels, and other textiles. Air purifiers, good ventilation, and regular vacuuming of the nursery and the rest of your home can help reduce exposure to these chemicals for every member of the family.

While many of the chemicals involved in manufacturing clothing and other textiles are washed away before the product reaches the store or your home, some chemicals linger. As such, it’s always best practice to wash new sheets and other linens before use, unless you buy from a reputable eco-friendly company that avoids the use of problematic chemicals.

Other things to consider when choosing newborn clothing

Washing new clothing and textiles before first use helps to reduce the presence of these chemicals in the nursery, but these chemicals don’t just magically disappear. Indeed, wastewater from washing household textiles has become an important source of textile fibers in the aquatic ecosystem, with negative effects on fish and other organisms.

Stain repellants, including per- or polyfluorinated substances used in bibs, change pad covers, and some baby clothing have been seen in increasing concentrations in the arctic region and in the Great Lakes. These compounds either do not degrade or degrade very slowly, while others transform into persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the PBT-substances perfluorooctane sulfonyl (PFOS) and perfluorooctanate (PFOA). PFOS have been banned in textiles in the EU since 2008 but are still used elsewhere, including in products imported to the EU and the US. The new Biden administration has promised to address levels of these kinds of chemicals in the water supply in the US.

Some hazardous chemicals may even form in textiles as the product degrades, meaning that they are not identified when new products are tested. Hand-me-down baby clothing and textiles made using synthetic fibers may have significantly higher levels of problematic contaminants, for instance, than newer items. This is partly due to chemical degradation and partly because environmental regulations are stricter now than they once were.

Natural materials have a lower carbon footprint

It’s also worth noting that clothing made with natural, non-toxic, and organic fibers have a lower carbon footprint than clothing made with synthetics, chemically processed bamboo and conventional cotton, assuming these are not subjected to toxic dying processes.

Natural and organic baby clothes are also easier to recycle and upcycle, may well last longer than synthetics, and are able to break down naturally without damaging the environment your baby will inherit.

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