Chances are that you’re reading this article while sitting on a couch, in bed, or in a comfy chair, with at least part of your body touching one household textile or another. We take these textiles for granted, but they can be a major source of toxic chemicals in the home. In 2014, a groundbreaking Swedish study revealed that common household textiles expose us to more than 2,400 chemicals, more than 240 of which pose a possible risk to human health (R). Common chemicals in household textiles can have significant effects on our health and the health of other family members, but what are these chemicals and what do we know about them?
In this article, I’ll start by detailing how researchers categorize chemicals used in textile production and why these categories matter. After that, I’ll offer an overview of some of the potential problems associated with these chemicals and how you can best avoid toxic chemicals in household textiles.
Let’s begin by learning about three main types of chemicals in household textiles:
- Functional (or effect) chemical substances
- Auxiliary chemical substances
- Chemical substances not intentionally added
These are the three categories used by researchers to describe chemicals commonly found in textiles. They’re also used by regulators looking to manage exposure to potentially problematic chemicals, and by organizations who offer certification programs for eco-friendly, non-toxic textiles.
Functional (effect) chemical substances
Functional (effect) chemical substances – contribute to the design or certain properties of the final article and are intended to be present in the final article at a high enough concentration to remain useful.
- Antibacterial agents
- Anti-shrinking agents
- Oil, soil, and water repellants
- Flame retardants
Because these functional chemicals are intended to be present in high amounts in the final product, these are often the chemicals that cause most problems for human health. They’re also typically intended to stay embedded in or on the textile, rather than easily leaching out. However, with ongoing exposure to sun, air, water, the sweat on our skin, and to detergents or other cleaning agents, these chemicals may be more easily ‘released’ from the textile.
As such, older textiles may pose more of a risk for exposing us to functional chemicals, although very old textiles may have already leached away most of the chemicals. Put simply, it’s hard to tell, without testing, how much exposure you might be getting from textiles made with functional chemicals.
Auxiliary chemical substances (process chemicals)
Auxiliary chemical substances (process chemicals) – are required to make textile processes work but don’t confer any intended property on the final product. This means that they’re not meant to remain in the final product and don’t serve any purpose if they do.
Examples of auxiliary chemicals in textiles include:
- Organic solvents
- Acids and bases
- Biocides as preservatives during storage and transport of goods
Because these chemicals are not intended to be present in the final product, they may be more likely than functional chemicals to cause environmental damage as they are washed away in waste water or become airborne pollutants. They may also pose a risk to factory workers manufacturing household textiles.
Because there may be traces of these auxiliary chemicals in household textiles such as bed sheets, towels, shower curtains, bath mats, rugs, tea towels, dish cloths, cushion covers, etc., it is a good idea to wash these at least once before using them as intended. This will help to reduce exposure to chemical residues in such products.
Chemical substances not intentionally added
The final category of substances are those unintended chemical substances, i.e. contaminants and degradation products, that are present in the final textile but are not there intentionally. These have no function in the final product and are usually at a low concentration compared to functional chemicals.
Examples in this category include:
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
- Arylamines derived from certain azo dyestuffs and pigments
- Dioxins (from chlorine bleach)
- Toxic metals (e.g. heavy metals) due to impurities from the raw material
Such substances can cause health challenges, including textile dermatitis, reproductive problems, developmental issues in infants and children, cancer, cognitive dysfunction, respiratory difficulties such as asthma, endocrine (hormonal) issues, and more. These chemicals can also cause damage to the wider ecosystem, including affecting aquatic lifeforms such as fish, coral reefs, algae, and larger sea creatures such as whales.
Thousands of chemicals in household textiles
In the 2014 Swedish study I mentioned earlier, researchers identified 2,400 textile-related substances in commonly available household products; 5% of these substances were considered to be of potential risk to the environment; 10% were considered a potential risk to human health (R). Worryingly, only 10% of these 2,400 chemicals were included in the Swedish environmental monitoring program at the time of the study.
