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Natural Vitality
Wearing formaldehyde with that cute new dress?

Wearing formaldehyde with that cute new dress?

Six ways to avoid chemical-laden clothing

When Erin Royer had her first baby, she couldn’t believe the only pajamas available for her child were treated with flame-retardants. A bit more research revealed that there’s a veritable chemical cocktail in most of our clothes—from formaldehyde to Teflon.

Oh well, at least you can wash the chemicals out of clothing, right? Wrong. Many of the chemicals bond with the material and don’t wash out for many washes, if ever.

Yes (sigh), it’s another item to add to your chemical worry list. But, with some knowledge—which you are about to get here—you can easily minimize exposure. Not everyone has to go to the extremes Erin eventually did (read on for her adventures in organic clothing); there’s a lot you can easily and affordably do.

Chemicals in my clothes, why?

Manufacturers add chemicals to clothing to prevent color fading and wrinkling. (The last thing retailers want to do before hanging up a new clothing shipment is iron everything.) Formaldehyde and Teflon prevent wrinkles that occur naturally in clothes. The ever-emerging newfangled materials promising to repel insects, sun, wrinkles and sweat mean even more chemicals.

In its recent Dirty Laundry report Greenpeace found that 14 big-brand clothing lines, among them Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and H&M, contained the hormone-disrupting nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). There’s good news though—Greenpeace’s report got some big players like Nike to swear off NPEs in coming years.

What we put on our skin goes into our bodies, says Gloria Gilbère, ND, PhD, and author of more than 11 books, including Chemical Cuisine: Do you REALLY know what you’re eating? (IWR Press, 2011). “So when you have these chemicals—and I could go on for months about how many are in our clothing—permeating your skin, it adds to our chemical load,” she says.

You also have to consider what these chemicals do to our water sources when they wash down the washing-machine drain. And sadly, conventional cotton crops rely heavily on pesticides—1/3 pound of pesticides is used to grow enough cotton to produce one T-shirt—not good for farmworkers or the planet.

Clean up your clothes

Ready to clean up when clothes shopping? Here are some tips:

  • Buy used clothing—chances are they’ve been washed a gazillion times and are chemical-free. There are loads of fun and even upscale consignment shops in most towns now.
  • Avoid specialized materials like waterproof, flame-retardant, bug-repellent, wrinkle-free, antistatic and shrinkproof.
  • Always opt for organic cotton if you can.
  • Look for natural fibers like hemp, flax, wool, silk, bamboo, cotton and coconut.
  • Wash new chemical-treated clothes 4 or 5 times and add white distilled vinegar to rinse water—1 cup to washer load, suggests Gilbère.
  • Wash with soap, not detergent, which breaks down chemicals better.

The lowdown on organic cotton

Seeing organic cotton at places like Target, Pottery Barn and Macy’s can be confusing. It says organic, but is it? Here’s what you need to know:

If a material is labeled organic cotton, the USDA requires that the cotton was grown under strict regulations that limit pesticide use and don’t allow GMO cotton crops.

Click any image above to enlarge.

A manufacturer can add toxic dyes to the organic cotton and/or apply chemicals that may prevent wrinkling, etc. But because the cotton was grown organically, these chemicals shouldn’t impregnate the fiber, so they should come out in washing. Note that there are not currently labeling regulations for dyes, so you can’t know what kind were used.

The bottom line: Buy organic cotton from a reputable manufacturer that uses no chemicals (Gaiam, Maggie’s Organics, Patagonia, LOOP Organic) —especially for children and bedding. But let’s face it, at times our fashion whimsy wins out and we buy what’s cute. Just keep the above guidelines in mind and remember that every little bit counts.

One mom, one great big solution

So what did Erin Royer do about her flame-retardant pajama conundrum? She created a solution: her own chemical-free kids’ PJ company.

“Flame retardants have been linked to many of the childhood epidemics—ADHD, obesity, learning disabilities, a large number of hormonal issues, and even cancer,” she points out. “I saw a lot of these in my classroom as a teacher, so I definitely took notice. It’s scary to think that all of those chemicals are more concentrated in children, because they’re so much smaller than we are and their bodies can’t get rid of that toxic burden like ours can.

“For my own child, I started looking for a sleeper made of natural fiber and possibly something organic that would really keep him warm, and there was nothing out there. So I decided to have one made.”

Erin resolved to share the fruits of her labors with others and created Snug Organics. “We started very slowly and just took baby steps,” she says. “I found a family that sews in the Denver area and ordered my fabrics within the US, and I just began with small batches of sleepers. My husband happens to be a graphic designer, so he was able to do the branding and the website. We’re now in our third year. I’ve been working on it for four years and we’ve been up and running for three.”

 Visit to check out her wares.

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