It’s not really a secret that fast fashion isn’t a friend of the environment, but sometimes it’s hard to say no to a $30 party dress. We’re all guilty of grabbing something off the rack at Zara or picking up a couple leggings at H&M, but it’s not just the environment that our buying habits can wreak havoc on. 

A 2012 Greenpeace study called “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up,” confirmed that major brands (including favorites like Zara, Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Armani) were making and selling clothes that contained hazardous toxins that soak into your skin and have been linked to everything from asthma to cancer. 

Living in California, it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing a Prop 65 warning — a notice that is posted to warn of “significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.” You see it in restaurants, office buildings, even on furniture products at Ikea. But when it comes to clothing, do we get any warning at all? Sure, most of us will toss new clothes in the wash — undies and jeans in particular — just to make sure they’re clean and to get any excess dyes out, but a little extra (carcinogenic) indigo isn’t the only thing hiding in your favorite pair of Levi’s… 

Yes, those butt lifting blue jeans are a steal, but what’s the real cost of wearing that bootylicious denim? If you knew the blue dye (azo dye) was leeching carcinogenic chemicals into your skin would you still try to get your Queen Bey on?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has conducted studies on this dye and found that not only does it absorb into the skin faster than other dyes, but its carcinogenic properties make it one of the more dangerous chemicals in your clothing.

If you tend to skip the denim and live in athleisure then keep an eye out for a toxic class of chemicals called per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Words like waterproof, moisture wicking, or stain resistant can be a red flag for these chemicals. Nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and can remain for thousands of years in the environment, they have been linked to liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancers as well as ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and cancer, hypercholesterolemia, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. 

If you prefer odor-resistant workout wear, you’re likely dealing with nanosilver, which is used to keep garments odor-free. The chemical can easily pass through our cell walls and disrupt cell function, and has even been known to penetrate the brains of lab rats, inducing neuronal degeneration and necrosis over long periods of time. Suddenly a little b.o. doesn’t seem so bad!

Phthalates are another prevalent element in the fast fashion system which we should steer clear of. They are endocrine disruptors that have been linked to ADHD, diabetes, and breast cancer, along with a number of reproductive issues, including decreased reproductive functions in men and endometriosis in women. In the Greenpeace study, approximately a third of the clothing tested positive for phthalates in pieces ranging from underwear to faux leather.

Of course, not every chemical in your closet is trying to kill you. Some won’t necessarily cause long term damage, but can still be irritants, especially if you’re more susceptible to the chemical or have an allergy or intolerance. Formaldehyde, for example — yep, the same chemical used to embalm dead bodies — is found in a large portion of wrinkle-free clothing. It may give you an allergic reaction or cause irritation, asthma, nausea — or you may not even notice it. (But good luck trying to get past the creep factor.)

If it all sounds a little terrifying, don’t freak out. This doesn’t mean you should immediately head to your closet and start tossing everything out in favor of organic potato sack dresses and your grandma’s hand-knit sweaters. Chemicals have been in our clothing for decades, and many of these studies have proved inconclusive over the years as it’s hard to gauge how much of the chemical is being absorbed into the body and then directly link that absorption to health-related issues. Harder still, is that the CDC classifies skin absorption as a “minor” source of exposure — but nevertheless, the evidence is still overwhelming.

So go ahead and keep your favorite little black dress, but be aware of what you’re buying and what’s in the clothing you’re wearing. Shop with mindfulness in your wardrobe in the same way you choose your organic veggies or fair-trade coconut oil. Make smart decisions when you shop, and when you can, opt for natural fabrics — think cotton, wool, silk, and cashmere. They can be a little more expensive, but will last longer, are better for the environment, and have a much lower chance of harboring toxins. Besides, that $10 bra isn’t looking like such a deal when you consider all the hidden extras that come with it.

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