According to this study, a staggering 4-44 tons of hazardous dyes might be released annually into waste water in the EU alone, just from washing cotton and polyamide textiles during manufacturing. And this is the best-case scenario, assuming companies follow good manufacturing practices. If they don’t, the amount of chemicals released could be five times higher or more.
The problem chemicals identified were all functional chemicals. Of these, azo dyes of direct and acid application type seemed to present considerable risk to the environment. Other (auxiliary) chemicals or impurities and degradation products known to be hazardous to the environment included nonylphenol ethoxylates and nonylphenol.
Some of the potential adverse effects of these chemicals include:
- Increased risk of cancer
- Reproductive and developmental disorders
- Endocrine disruption
- Allergic reactions
Cotton is the most commonly used fiber in the textile industry, followed by polyester, viscose and polyamide. Conventional cotton is hugely problematic as it uses vast amount of water to grow and process and is one of the largest contributors to pesticide use worldwide. Other chemicals are also used to manufacture textiles made with cotton and synthetic fibers. These can remain in the final product as minor contaminants or enter the waste water stream or landfill, where they can damage the health of wildlife and whole ecosystems.
Children and those with respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the effects of chemical molecules bound to fiber particles released during normal wear and tear of textiles. Substances which bind loosely to the material include plasticizers, stabilizing agents, and direct dyes are more readily released during use and when washing textiles.
Different fibers have different binding affinities for specific chemicals, and other factors such as high humidity, temperature, and exposure to the sun can affect the release of chemicals in textiles. Counterintuitively, perhaps, some of the worst offenders may be natural fibers treated with azo dyes or other chemicals. This is because such chemicals do not bond as well to natural fibers as they do to synthetics, meaning they are more likely to transfer to skin or leach into the environment.
Considerable amounts of silver, triclosan and triclocarban have been seen to be released during normal washing of textiles treated with biocides (R), meaning that sports clothing and bed sheets treated with biocides can contribute to increased bacterial resistance.
Reducing exposure to toxic textiles
More and more potent, auxiliary chemicals and functional chemicals are required for the production of certain household textiles and furnishings, such as mattresses, yoga mats, and carpet tiles. As such, you might want to prioritize choosing greener, non-toxic, eco-friendly versions of these products over other products that are easier to wash and are likely to contain fewer chemicals.
That said, bed linens are, as with clothing, in close contact with our skin for many hours every day. This means that we have considerable dermal exposure, and respiratory exposure, to the chemical substances in textiles.
We’re not just exposed to the chemicals in household textiles when we’re wearing or touching these products, however. Fiber molecules and bound chemicals make up a significant proportion of household dust, and infants and children are also exposed to chemicals when they suck or chew on blankets, clothing, towels, and other textiles. Air purifiers, good ventilation, and regular vacuuming can also help reduce exposure to these chemicals.
While many of the chemicals listed as auxiliary or not intentionally added are washed away before a textile reaches the store or your home, some may linger. Washing new sheets and other linens before use seems wise, then, unless you buy from a reputable eco-friendly company that avoids the use of problematic chemicals.
Washing new household textiles, including couch cushion covers and other larger fiber products, helps reduce the presence of these chemicals in the home. The chemicals don’t just magically disappear when textiles are washed though. Indeed, wastewater from washing household textiles appears to be 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 household textiles have been seen in increasing concentrations in the arctic region and in the Great Lakes (R). These compounds do not degrade or degrade very slowly, while others transform into persistent substances, 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.
Some hazardous chemicals may form in textiles as the product degrades, meaning that they are not identified when new products are tested. Vintage clothing and textiles may also have significantly higher levels of problematic contaminants, for instance, than newer textiles, in part due to chemical degradation and because stricter environmental regulations have been enacted in recent years.
This article by no means offers an exhaustive list of all the chemicals that might be present in household textiles, but I hope it provides a useful starting point and food for thought when buying new products for your home. I look more closely in other articles at the chemicals likely to be present in specific household textiles, including bed sheets, mattresses, nail polish, yoga mats, and more.