What’s in Your Shirt?

Fewer chemicals, natural alternatives, nudging into production of performance wear

What's in Your Shirt?
Photo: Icebreaker

As the world becomes more aware of the impacts of the chemicals that surround us, we start to question everything. In the health world, we’re looking for cleaner, better quality food. We are learning more and more about the benefits of going natural or organic with our personal care and cleaning products. But what about the rest? With more than 80,000 manmade chemicals in use out there, have you ever wondered what your shirt is made of, or what your jacket is coated with?

As we learned from the BPA/phthalate water bottle issue, things can change fast. Almost overnight people were ditching what they thought were healthy plastic bottles and stocking up with stainless or glass.

Clothing is a new can of worms. From formaldehyde used in no-iron garments, to carcinogenic flame-retardant chemicals used on polyesters and baby clothing, to an array of questionable dyes, to PFCs used in water- and stain-proofing, there are many things to watch out for.

Why aren’t we more concerned? The most obvious reason is that we are delving into human processes that aren’t well publicized.

“As difficult as it might be to believe, mainstream manufacturers and regulatory authorities appear unaware of the high permeability of skin, or else simply choose to ignore this as a critical concern,” writes Dr. Samuel Epstein, cancer prevention researcher at the University of Illinois and author of many books, including Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal-Care Products Endanger Your Health… and What You Can Do About It.

Skin is much more absorbent than we think. Some argue it is more permeable and less selective than our intestines. Different substances absorb at different rates, but given that levels of thousands of chemicals, including flame-retardants and PFCs are found in the bloodstreams of virtually all humans, it’s time to start taking the issue seriously. For many of these chemicals, safe levels have not been determined. Common sense dictates that the closer our levels are to zero, the better off we are.

So how do we protect ourselves?

Fortunately, we have options. Icebreaker founder Jeremy Moon saw the need for something different and created a line of products centred around merino wool.

“There was nothing natural on the market, only synthetics made of petrochemicals such as polyester or polypropylene. We wanted to offer a natural choice to outdoor enthusiasts. There had to be a better choice for your skin than plastic.,” he says. “To do this, we turned to nature for answers.”

Merino wool is a natural fibre that many say feels and performs better than synthetics. Other natural materials are out there. Organic cottons are super comfortable, but less popular for athletic wear and companies such as Gramicci have been pushing forward initiatives to develop performance hemp clothing.

As enthusiasts, we still crave performance and that’s why synthetics are so popular. They are light, keep you dry, keep you cool, keep you warm. The switch to merino and natural fibres for our base layers and our casual wear is easy, but what about the gear? Waxed canvas isn’t going to cut it.

There’s good news on that front too. In response to the urging of scientists that the use of compounds such as PFCs be drastically cut back, industry players are stepping up to the challenge. While most companies use textiles from other sources (Gore-tex, etc.), the design team at Columbia has been hard at work in their lab and has recently released their revolutionary new Outdry fabric. This lightweight, 2-layer material is free of PFCs, in the coating and the membrane. Their Outdry Extreme Eco jacket was recently released. It is dye-free and the lining is made from 21 recycled plastic bottles.

Speaking with the designers, they were proud to see the direction the industry is heading. “As much as it’s great to feel all warm and fuzzy working on a project like this, it’s also a business decision,” says Columbia designer Scott Trepanier. Though it hasn’t hit mainstream conversation yet, the rumblings are out there: people are starting to think about healthier and more environmentally responsible options and they need to stay ahead of the trend.

So what’s in my shirt? The bad news is that it’s not always easy to know. And there are ingredients, treatments, sprays and dyes that go into clothing that are detrimental to our health. The good news is that things are changing. People are asking for change and companies are starting to deliver. Will the future be safe and pure and healthy? Unlikely. Nothing is ever perfect. Our health and performance is the goal, so it’s always best to make an educated choice, one that works today and for the long-term.

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