Image credit: Páramo
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Are you accidentally poisoning the water, soil, animals, and even your friends every time you take a hiking or ski trip?
Since the 1940s, a broad class of synthetic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS, for short) has been added to performance gear such as raincoats, snow boots, bicycle oil, ski wax, and more to make them breathable yet impervious to water. This coating is called DWR by the industry, (short for durable water repellent). It makes products stain-resistant, and causes water to bead up and roll right off your jacket.
The problem is, these chemicals don’t ever break down or go away. Once created, they flake off our laundry and flow into our water systems, shed into formerly pristine wilderness snow, accumulate in wildlife and in our own bodies, and travel to the farthest reaches of the planet. They’ve been found in the blood of the remotest First Nation communities in Canada, and soaked into the snow of Mount Everest and ski resorts, due to their heavy use in high-performance outdoor clothing and gear.
This has scary implications for our planet and its animals, including us. Research has linked PFAS to a variety of cancers, reproductive disease, miscarriage, infertility, hormonal disruption, and obesity risk, to name just a few things.
While it can sound scary to put on something with this level of toxicity, you probably won’t absorb or breathe in fluorinated chemicals via the outer waterproof lining of your new jacket. However, these chemicals do get into the ecosystem wherever you are having your adventure, as well as the water system when you wash your clothes, and especially in the communities where our clothing is manufactured. You have some in your blood right now.
That’s why it’s so incredibly important that all outdoor brands go PFC-free, to protect all of us.
How to Find PFAS-Free Outdoor Gear
Now, this can get pretty confusing, so let me translate some of the industry jargon for you.
Many brands still use the term PFC to indicate the broad class of forever chemicals used for most DWR finishes. PFCs are actually a subset of a chemical compound known as PFAS—governments, industry and advocates are increasingly switching from referring to PFC-free to the broader PFAS-free. There are around 4,700 known types of PFAS.
If a brand says it’s products are PFAS-free, PFC-free, or free of fluorinated chemicals, then they are clean. If it says they are PFOA-, PFOS-, long-chain- or C8-free, or says it uses short-chain DWR, then it still uses a certain type of PFAS that has similar health concerns, albeit somewhat less studied.
“Unless they say it’s PFAS-free, it may mean that they’re using some of what are called short-chain PFAS or the substitutes,” says Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist, researcher, and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). “In fact, we’re finding some of them are actually transformed into things like PFOA and PFOS. And we’re finding that the ones even that are stable the way they are, when they’re tested are causing the same kind of health effects as the PFOA, the PFOS, the PFHxS, etc.”
Arc’Teryx, for example, offers a short-chain DWR refinishing spray, which means it still uses fluorinated chemicals, just not the very worst kind. (You should also note that using a DWR spray containing fluorinated chemicals inside your home is especially dangerous to your health because you are breathing in and absorbing those chemicals.)
Because brands, including Patagonia and Arc’Teryx, claim that non-toxic alternatives aren’t as effective, the chemistry consultancy bluesign and the certifier OEKO-TEX will approve a certain amount of short-chain PFAS in the manufacturing and finishing of some water-resistant outdoor products.
But PFAS are completely overused. KEEN, for example, discovered four years ago that toxic PFAS finishes were being used on every little part of its footwear, even for sandals, where it wasn’t necessary at all. And some brands and advocates dispute that fluorinated chemicals are needed to create even professional-grade products. The Danish consumer protection association Tænk tested fluorine-free outdoor wear versus items that contained fluorine, and concluded, ”Whether new or after a few washing cycles, the jackets with a PFC-free coating keep you just as dry as the other ones.” Fluorine-free performance gear has recently been worn to the arctic, where it kept the adventurers warm and dry.
In short, there are so many brands that are PFC-free at this point that I don’t think you need to resort to buying products with short-chain fluorinated chemistry, even if Mount Everest is on your bucket list.
How to Safely Add Water and Stain Repellency to Your Outdoor Gear
The problem, it seems, with PFC-free outdoor gear is that finishes without fluorinated chemicals don’t last as many wears or washes. But that’s an easy fix! If your old jacket or gear is no longer water repellant, you can use PFAS-free Nikwax to wash it. That’s what some of these outdoor brands, like Páramo, use to waterproof their gear right out of the factory, along with using innovative “directional” fabric that coaxes the water off the fabric, sort of like roof tiles. You can easily reapply it at the end of each season when you wash and put away your gear. Learn more about how to do that from this instructional video. You can also use Detrapel’s PFAS-free spray made especially for performance gear.
And, you can buy secondhand outdoor gear that has shed much of its DWR and refinish it with a safer alternative.
So, which brands are offering fluorine-free outdoor clothing and gear? We’ve created a comprehensive and detailed list of brands you can trust. (A huge thank you to Green Science Policy Institute for their PFAS-free product list, which served as a jumping-off point for our research.)
Brands Where All Products Are PFC-Free
Vaude – Entirely PFC-free apparel as of 2018.
Jack Wolfskin – Entirely PFC-free as of 2019. Check product description in case it’s an old product.
Icebreaker – Does not use any water repellent finishes containing PFC on all of their fabrics as of 2019. Check product description in case it’s an old product.
Lundhags – Entirely fluorinated chemical-free.
The Tent Lab – All tents are PFC-free.
Nikwax – All waterproofing products are PFC-free.
Royal Robbins – Disallows PFCs.
Brands Where Some Products Are PFC-Free
Helly Hansen – New Lifa Infinity Pro three-layer fabric is waterproof without the use of any chemical finish. It doesn’t need DWR because the barrier is completely physical, not based on a chemical solvent. The brand only has it in a few products right now, but is expanding to professional gear Fall 2021.
The North Face – A selection of products are PFC-free. Search “non-PFC” and check the product features before purchasing.