Fast fashion, or cheap clothing brands made for short-term use, feels like a “win” when you buy it. Often the clothing comes with a special detail like softness or waterproofness, but sells for a fraction of the cost of other clothing. In fact, fast fashion has become so popular that online retailer Shein just dethroned Amazon as the most popular shopping app in the world.
But when clothing manufacturers cut corners in favor of lowering prices, the consumer doesn’t always come out the winner. In 2021, a team of researchers at the University of Toronto ran tests on some popular clothing and accessories brands. For one fast fashion brand in particular, they found that one in every five items contained unsafe levels of lead.
The University of Toronto report also identified more harmful chemicals, called phthalates, in some other clothing. PFAs (per- and polyfluorinated substances) are also popping up in popular consumer products, like leggings and yoga pants. It seems no matter which direction we look, chemicals are flooding our everyday products.
Why do manufacturers use chemicals in clothing at all?
Did you know the United States only regulates two chemicals in clothing (lead and phthalates), but only in children’s clothing. Your adult clothing requires almost no oversight whatsoever; and when you consider that most fast fashion brands make their clothing overseas anyways, you realize that manufacturers can put just about anything into their clothing and you’ just would never know’ll never be the wiser.
As Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicology physician and the co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center explains: “Fast fashion clothing is often manufactured in developing countries that may not have stringent standards for keeping harmful chemicals out of clothing.”
Lead: this poisonous chemical is often used as a dye, particularly brightly colored fabrics.
PFAs: these “miracle” chemicals were once lauded for its ability to make fabrics waterproof, stain-resistant, slippery, and breathable.
Phthalates: manufacturers rely on these chemicals for durability, softness, and waterproofing. They’re also common in waterproof items like rain jackets, faux leather, screen-printed t-shirts, and see-through accessories, like clear shoes, bags and umbrellas.
How do fast fashion brands affect your health?
Dressing in fast fashion, or extremely cheap clothing made from non-natural ingredients, can cause a myriad of health problems over the course of a lifetime.
In the case of lead, heavy metal buildup takes a toll on our bones, our blood, and our tissue. As lead stores up in our bodies, chronic symptoms can start to emerge, Dr. Trevor Cates, ND, a naturopathic physician, explains. These may include abdominal pain, constipation, forgetfulness, nausea, and depression. “Lead in particular has been connected to infertility,” she adds. The CDC says that people with long-term exposure to lead are also at a greater risk for high blood pressure, kidney disease, and heart disease.
PFAs, known as “forever chemicals,” also build up in the body. They impact the endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating hormones. Greater rates of thyroid disease, breast and prostate cancer, breast development in young boys, and the number of women having menstrual problems all likely stem from endocrine disruptors like PFAs constantly circulating in our bodies.
As for phthalates, a 2022 review of research found strong evidence that phthalate exposure can cause low semen quality, childhood asthma, and neurodevelopment problems. Moderate evidence also exists pointing towards an increased risk of low infant birth weight, endometriosis, low testosterone, ADHD, Type 2 diabetes, and breast or uterine cancer.
So what’s a budget-conscious shopper to do?
Truly, the best thing you can do to protect your family is to ignore these ultra low-priced garments altogether. A $4 waterproof t-shirt may sound great, but it’s almost guaranteed to disrupt your body in some way. Stick to moderately-priced clothing made of natural ingredients like linen, bamboo, silk, or cotton.
And please, whatever you do, don’t dress your kids in anything “shrink-proof,” or “stain-proof.” The chances of lead exposure are high and the health issues could be disastrous.
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