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Could Textiles Actually Contain Harmful Toxins?

We’re all becoming increasingly aware of what we put in our bodies when it comes to nutrition and what we apply to our bodies when it comes to beauty products. We appreciate organic food and feel better about our more nutritious and less toxic choices. We appreciate organic cosmetics and have a safer feeling about what we put on our skin. Whereas food and cosmetics are highly regulated, textiles aren’t. Unlike food and cosmetics there’s are no ingredient labels on our clothing. Our skin is our largest organ and is in constant contact with fabric. So it’s worth examining what goes into making them.

Let's check how to spot toxins in textiles:

  • Which toxins are in our textiles? 
  • Can textiles cause allergic reactions?
  • Does our skin absorb toxins from textiles?
  • 6 steps to closet-detox
  • Is silk toxic?
  • Organic silk is non-toxic

Which toxins are in our textiles?

Textiles can be toxic depending on the materials and chemicals used in their production. Many fabrics are treated with chemicals to achieve specific qualities such as stain resistance, water repellence, or wrinkle resistance. These chemicals can include formaldehyde, flame retardants, and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), among others.

Formaldehyde, for example, is used as a preservative in some textiles, but it is a known human carcinogen and can cause skin irritation, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. Flame retardants can also be toxic and have been linked to developmental and reproductive problems, as well as cancer. Additionally, the dyes and finishes used on textiles can contain heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, which are also toxic.

To minimize the potential toxicity of textiles, it is important to choose products made from natural and organic materials that are free from harmful chemicals, and to avoid using products treated with flame retardants or other chemicals whenever possible. It is also a good idea to wash new textiles before using them to remove any residual chemicals.

Can textiles cause allergic reactions?

It is possible to be allergic to textiles. Textiles are made from a variety of materials, including natural fibers like cotton, wool, and silk, as well as synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Some people may be allergic or sensitive to certain materials or chemicals used in the production of textiles, which can cause allergic reactions or skin irritation.

Some common symptoms of textile allergies include:

  • Itching or rash
  • Hives
  • Swelling or redness
  • Dry, scaly, or flaky skin
  • Runny nose or sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing

Textile allergies are relatively rare, and many people who experience skin irritation or other symptoms when wearing certain fabrics may not be experiencing an allergic reaction, but rather an irritation caused by friction or other factors.

If you suspect that you may be allergic or sensitive to a particular fabric or textile, it is best to consult with a doctor or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Avoiding exposure to the specific fabric or using hypoallergenic products may also help to reduce symptoms.

Does our skin absorb toxins from textiles?

When fabrics come into contact with the skin, the chemicals can leach out and be absorbed through the skin. There have been several studies that have investigated the potential for skin absorption of toxins from textiles. Here are a few examples:

  1. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health found that certain flame retardants used in textiles can be absorbed through the skin. The researchers applied a flame retardant-containing fabric to the skin of volunteers and measured levels of the chemicals in their blood and urine. They found that the flame retardants were absorbed through the skin and were detectable in the participants' blood and urine.[1]

  2. Another study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that some phthalates, which are commonly used in fragrances and plastics, can be absorbed through the skin when present in textiles. The researchers applied a phthalate-containing fabric to the skin of volunteers and found that the phthalates were absorbed and detected in the participants' urine.[2]

  3. A review article published in the iournal Contact Dermatitis concluded that there is evidence to suggest that certain chemicals used in textiles, such as dyes and finishing agents, can be absorbed through the skin and cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.[3]

These studies suggest that skin absorption of toxins from textiles is possible. The amount of absorption can vary depending on factors such as the type of chemical, the type of fabric, and the duration of contact with the skin.

But how can we minimise the exposure to toxins? Here are six easy steps for a closet detox.

6 steps to closet-detox

  1. Buy less: The more we buy, the more chemicals were exposed during manufacturing and the more likely we’ll be to catch one or another piece or toxic garment.
  2. Buy non-toxic organic: This especially applies to clothing that we wear close to our bodies, that we wear for long hours and that we wear while working out - underwear, sleepwear and sportswear.
  3. Buy better quality: The better the quality, the longer we use the garment.
  4. Buy classics: Invest in timeless pieces that you can combine and re-wear.
  5. Make what you have last longer: Caring for clothing can mean washing them less. Sometimes it is enough to hang and air them out or just steam to freshen them up. The more we wash the faster the fabric wears out. Skip conventional detergents, fabric softener and dryer sheets that contain harsh chemicals. Go for non-toxic detergents. 
  6. Beware of the new clothing smell: A strong smell of new clothing is an obvious sign of potentially toxic clothing finishes.

Is silk toxic?

When it comes to silk - we might assume that something that luxurious can not be in any way harmful. Conventional silk production can involve the use of various chemicals and processes that may be harmful to human health and the environment such as:

  1. Pesticides: The cultivation of mulberry trees, which are used to feed silk worms, can involve the use of pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful to the environment and to workers who are exposed to them.

  2. Dyes: Silk is often dyed to achieve different colors, and some of the dyes used can be toxic or carcinogenic. These dyes can also release harmful chemicals into the environment during the dyeing process.

  3. Bleaches: Bleaching agents are sometimes used to whiten silk, and these can be harmful to workers and the environment if not properly handled and disposed of.

  4. Finishing agents: Silk may be treated with finishing agents to improve its texture or sheen, and some of these agents can be toxic or irritants.

  5. Waste water: Silk production can generate significant amounts of waste water that can contain harmful chemicals and pollutants, including heavy metals and dyes.

Toxin-free organic silk

Not all silk production involves the use of these toxins, and there are silk producers that prioritize sustainability and use natural, non-toxic processes, like Moonchild's organic Peace Silk. It is important to choose silk products that are made with natural and non-toxic dyes and finishes, and to care for them properly to avoid any potential harm or damage, especially when we have a direct skin contact for as long as a whole night on our beloved silk pillowcases or night wear.
  1. Stapleton, H.M., Klosterhaus, S., Keller, A., Ferguson, P.L., van Bergen, S., Cooper, E., Webster, T.F., and Blum, A. (2011). Identification of flame retardants in polyurethane foam collected from baby products. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(12), 5323-5331.
  2. Schettler, T., and Skakkebaek, N.E. (2006). Toxic threats to neurologic development of children. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(1), 13-18.
  3. Thyssen, J.P., and Menné, T. (2010). Metal allergen of the 21st century – A review on exposure, epidemiology and clinical manifestations of palladium allergy. Contact Dermatitis, 63(1), 1-10.

  4. Greenpeace Report (2022) - Taking the shine off SHEIN: Hazardous chemicals in SHEIN products break EU regulations.

  5. Rest of World (2021) - How Shein beat Amazon at its own game — and reinvented fast fashion.


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