8.3 Editor's Pick
May 16, 2019

That Little Black Dress you’re Wearing might Cause Cancer: how our Clothing affects our Health. ~ Daniella Smith

For most of us, it’s out of mind out of sight.

Global warming? I’ll put on a tank top, thank you very much.

We’re just too darn busy and worried about our own lives to give a damn about a polar bear starving because he only has an ice cube to float on. But here’s what you should know: the consequences of fast fashion come back to bite all of us as invisible silent killers.

Maybe you don’t care about the thousands of women who are underpaid, abused, and working in inhumane conditions to make that $8 skirt you just scored. But do you care about your health, your longevity, and your beauty? Most of us do, because the quality of our health directly impacts the quality of our productivity and our ability to enjoy life.

Would you reconsider that little black dress if it put your body at risk for cancer? Unlike the nutrition facts on the back of our favorite foods, clothing doesn’t come with a conveniently itemized list of ingredients. Instead, the 8,000 synthetic chemicals used in fashion manufacturing, most of which contain known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, are kept undisclosed and hidden within the fibers of the industry’s most sought out styles.

The good news is that by being more aware of what we are putting on our bodies, we can reduce exposure to unhealthy compounds.

Some simple facts everyone should know about how our clothing affects our health:

What goes on your skin goes to your blood stream and internal organs. Your skin is your largest organ—it absorbs absolutely everything you put on it. That includes the fungicides that were sprayed on those shoes to prevent them from molding as they sat in a shipping container for months while they crossed half the world to get to you.

Thinking about a detox diet? Start by cleaning out your closet. Most clothes are made with synthetic materials, making most mass-produced clothes totally and completely toxic. Petrochemical fibers like nylon, polyester, acrylic, acetate, or triacetate actually restrict toxin release. Don’t be fooled by popular marketing terms like “sweat-wicking” or “performance fabrics.” These fancy claims equate to a high synthetic fiber content which suffocates your skin.

Body heat and sweat accelerate the absorption of these residues into your skin. Clothing that is tight to your skin like underwear, socks, and workout clothes puts you especially at risk to the absorption of chemicals.

Some of herbicides and pesticides used in the production of conventional cotton don’t come out when you wash the garments. They are embedded as part of the cotton, and therefore the fabric that you are draping over your beautiful and vulnerable skin.

Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew, and they’re also used as carriers for dyes and prints. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash.

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. It contaminates the water we drink and the air we breathe, as well as the plants and animals we eat. Don’t forget that everything in life is interdependent and interconnected.

If you’re a woman having a baby, you should also know that studies show environmental toxins cross the placenta. From the 1950s onward, babies have been born with hundreds of toxic chemicals in their bodies—not exactly a fresh start to life.

The best thing you can do to protect your health is find out as much as possible about the entire manufacturing process and choose clothing that is not mass produced. Rather, go with high quality, long-lasting, and ethically made garments. Yes, this means being less of a consumer and waking up to the fact that buying a new outfit every week won’t make you happy, especially if it’s having a negative impact on your overall health, beauty, and longevity.

Common chemicals likely to be found in your clothing and their effects:

Glyphosate, the most-used agricultural chemical, is an herbicide used to grow cotton. It’s linked to cancer and found in cotton textiles.

Chlorine bleach, used for whitening and stain removal, may cause asthma and respiratory problems and is found in fiber/cotton processing, including in denim.

Formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, is used to create wrinkle-free clothing as well as for shrinkage and as a carrier for dyes and prints. It’s common in cotton and other natural fabrics, including anything that’s been dyed or printed.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), solvents used for printing and other purposes, are common in finished textiles, especially those with prints. VOCs may off-gas from clothing, posing risks such as developmental and reproductive damage, liver problems, and in some cases cancer, particularly to workers.

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), used widely in uniforms and outdoor clothing to create stain-repellant and water-resistant fabrics, are carcinogenic, build up in your body, and are toxic to the environment.

Brominated flame retardants, used to stop clothes from burning (although this is questionable), may be found in children’s clothing. These chemicals are neurotoxic endocrine disrupters that may also cause cancer.

Ammonia, used to provide shrink resistance, is found in natural fabrics. It may be absorbed into your lungs and cause burning in your eyes, nose, or throat.

Heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, chromium, and others, may be used for leather tanning and dyeing. They’re highly toxic and may be found in finished textiles, especially those that are dyed or printed.

Phthalates/Plastisol, used in printing inks and other processes, are known endocrine disrupters.



  1. “The True Cost,” YouTube
  2. “Hazardous Chemicals in Clothing,” Greenpeace~
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Daniella Smith  |  Contribution: 640

author: Daniella Smith

Image: Author's own via James ARThur Foto

Editor: Nicole Cameron