This article would normally be only for EcoCult Health members, but the clean California fashion brand MATE the Label has generously sponsored this article so that it is free for everyone to read. Check out MATE’s new Detox Your Closet™ program, which launched 1/26.
If you’ve been following my work, by now you know that the typical clothing wardrobe can contain thousands of hazardous chemicals, including carcinogens, reproductive toxins, allergens, and sensitizers.
There are dyes that can give you a rash, plastic fibers containing endocrine disruptors like phthalates and BPA, contaminants like pesticides and fungicides, heavy metals like lead, forever chemicals (a.k.a. PFAS) for water repellency, formaldehyde for no-iron cotton, and much, much more.
You might feel like you need to throw out your entire wardrobe and start over, or join a nudist colony.
And it’s true, it’s a Wild West out there, with almost no regulation around what fashion brands and manufacturers are allowed to put on and in our clothing. But all is not lost. I’m going to walk you through the six steps you can take to get all those nasty chemicals out of your wardrobe, out of your home, away from your kids, and off of your skin!
1. Assess Your Health Needs
How extreme — er, thorough — you want to be in this process will depend on your particular health needs. Just like with choosing the right diet, one size will not fit all. For example, some people thrive on drinking milk, some people are completely lactose intolerant, and some people are in between, finding that when they cut most milk out of their diet, they see subtle but wonderful improvements in their skin appearance. (Hi! It’s me.) It’s the same with sensitizing or allergenic things like synthetic materials and their dyes. So first you need to figure out what your body needs to thrive. You probably fall into one of the following categories:
Intolerant: You can’t be around scented products, you have skin issues like dermatitis or eczema, you frequently have migraines, asthma, or hives, and synthetics make you itchy. If this sounds like you, a fashion elimination diet is in order. You’ll set all the potential no-nos in your wardrobe aside, wear only the cleanest clothing for a while, and introduce items back in to see how you react.
You should also consider asking your dermatologist for a patch test. This is when they put up to 100 patches of known sensitizing substances all over your back. You go in every 24 hours for a few days to see what you react to. This will give you some insight into what might be causing your skin problems — and many of the substances in patch tests for rashes are commonly found in clothing! If you have eczema, make sure to ask your doctor to include patches related to common textile sensitizers, such as disperse dyes.
Healing: You have a chronic health issue such as a thyroid condition, autoimmune illness, a bout with cancer, endometriosis, and/or struggle to conceive. If this sounds like you, you need a total wardrobe cleanse. Out with everything that could be slowly poisoning you, and get a fresh, healthy start!
In Prevention Mode: Your health is just fine right now, but you want to avoid health issues connected to toxic chemicals, such as cancer, infertility, and autoimmune illness. If that is you, a slow closet cleanout is a good choice. You’ll start making better choices moving forward until a few years from now, your closet is almost completely clean and non-toxic.
2. Do a Wardrobe Audit
Let’s take a look at what you already own. Go through your closet and pull out the following:
- Clothing and shoes made with more than 20% synthetic material, including polyester, polyamide, nylon, acrylic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyurethane (PU). It should say so on the tag. If there’s no tag, use your sense of touch to feel it out and make your best guess.
- Any clothing that smells like chemicals.
- Clothing and accessories from ultra-cheap and ultra-fast fashion brands, including Temu, Boohoo, Missguided, Amazon, Walmart, Kmart US, Ross, TJ Maxx, Romwe, SHEIN, PrettyLittleThings, Fashion Nova, or random weird little brands you found through social media ads.
- Any knock-offs or dupes.
- Clothing and shoes from the following brands, none of which have a strong chemical management policy: Aeropostale, American Eagle, Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, DKNY, Express, Muji, Savage x Fenty, Jockey, Reebok, Skechers, Russel, Fila, Under Armour, Fanatics, Fabletics, Gymshark, Merrell, Lands End, L.L. Bean, Carhartt, The Children’s Place, Nine West, Doc Martens, DSW, Famous Footwear, and Steve Madden, BCBGMAXAZRIA, Chico’s, Aritzia, Max Mara, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, COACH, Tod’s, Prada, Chanel, and Dolce & Gabbana.
- Performance clothing with fancy technology and labels, like Gore-Tex, anti-wrinkle, anti-odor, water-resistant, or quick-dry.
