Nearly every object we come in contact with on a daily basis has been treated with manufactured chemicals. But a certain class of “forever chemicals” are proving to be particularly troublesome for us and the environment.
From your car seat to your desk chair, coffee maker to travel mug, frying pan to tupperware, man-made chemicals are coated on a lot of the things we use in order to serve various functions. Some are minimal to the point of being harmless, but some are pervasive to the point of being toxic.
Commonly known as “forever chemicals” because they linger when present in our bodies and don’t break down in the environment, PFAS (or polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of 9,000 persistent hazardous chemicals has been found in a range of everyday items like PET water bottles, nonstick cookware, food packaging, clothing, menstrual products, dental floss, cosmetics, and even toilet paper.
PFAS are usually coated on these items to provide resistance from water, heat, and grease, but are proving to be a toxic handful with repeated exposure.
Falling victim to forever chemicals
PFAS have reportedly been found in clothing items like rain jackets, shirts, hiking pants, yoga pants, and sports bras made by popular brands like Lululemon and Athleta. In fact, a report by Toxic-Free Future, an environmental health research and advocacy nonprofit, found that nearly 72% of products labeled as “water-resistant” or “stain-resistant” tested positive for PFAS.
Unfortunately, the problem goes deeper than just clothes — it gets intimate right down to our lingerie and undergarments. From bras that wick away moisture while we work out to underwear that absorbs bodily fluids during our menstrual cycle, undergarments do a lot more than just help us cover up.
But in order to serve these multitudes of purposes well, undergarments come in a wide range of fabric compositions, some of which have been treated with synthetic chemicals (like PFAS) to aid these functions. In addition to the environmental impact of manufacturing products with these chemicals, our skin can also absorb these chemicals when wearing said products.
Simply put, undergarments are like a second skin that isn’t just skin deep. Akin to the moisturizers and creams we apply, innerwear doesn’t just sit or hug our skin all day long, but the chemicals present in the fabrics of our bras and underwear can potentially penetrate through our skin. In other words, as we sweat, our pores can conceivably draw chemicals out of the fabric and absorb them into the body like a sponge. And it’s just as alarming as it sounds.
PFAS aren’t just unable to break down in the environment, but prolonged skin exposure to PFAS in clothing has been linked with cancer, decreased fertility, endocrine disruption, reproductive issues, and immune system harm, among other diseases.
Earlier this year, popular period underwear brand Thinx settled a lawsuit alleging its products contained PFAS and invited customers to submit claims for compensation for its products purchased in the past six years.
Although the brand denied all of the allegations made in the lawsuit, it still agreed to pay up to $5 million to settle the lawsuit in 2022. The presence of PFAS in Thinx products came to light back in 2020 when Sierra magazine author Jessian Choy published an investigation in partnership with a nuclear scientist at the University of Notre Dame, who found these chemicals lurking within the inner layers of the crotch area of their underwear.
When it comes to toxic chemicals in clothing, cases like this make it evident that there is very little transparency around where they are present, until it is found.
Forever chemicals in the eyes of the law
Federal bills aimed at regulating PFASs, including the prohibition on their use in food packaging, textiles, and cosmetics, have been put forward in the US but have failed to make it through Congress. On the plus side, a handful of states have begun passing laws to prohibit its use.
- California: plans on banning the manufacture, sale, or distribution of textile articles, apparel, and outdoor apparel containing intentionally added PFAS by January 2025
- New York: plans on banning the manufacture and sale of clothing containing PFAS, effective as of December 31, 2023
- Colorado, Maine, and Maryland: have enacted legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of covered products containing intentionally added PFAS
Additionally, several European countries have proposed an extensive ban on PFAS. The proposal is one of the broadest in the continent’s history and if approved, may come into force by 2026 or 2027.
While these measures are a step in the right direction, it’ll be a while before they pick up pace and don’t really affect the items already in your wardrobe.
So, how do you avoid forever chemicals in clothing?
The NRDC, (or Natural Resources Defense Council) claims that consumers are better off assuming that an item of clothing contains PFAS, particularly when they promote qualities like being “waterproof”, “stain-repellent”, or “dirt-repellant”. A lot of outdoor, technical, and performance clothing, along with gym clothing tend to fall under this category.
Resourceful websites like PFAS Central, a project of the Green Science Policy Institute, offer a useful list of products and brands that state they offer PFAS-free clothing and gear. While Ecology Center, an environmental justice nonprofit, has developed its own DIY water droplet test to know if your clothes contain PFAS.
Since the chemicals are treated to prevent fabrics from absorbing water easily, according to their test, placing a drop of water on a clothing item will help determine whether they contain the toxic chemicals or not. For example, if the water droplet beads up, rolls around, and leaves no residue, chances are the item of clothing has been treated with PFAS. But if it soaks up water in a jiffy, that might not be the case.
Another way to circumvent this chemical conundrum is by sticking to natural fabrics and nontoxic clothing that are minimally treated. Think naturally-dyed clothes or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified clothing.
GOTS is a third-party certification given to brands whose clothing meets their processing standards. They have strict criteria for the use and approval of chemicals that are aimed at protecting the health of workers along the supply chain, the environment, and the end consumer (you!). This includes prohibiting all chemicals that don’t meet their rigorous conditions, like flame retardants, PFAS, and toxic dyes.
At the end of the day, if you are unsure whether an item of clothing contains PFAS, directly questioning brands and demanding transparency on their chemical processes might just be your best bet to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
Safer States is an environmental activism alliance who are advocating for and tracking restrictions on toxic chemicals across US states and have been known for pressuring brands like REI to remove PFAS from their outdoor gear and textiles. If you’re keen on joining them in their fight against forever chemicals, their website has resources to empower you with knowledge and take action locally.
P.S. Our nontoxic furniture guide and nontoxic cookware guide are great places to find brands that are cautious of their use of manufactured chemicals.
About The Author:
Jharna Pariani is a fashion writer and creative strategist whose work is rooted in honesty and deep observation of the world around her. When she isn’t busy penning down her thoughts, she moonlights as a video editor creating fashion and food reels on Instagram for several brands and influencers