There are many ways we come into contact with textiles in our everyday lives – the clothes we wear, the bed linen we sleep in, the towels we dry ourselves with and the furniture we sit on. Chemicals are added to these products for various reasons to improve them, but in some people they can cause troublesome health effects, including allergies.
The range, colour and texture of fabrics is down to the ingenuity of the manufacturers, the manufacturing processes they go through, and the chemicals used. During the manufacturing process, textiles may go through a range of chemical and non-chemical treatments – including preparation and pre-treatment, dyeing, printing and refinement of fabrics.
Chemicals serve different purposes
You can find a large variety of chemicals in textiles and clothing. Some are used to give the product a certain effect – for example, biocides to stop mould from growing on shoes, dyes to give clothes their specific colours, and water repellents to make outdoor wear more practical. Sometimes special chemicals are added to ensure that the clothes will not become creased or mildewy during long periods of transport. Some clothes and shoes contain bacteria-killing agents to combat bad odour. Textiles can also contain oils and greases, starch, sulphonated oils, waxes and some surfactants.
Textiles for clothes are also sometimes finished with chemicals, for example, to stiffen them and make them wrinkle-free. Chemicals in their nanoforms are helping make textiles more resistant to water, stains, wrinkles, bacteria and mould.
Some of the chemicals can be harmful. For example:
- Formaldehyde and latex can cause allergic reactions.
- T-shirt prints, plastic shoes or bags with soft plastic parts can contain phthalates, plastic softeners. Some of them can harm our ability to reproduce.
- Zippers or other metal parts can contain nickel, which can cause allergic reactions.
- Leather products may contain chromium VI, which can give rise to an allergic reaction.
- Certain dye substances can be harmful to our health.
Reducing dangerous chemicals in textiles
The EU is restricting or banning many dangerous chemicals that have been used in textiles for years, for example, certain azo colours (found in textiles and leather products), certain dye substances (textiles and leather products), chromium VI (leather products), dimethylfumarate (DMF, used to prevent mould) or certain phthalates (textiles, plastic shoes).
Many textile manufacturers are also reducing the number of dangerous chemicals in their products.
Tips for consumers
- Wash new textiles before use.
- Consider textiles with official ecolabels, for example, the EU ecolabel. Textiles carrying such label have been produced with limited use of harmful chemicals.
- Use your right to ask if the textiles you buy contain substances of very high concern above a certain limit.