- (Only if you’re intolerant or healing) Clothing and shoes in unnatural, dark, and saturated colors, including black and dark blue.
3. Make a shopping list.
You should now have only the safest items left in your closet. Do you have the necessary basics — underwear, bras, leggings, t-shirts, socks, workout clothing, pajamas, jeans, stockings, summer shoes that don’t require socks — in a natural and non-toxic version? If you’re missing any of these, add them to the top of your shopping list (MATE the Label is one of my favorite non-toxic essential clothing brands).
These basics are right next to your skin, and since sweat can pull toxins out of fibers, these pieces are the most important to replace as soon as your budget allows.
Next on your shopping list are things that touch your skin but not as often, tightly, or for as long: blouses, dresses, trousers, skirts.
Finally, at the bottom of the shopping list are things that don’t touch your skin and are more expensive to replace: coats and jackets, and shoes that require socks.
Start at the top of the shopping list, and purchase these replacement items as your budget allows. You’re looking for items in 90%+ natural fibers, with labels such as Oeko-Tex or bluesign, or from companies with strong chemical management programs. We have some shopping guides to help you:
While underwear you need to buy new, you can look for natural fibers and these non-toxic brands secondhand as well, to get more for your budget.
4. Store, trash, and donate.
Look at the pile of potentially toxic stuff and take out anything you haven’t worn in a while, and donate it as soon as possible. One easy way to start the process is to buy MATE’s Take Back Bag, fill it with your unwanted items, send it in, and get a $20 shopping credit for MATE’s clean clothing.
Place whatever is left — the stuff you can’t bear parting with yet — in a bag or bin and put it out of sight in an out-of-the-way closet, basement, or attic. You’re going to try to avoid even thinking about it, and make do with what is left in your closet.
How strict you’re going to be with yourself depends on your health journey. If you’re healing, then you’re only going to dip into this stash if you absolutely need something in there and you cannot afford a non-toxic replacement. When you’re done, put it right back in that bag or bin and seal it up.
If you’re intolerant, try to avoid your toxic stash for at least a month, to give your body time to detoxify and reset. Then, you can dip into your stash if you need to. Write down what you’re wearing and see if you have a reaction, such as a headache, rash, pimples, hives, breathing problems, brain fog, or extreme fatigue. If three days go by and you’re in the clear, you can rotate that item back into your closet.
If you’re in prevention mode, dip into your stash whenever you remember something that is in there and want to wear it. You can rotate it back into your closet if it feels right.
5. Clean better.
Don’t retox your detoxed wardrobe! A 2008 study from the University of Washington tested six top-selling scented laundry products and found that they all emitted at least one chemical regulated as hazardous under federal law, including acetone (the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover), citrus-scented limonene, acetaldehyde, chloromethane, and 1,4‑dioxane. And yet none of the chemicals were listed on the product labels. We can assume they were hidden as a trade secret inside the word “fragrance.”
So only use non-toxic and unscented detergents, and replace your dryer sheets with wool balls.
Avoid dry cleaning if at all possible. A typical dry-cleaning business uses a chemical called tetrachloroethene or perchloroethylene, commonly known as PERC, which can off-gas into the air of your home. PERC has been shown to affect the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, blood, and immune system and is suspected to affect the reproductive system.
Those “dry-clean only” labels? Those are often suggestions, not orders—brands like to put them on everything just to be safe. Choose clothing that can be machine-washed, and if you do find yourself with these items, try to spot-clean them with a water-vinegar or water-vodka mix and then hang them up to air out after you wear them. Hand-wash and air-dry your silk. Hand-wash your wool, cashmere, and alpaca items, and lay them out on a table to dry. Machine-wash your cotton and linen in cold water.
6. Build on your success!
By the time you’re six months in, you’ve settled into a new, healthier relationship with fashion. You know what makes you itchy or gives you a reaction. You’ve gotten rid of the worst offenders and gotten creative with what is left. You’re getting dressed in a flash and feel great about your outfits because your closet is more edited and mindful. This is just how you dress now!
Take whatever seasonal items you never wore and donate or sell them. You could get a second Take Back Bag and fill it with all the stuff you realized that you actually don’t need or want.
Keep going! Continue to patronize non-toxic brands whenever you’re ready to buy something new, and look for quality vintage clothing in natural fibers. By now, you’re probably getting compliments left and right.
Thanks, it’s totally non-toxic.