What are plastic petroleum-based fibres?
They are your synthetic clothing, such as polyesters, nylons, and acrylics. Often the term microfibres appears, in essence it just means they are smaller fibres, and they could be natural, or, more likely synthetic, which this blog is about.
Artificial, or synthetic, fibres all have something essential in common, they are made of a variety of organic petroleum hydrocarbon based polymers, such as polyethylene. Because they go through a heating and cooling process, they are also termed thermoplastics.
In more detail, they are strong molecule fibres, those left behind after a chemical process (polymerisation) involving fossil fuels, including coal, petroleum air and water using heat. Let’s take polyester, it’s made of purified terephthalic acid (PTS) or dimethyl ester dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monoethylene glycol (MEG). Mix in alcohol, and carboxylic acid and we get a chain of polymers.
Are clothes made from plastic bottles a concern?
You’ve probably heard of PET, used in the production of plastic bottles, and the trend of recycling said bottles, to make polyester for clothing aka rPET. The process of recycling makes this type of clothing more environmentally friendly, as polyester out of all the petroleum based fibres is doted to be the worst environmental offender in terms of production. But we’re still wearing a petroleum based product, both, an environmental and health concern, due to some of the reasons we’ll discuss below.
A dangerous cycle from wear into our bodies
So why are petroleum based fibres such an issue? Basically, we're polluting our very own breadbasket and the air we breathe!
Plastics stick around for a very long time
Because plastics, as we know, aren’t biodegradable. It takes hundreds of years for plastic particles to break down into ever smaller pieces. Incidentally, that makes them even more dangerous, as it is easier for them to invade organisms, including ours.
Microplastic fibres rub off
You may think, ok but my old fleece could be recycled again. That’s true, and it does help to reduce the amount of plastic microfibres around. But did you know when you wash your fleece, or any other synthetic fibre garment, tiny micro-plastic fibres rub off?
Your washing machine ends up spitting millions of those mini-particles smaller than 5 millimetres down the drain over time, research indicates anything from thousands to hundreds of thousands for one piece of clothing in one wash alone).
Even more scary, you don’t even need to wash your clothes to do harm. The tiny particles come off as we wear our clothes through rubbing, and degrade as strong UV rays from the sun shine on us.
These microplastics end up in our environment
The problem here being, that it has also been established that they, around 40% of fibres, then get past the wastewater filters in the treatment plants because they are so tiny. Hence, they end up in our environment, including in oceans, rivers and lakes.
Fish, crabs and the likes don’t notice they are gobbling them up and suffer proven setbacks in growth and the likes.
These microplastics end up in our bodies
Next we consume the fishy delicacies, unaware of their rather unsavoury ‘seasoning’. The little plastic molecules also have a tendency to absorb other toxins on their travel, add some, also contaminated sea salt, and well, our apparent healthy meal may well turn out to be the opposite.
Almost everything now contains microplastics
The little buggers have also been found in our drinking water, and on plants. How?
Well water evaporates, returning as rain from the clouds, peppering the earth and everything on it with plastic molecule raindrops. Yet again, wildlife, domestic animals and ourselves, eat part of our clothing we wear every day via grass, veggies, meat and eggs, as well as the water we drink without even realising. Imagine, the fibres have even been found in our beer! Interestingly enough we could make clothing from beer, plastic free, instead of drinking plastics in our beer - food for thought?
The air we breathe isn’t spared either, toxic fumes released during the extraction of fossil fuels and fibre manufacturing, being the most evident. Disposal is another one. Fashion houses send tons of unsold clothing to Asia, to end up in landfills degrading slowly, or being burnt, sending the toxins into the environment.
How much we breathe in and how our lungs deal with them, and where they could end up in our bodies, organs, blood, is a matter of research as we speak.
How different types of petroleum-based thermoplastic synthetic fibres (polymers) affect our bodies
Synthetic fibres may look appealing, and have other attractive properties. However, they keep heat and sweat close to the skin, risking the absorption of chemicals instead of sweat naturally expelling toxins from our bodies. It effectively locks our skin into a chemical environment! Sounds less attractive now, right?
