It's often an overlooked source of toxin exposure, but it's a fact that children's clothing can be drenched in chemicals from the beginning raw materials through every step of manufacturing to the finished garment. Here we examine the reasons our clothes can be hotbeds of toxic chemicals, the best ways to avoid the most dangerous ones, and where to find safe clothing for your children.
The Truth About Toxic Chemicals in Children's Clothing
According to the Organic Trade Association,
Cotton is considered the world's ‘dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production.
Not only are these chemicals hazardous to the people whose clothes contain them, they also harm farm workers and the earth.
There's more than 8,000 chemicals in the textile industry, and that's insane. We're so concerned with the chemicals we ingest, but people fail to realize — with skin being the largest organ system — that it absorbs everything it comes in contact with.
These kind of chemicals can cause rashes, asthma, fatigue, headaches, blurred vision and the list goes on. ~Dr. Saman Soleymani
Few Chemical Regulations + Loopholes in Organic Cotton Standards
While there are legal limitations for chemicals in children's toys, there are staggeringly few regulations for children's clothing. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) require that clothing labeled organic must be made from USDA-certified organic crops, but that's about the extent of it.
Under USDA rules, the clothing manufacturer can take certified organic cotton and treat it with chlorine bleach, coat it in nanoparticle antibacterial chemicals, dye it with heavy metal colors, and drench it in formaldehyde-based finishing treatments. And get this, the piece of clothing doesn't even have to be made of 100% organic fibers — it can be a mix of organic and non-organic materials and still be legally labeled “made with organic cotton.” Notice the duplicitous language there…
Fabrics Can Be Significantly Processed with Chemicals
Even natural fabrics can be heavily manufactured with chemicals because many treatments take place after the actual garment is made. Coloring, logos, and finishing treatments are often full of frightening ingredients including:
- Caustic soda
- Dioxin-producing bleach
- Formaldehyde to prevent shrinkage
- Halogens and bromines
- PVC-based ink, azo-aniline and petrochemical dyes
- Sulfuric acid
- Urea resins
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates
Language That May Indicate the Presence of Harmful Chemicals in Clothing
In present time, the following wording strongly indicates the use of toxic chemicals. We recommend steering clear of these labels unless you've researched the product and confirmed with the manufacturer directly what natural, non-toxic substances they're using to achieve these features:
- Antimicrobial (i.e. Triclosan)
- Stain-proof (i.e. perfluorinated compounds [PFCs like Teflon] also found in non-stick cookware)
- Wrinkle-free/Permanent press (possible PFCs)
It's also a common practice of overseas manufacturers to spray their product with a formaldehyde formula to keep the fresh and new appearance for the duration of the journey all the way to store shelves.
Organic Clothing Certifications That Matter
There are a handful of certifying organizations in existence. All are voluntary, but we only identified two standards that meet our qualifications, although they're both still works in progress.
We also support the GreenPeace Detox Campaign that's aimed at pushing large clothing companies like Disney and American Apparel to eliminate toxic chemicals from all of their apparel.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
The GOTS certification is the most comprehensive start-to-finish program available at this time, and it addresses the production of clothing from crop to store. Raw materials must be certified organic under National Organic Program (NOP) standards, and a minimum of 70% of the final product must contain organic fibers. That number isn't higher because they say some clothes require synthetic fibers for elasticity or durability, so the certification allows a portion to come from recycled polyester or rayon.
The standard sets strict limits on the types of fabric dyes that can be used and prohibits toxic fabric treatments including chlorine bleach, chrome, nickel and PVC-based inks, formaldehyde-based finishing treatments and nanoparticle coatings. The certification addresses worker welfare and their ability to unionize, it forbids child labor and requires a fair living wage for people in disadvantaged communities.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100
The Oeko-Tex (pronounced echo-tex) certification is an independent testing system for textiles in their raw forms through end product stages. The laboratory testing covers 100 harmful substances that fall into various categories including legally banned substances, legally regulated substances known to be harmful (but not yet legally regulated chemicals), and health care-specific parameters.
The following is a sampling of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 tested substances:
- 10 different heavy metals including lead, cadmium and mercury
- Biologically active substances
- Chlorinated benzenes and toluenes
- Flame retardants
- Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)
- Phthalates and VOCs
The Safest Fibers and Textiles
The following materials are the safest fiber options overall. They can be grown organically or don't require pesticides, are rapidly renewable or recyclable, and can easily be found in non-GMO form:
- Bamboo (but not rayon made from bamboo)
- Organic cotton
- Recycled polyester
Ways to Find Safer Children's Clothing
It's possible that chemical finishes fade away with multiple washings, so buying used is a great way to address this need. Most off-gassing would've already taken place as well which makes second-hand apparel safer, eco-friendly and fantastically affordable.
Made in the USA
USA-made clothing is often less chemically treated than their overseas counterparts where few or no regulations exist and where manufacturing processes are as cheap as possible. Also, our nation ensures that no one works in sweat factory conditions and child labor is illegal. It's worth it to us if just for those few reasons, but we strongly believe in supporting our local economy too.
Shop Your Neighborhood
Buying clothes from a local small business owner who knows the sources of their materials first hand is always a good choice because you can ask detailed questions about their fabrics, dyes and finishes. And again, local support ROCKS.
GOTS or Oeko-Tex Certified
Clothing made with USDA certified organic raw materials is better than non-organic, but finding GOTS and/or Oeko-Tex certified clothing is the best you can do to put your kids in safe apparel.
20 Places to Find Organic, GOTS Certified and Oeko-Tex Certified Clothing
This is our current list of approved clothing, however, be aware that some retailers provide only a selection of organic and/or certified clothing so be sure to pay attention to the item description. These companies are high on the list of trustworthiness:
- Burt's Bees
- Cat and Dogma
- Colored Organics
- Cutie Bees
- Green Gamboni
- Hanna Andersson
- Kate Quinn Organics
- Lucky & Me underwear
- Maple Clothing
- Nui Organics
- Penguin Organics
- Polarn O. Pyret
- Positively Organic
- Rubi J
- Sage Creek Organics
- The Spunky Stork
- Under the Nile