When we say clothes make the man—or woman—we’re talking about image. But clothes can affect our health as well, as they come in close contact with our skin and emit particles that we breathe.
- Choose clothing made from natural, untreated materials whenever possible. Fabric treatments may emit toxic chemicals, so avoid clothing marked with such labels as “shrinkproof,” “stain resistant,” and “waterproof.”
- Avoid flame-retardant clothing, which has been treated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. These chemicals have been shown to affect hormone systems and thyroid hormones, to cause reproductive harm, and to affect learning and behavior in animal studies.
- Use dry cleaning services that do not use perchloroethylene (PERC) or request “wet cleaning.” PERC has been linked to various cancer. One study, in fact, found an association between exposure to PERC through drinking water and a higher risk of breast cancer. Studies have shown that people breathe low levels of this chemical when they wear dry-cleaned clothing and spend time in indoor spaces in which dry-cleaned items are stored. Wet cleaning—a nontoxic, environmentally safe alternative to dry cleaning—has been growing in popularity since the mid-1990s, as have non-PERC dry cleaning alternatives, such as liquid carbon dioxide. If you must use traditional dry cleaning with PERC, open the plastic bag outdoors on a porch or in the garage, discard the plastic immediately, and air your clothes out before hanging them in a closet or wearing them. For more information, download a brochure on wet cleaning from the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
- Avoid commercial fabric softeners, which often contain undisclosed chemicals and harmful fragrances. Make your own fabric softener using baking soda or white vinegar.
- Minimize your use of chlorine bleach. Chlorinated hot water in the washing machine, kitchen sink, or dishwasher can release chloroform, believed to be a carcinogen. To whiten clothes naturally, rinse them in lemon juice and let them dry in the sunlight. Sunlight also helps get rid of mold and mildew; use diluted bleach solutions only as a last resort.
- Avoid fluorescent whitening agents, also known as optical brighteners. Many of these chemicals are structurally similar to diethylstilbestrol, or DES, a potent synthetic estrogen. Amsonic acid, a chemical used to manufacture the fluorescent whitening agents found in laundry detergents, has been shown to cause mammary tumors in female rats and reproductive problems in male workers.
- Never use mothballs. These products contain naphthalene or, more recently, paradichlorobenzene; both chemicals are believed to be carcinogenic. Opt instead for cedar products. If you have stored clothing in mothballs, open the containers outside and let the clothes air out thoroughly before wearing them. For more details, read “Mothballed” from This Green Life.
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