I was twelve when I first began to realize that touching certain household products with chemicals could hurt me.
As a child, I grew up in a low-income household with working parents and a whole lot of hand-me-down clothing. But we could afford scented, liquid laundry soap. My reaction to that is what led to the discovery of my sensitive skin — and ultimately to my diagnosis of eczema.
I battled raised red rashes, burning, itchy patches on my skin, and even open sores from scratching in my sleep. Back in the early 2000s, there was very little a pediatric physician could do to lessen the burning, itching, and occasional blistering of a young girl’s irritated skin. Calamine lotion became a nauseating smell after just a few months. Like most people my age living in the middle of nowhere, I learned to apply storebought creams and hide my skin under more clothes.
Now, when I wear something that my skin isn’t a fan of, I’m almost immediately aware. I’ve had reactions from mild rashes to the kind of itching and pain that keeps me up at night.
It isn’t just me — or even American consumers like me. One study found that a staggering 28.5% of clothing workers out of the 529 employees studied from 12 different garment factories were found to have experienced work-related contact dermatitis. That’s not to mention the dry skin and respiratory irritation many of those same people reported.
It can be hard even as an American with good health insurance to figure out what is going on when you have such reactions. The testing available for skin reactions is limited to a patch test model — a tedious process that involves attaching patches of suspected allergens to an area of the back for a number of days to see what causes a reaction.
You can only fit up to 100 patches for 100 different chemicals on a person’s back for a typical patch test, but there are some 40,000 to 60,000 industrial chemicals used commercially worldwide. And out of those thousands of chemicals, the European Union has banned 33 chemicals for use in textiles, while the United States has banned only three — and only in children’s clothing.
Since textiles aren’t required to come with an ingredients list, it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly what’s lurking in our clothes or what might be causing a reaction. Most brands themselves may not even know the full extent of what’s going into their textiles.
Acute Reactions to Chemicals Found in Clothing
Acute (immediate and short-term) chemical sensitivities can manifest in a multitude of ways. These reactions are driven by your immune system, which attempts to protect you from the chemical(s) you were exposed to.
Many of the chemicals in clothing and detergents that cause an acute reaction are well documented in scientific literature. Still, manufacturers use brighteners, waterproof finishes, bioicides and even flame retardants, despite the risk of them causing reactions
You’ve probably heard of formaldehyde as something to avoid, but there are many other chemicals including azobenzene disperse dyes, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, heavy metals, tributyl phosphates, and dimethyl fumarate have all been found to cause immediate and sometimes very dangerous reactions.
Some acute reactions are more minor, requiring little to no treatment, while others can be potentially life-threatening. I gathered the most well-documented acute reactions associated with toxic chemicals in fashion and listed them from least to most severe.
Non-Eczematic Allergic Contact Dermatitis
The most common of the many different types of acute skin irritation due to exposure to toxic chemicals is non-eczematic allergic contact dermatitis, which can present in a very similar fashion to eczema — so much so that it’s difficult to distinguish from eczema flare-ups. It can start as a severe itch, then progress into a purpuric rash (hives) — think of the kind of reaction you’d get from poison ivy. While not life-threatening, this type of reaction can become severe enough to require treatment from a doctor to manage symptoms while the area heals.
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is characterized by its cause: continuous, prolonged exposure to a sensitizing toxin, many of which are found in clothing. It can be especially concerning if the exposure takes place over a wound, such as scrape or scratch, wherein the toxin can easily penetrate the skin barrier — your body’s first line of defense. Athletic clothing and outdoor gear, often treated with stain and microbe-resistant cocktails containing formaldehyde, PFAS, and disperse dyes, can cause this type of reaction common among gymgoers and backpackers.
Though few documented cases ever make it to scientific literature, anecdotal evidence from multiple reports may suggest a link between chemical coatings on clothing and acute respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and asthma exacerbation. If you experience any difficulty breathing or feel a lump in your throat when exposed to new clothing, you could be experiencing anaphylaxis, and you should seek medical attention right away. An allergist can determine which component of the clothing you’re allergic to, such as a dye, preservative, or coating.
Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your “Mild” Symptoms
In Alden’s To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back, she interviews several people whose lives have been irreparably impacted by the symptoms of toxic fashion they experienced over time. These stories begin with symptoms that are easy to shrug off: an itch, a rash, a tickle in the throat. Over time, they progress into chronic conditions such as reproductive disorders, autoimmune diseas, various cancers, and even respiratory disorders that can be lifelong and often incurable—stemming from years of exposure in small doses deemed “safe” by the fashion and chemical industry.
How to Avoid Allergens and Toxins In Your Clothing
Without an ingredients list or third-party lab report with every article of clothing you buy, there really is no way to tell if something will make you react. But there are steps you can take to help reduce possible exposure and, over time, learn to filter out the good from the bad. The first step is to educate yourself on what’s what—you might be surprised to find other people who have similar experiences.
Shop for non-toxic, transparent clothing. The best way to avoid toxic fashion is to shop with brands (both large and small) that are non-toxic and have the correct certifications, such as bluesign, Oeko-Tex, and GOTS.
Be aware of what you wear. When you have a reaction to a piece of clothing, take note of what it’s made from and where it came from. It can help to wash new clothing to remove some of the toxic chemicals that are sprayed on as a finish, or to avoid tight-fitting clothing (a frequent culprit for me) but this isn’t a perfect system. Non-toxic clothing is becoming more readily available, however, which is good news for those of us with chronic health issues and sensitive skin.
It’s a long, hard battle for people who have suffered from the chemicals that manufacturers shamelessly soak our clothing in, but there is a movement afoot to better regulate these chemicals. And at the very least, you’ve found a community here at EcoCult that can share information resources.