Are you buying back-to-school clothing to replace the worn out and the outgrown? Under the Children’s Safe Products Act, toxic metals, phthalates and formaldehyde were reported to the Washington State Department of Ecology by makers and retailers of children’s clothing. While the presence of a chemical does not necessarily mean a product is harmful, read on to learn about the chemicals found in clothing and how to minimize exposure until we know more about the risks.

Where do chemicals on clothing come from? Some come from the dyes used to give our clothing color; others from the inks used for screen printing logos, sports designs and special characters from movies and TV. Chemicals may also originate in the processing of the yarn into clothing and the sizing used to finish a garment. Small metal parts or ornamentation on clothing often contain heavy metals.

What can you do?

  • Opt for hand me downs or shop at second hand stores as repeated washings may reduce chemical load from the finishing process.
  • Choose screen printing designs carefully to avoid those with a raised, plastic feel.
  • Try to avoid clothing with metal parts or ornamentation especially if the metal part can fit into a young child’s mouth.
  • Forego clothing with wrinkle free, anti-microbial and stain-resistant labeling.
  • Always wash new garments several times before wearing to reduce manufacturing and shipping residuals.
  • Patronize retailers and manufacturers that have made a commitment to reducing their chemical footprint. Search for this type of information at a company’s website.

What about organic clothing? The USDA Organic standards vouch for how the cotton plant was grown, but do not certify how the fiber was processed into clothing. Certification programs such as GOTS and OEKO-TEX® label garments made of textiles that were manufactured responsibly. The GOTS and OEKO-TEX® standards differ in which chemicals are restricted and the allowable limits for others, but both may indicate that a company is taking care of how its textile manufacturing impacts health and the environment. Certified clothing can be expensive, however, so prioritize garments that your child will spend many hours in such as pajamas.

Think about following the precautionary principle when it comes to nano-textiles, fabrics with nano-particles embedded to provide primarily stain-resistance or anti-bacterial properties.  There is concern that nano-particles such as silver may detach from the textile and enter the body or be dispersed in the environment.