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Are you accidentally poisoning the water, soil, animals, and even your friends every time you go skiing or snowboarding?
Since the 1940s, a broad class of synthetic chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS, for short) has been added to outdoor gear, especially snow boots, ski wax, and water-resistant performance clothing for snowboarding and skiing. This coating is called DWR by the industry, short for durable water repellent. It causes water (or ice) 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 clothes into our home, wash 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 diseases, miscarriage, infertility, hormonal disruption, and weight fluctuations, to name just a few things. You have some in your blood right now.
How to Find PFAS-Free Winter Sports Clothing
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. The EPA says there are around 12,000 known types of PFAS and growing—more than double the estimate from last year.
If a brand says its 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.”
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.
You’re probably not being dropped by helicopter onto the top of a remote mountain. So the amount of performance you need in between mugs of hot chocolate at the lodge is limited. But 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, but especially if you’re just renting a snowboard to try out the slopes this winter.
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.)
Winter Sports Brands With All-PFAS-Free Products
Icebreaker – This brand mainly does cozy merino wool and synthetic-free base layers and accessories, but it does have a couple of women’s jackets for skiing or winter hiking. It has never used long-chain PFAS, and stopped using any short-chain PFAS in 2019. It verifies it’s PFAS-free through testing.
Jack Wolfskin – This European outdoor brand is entirely PFC-free as of 2019.
Houdini – This European brand has both downhill skiing and cross-country skiing gear using recycled material. It’s entirely toxic-free, using Atmos, a PFAS-free membrane, and biobased water repellency treatment from Organotex.
Vaude – This European brand offers ski touring clothing and equipment that is entirely PFC-free as of 2018.
Lundhags – This hiking and ski-touring company offers entirely fluorinated-chemical-free ski boots and ice safety equipment.
Brands Where Some Products Are PFAS-Free
There are a few brands that you could look at if you can’t find what you need from the above completely PFAS-free brands.
Helly Hansen – This ski brand’s 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 has only 17 products with it right now, but you could snag all the outer layers that you need from this limited collection.