Sustainable Fashion

Everything you want to know about the sustainability of the textile and fashion industry

The Hidden Health Costs of Wearing Synthetic Fabrics

In the modern era, synthetic fabrics like polyester have become ubiquitous, found in everything from everyday clothing to high-performance sportswear. While these materials are celebrated for their durability, affordability, and versatility, there is a growing body of research suggesting that they may come with significant health risks. This article explores the potential health effects of wearing synthetic materials, particularly polyester, and underscores the importance of making informed choices in our wardrobe selections.

The Rise of Polyester: A Brief History

Polyester, a synthetic fiber derived from petrochemicals, was first introduced to the market in the 1940s. Its popularity soared in the subsequent decades, driven by its low cost, ease of care, and resistance to wrinkles and shrinkage. Today, polyester is a staple in the textile industry, used in a wide range of applications including clothing, home furnishings, and industrial products.

The Chemical Composition of Polyester

Polyester is made through a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum, air, and water. The primary raw materials are ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, which are polymerized to form polyethylene terephthalate (PET). While the production process itself raises environmental concerns, the potential health impacts of wearing polyester clothing are increasingly under scrutiny.

The Core Components: Ethylene Glycol and Terephthalic Acid

Polyester is synthesized from two primary petrochemical products: ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. These substances are integral to the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the polymer that forms the backbone of polyester fibers.

  1. Ethylene Glycol (C₂H₆O₂):
    • Source and Production: Derived from ethylene, which is extracted from natural gas and petroleum. Ethylene is first converted into ethylene oxide, which is then hydrolyzed to produce ethylene glycol.
    • Health Concerns: Ethylene glycol itself is toxic and exposure can cause serious health effects including kidney damage, metabolic acidosis, and central nervous system depression. While these risks are more associated with direct handling during production rather than wearing finished polyester fabrics, the presence of residual chemicals in textiles could potentially contribute to skin irritation or allergic reactions.
  2. Terephthalic Acid (C₈H₆O₄):
    • Source and Production: Produced through the oxidation of p-xylene, a petrochemical obtained from crude oil. This oxidation process utilizes air as an oxidant and often involves catalysts.
    • Health Concerns: Although terephthalic acid itself is not particularly hazardous, the production process can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants. Additionally, residual chemicals from the production process may remain in the polyester fibers, potentially causing skin sensitization or other reactions.

The Polymerization Process: Creating Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

Polyester fibers are created through a polycondensation reaction, where ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid are combined under heat to form PET. This process involves several stages:

  1. Esterification: Ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid react to form an intermediate compound called bis(hydroxyethyl) terephthalate (BHET), releasing water as a byproduct.
  2. Polycondensation: BHET undergoes further reaction to form long chains of PET, also releasing water. The resulting PET polymer can be extruded and spun into fibers.

Chemical Additives and Finishes: Enhancing Polyester Properties

To improve the functionality and appeal of polyester fabrics, various chemical additives and finishes are applied during and after fiber production. These enhancements, while beneficial for the performance of the fabric, can introduce additional health risks.

  1. Dyes and Pigments:
    • Application: Disperse dyes are commonly used for polyester, which require high temperatures to penetrate the fibers.
    • Health Concerns: The dyeing process involves numerous chemicals that can cause allergic reactions or dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Some dyes may also contain carcinogenic or mutagenic compounds.
  2. Flame Retardants:
    • Application: Added to polyester fabrics to reduce flammability and meet safety standards.
    • Health Concerns: Many flame retardants are known to be toxic and persistent in the environment, with potential endocrine-disrupting effects and links to cancer and reproductive issues.
  3. Water-Repellent Coatings:
    • Application: Often based on fluorochemicals to provide resistance to water and stains.
    • Health Concerns: Fluorochemicals can degrade into per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are persistent environmental pollutants and have been associated with adverse health effects including hormone disruption, immune system impairment, and increased cancer risk.
  4. Antimicrobial Treatments:
    • Application: Used to prevent microbial growth and odor in textiles.
    • Health Concerns: The use of antimicrobial agents can contribute to the development of resistant bacteria and may also cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in some individuals.

Linking Chemical Composition to Health Risks

While the primary health concerns of polyester production are often associated with the workers in manufacturing facilities, the end users of polyester fabrics can also be affected by residual chemicals and byproducts. Several key health risks include:

  1. Skin Irritation and Allergies:
    • Mechanism: Residual chemicals from the production and finishing processes can cause direct contact dermatitis or allergic reactions. Individuals with sensitive skin or allergies are particularly at risk.
    • Prevalence: Many reports and studies have highlighted cases of skin irritation and allergic reactions attributed to synthetic fibers, including polyester.
  2. Respiratory Issues:
    • Mechanism: The off-gassing of VOCs from newly produced polyester fabrics can contribute to indoor air pollution, potentially causing respiratory irritation or exacerbating conditions like asthma.
    • Prevalence: While more common in environments with heavy polyester use (e.g., textile manufacturing), the presence of VOCs in home environments from new polyester products can be a concern.
  3. Endocrine Disruption and Chronic Health Effects:
    • Mechanism: Chemicals such as flame retardants and water-repellent coatings used in polyester fabrics can act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with hormone regulation in the body.
    • Prevalence: Long-term exposure to endocrine disruptors has been linked to numerous health issues, including reproductive problems, developmental disorders, and increased cancer risk.
  4. Microplastic Pollution:
    • Mechanism: Polyester fabrics shed microplastics during washing, which can enter water systems and, eventually, the human food chain.
    • Prevalence: Research has shown that microplastics can cause cellular damage and inflammation, and their full health impact is still being studied.

Skin Irritation and Allergies

One of the most immediate health concerns associated with polyester is skin irritation. The synthetic fibers can cause friction against the skin, leading to redness, itching, and rashes, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin or pre-existing dermatological conditions. Some people may also develop allergic reactions to the chemicals used in the production and finishing processes of polyester fabrics.

The Problem of Breathability

Polyester is less breathable than natural fibers such as cotton or wool. This lack of breathability can lead to excessive sweating and the trapping of moisture against the skin, creating an ideal environment for bacteria and fungi to thrive. Conditions such as folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicles) and fungal infections like athlete’s foot can be exacerbated by wearing non-breathable synthetic fabrics.

Sustainable Alternatives: The Path Forward

Given the potential health risks associated with polyester, it is worth exploring sustainable and health-friendly alternatives. Natural fibers such as organic cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo offer breathable, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable options. These materials are not only gentler on the skin but also have a lower environmental impact compared to synthetic fibers. By opting for natural and sustainable alternatives, we can protect our health and contribute to a more environmentally responsible fashion industry. Making informed choices about our clothing can lead to a healthier lifestyle and a healthier planet.