Polyester cheap and cheerful, easy to dry and wrinkle free, is linked to skin and respiratory allergies. Not just because of the polymer fibres themselves but the chemicals necessary to manufacture the material. As well as the fact that the skin can’t breathe when wearing polyester!
Lycra, also known as Elastane and Spandex are made of polymer polyurethane, which causes skin allergies.
Acrylic fibres turn into yet another polymer polyacrylonitrile and inhaling, or getting it through your skin, could be downright poisonous. Very concerning is a link to breast cancer that has come to light. Similar to polyester we sweat in it. Acrylic, mimicking wool, is often used for scarves, but be aware: one scarf alone can shed 300,000 microfibres when washed.
Nylon (a polyamide fibre) decomposes faster than polyester and is more sensitive to heat. It is also one, which uses a lot of chemicals in its production process. The side effects are many, including headaches, dizziness, respiratory issues, pain and cancer. A pair of nylon socks incidentally sheds over 130,000 micro fibres during washing.
Standing out from the pack is Viscose Rayyon, not a petroleum but wood-cellulose based fibre.Viscose Rayyon can be another skin and respiratory allergen and this is largely attributed to the way it is made. The exception to the rule being those made by Lenzing.
Chemical additives and possible negative health effects
If it would end here that would be enough to take in, but it doesn’t.
We all love different colours in our clothing, plus great features such as easy ironing or wrinkle free, fast drying, being waterproof and flame retardant. All of these added features seem great, but are they too good to be true? More often than not chemicals are being used to make all of this ‘magic’ happen. The chemicals wash out, and rub off during wear moving and sweating, as well. There are hundreds of different chemicals being used, and a lot of them are toxic.
Stain resistant top or increased risk of infertility?
PFC (Perfluorocarbon) makes clothes stain resistant, more durable and wrinkle free, but is known to cause infertility, reduced IQ, endocrine disruption and breast cancer. They’ve already made their way into the bloodstreams of animals and could end up damaging our kidneys and livers.
Anti-wrinkle pants or increased risk of cancer?
Formaldehyde, also used as an anti-wrinkle agent among others, is highly carcinogenic and therefore most governments around the world have placed upper limits on their use. However, as flame retardants are required by law, still many fabrics emit formaldehyde gases. Breather in more than 0.1 parts per million regularly and anything from headaches over nasal and lung congestion to a compromised immune system could occur.
Bold colours or obesity?
Phthalates, a plasticiser, are commonly used in our colourful design printed sports garments, and has been linked to adult obesity, reduced testosterone in men and women, and cancers.
There’s so much more..
- Azo dyes used for colouring can cause cancers.
- Antimony: Polyester commonly is made with antimony, known to affect skin, lungs, heart and liver
- Caustic soda and sulphuric acid: is used to treat the wood cellulose-based Rayyon.
Feel like panicking? Try not to, and simply start choosing your clothing more wisely. Eco and health friendly manufacturers will use alternative additives, which are well-known to be safe.
Some Natural Alternatives
Next time you go to add some colour to your wardrobe look for brands, which use natural plant-based dyes (colouring). Some of them are not only harmless, but could even promote your health: detoxifying the skin, stimulating immunity, or anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
How do I know what is in my wardrobe?
It isn’t always easy to find out what went into your clothes, as clothing labels don’t specify everything.
If you don’t feel like contacting the manufacturer, you can make your life easier by looking out for labels, which guarantee non-use of harmful chemicals, as well as more sustainable manufacturing, the gold standard being OEKO-TEX.
Even if a brand doesn’t use labels like OEKO-TEX, or others, there is another way to reassure yourselves a brand doesn’t use too much of the nasty stuff. Look out for made in Europe, as clothing manufacturers will have to adhere to the EU standards. Unfortunately, clothes made in Asia, unless otherwise stated, are more likely to use EU prohibited substances, as regulations there generally are more lax.
Cheap clothing often equals dangerous clothing. And whilst the fashion industry is working on safer production and safer materials, it is still a long way to everyone pulling at one string to make production, and with that safe apparel less expensive.
It is pretty hard to produce a 100 percent ecological garment, due to the high cost of production. It would take everyone, not just a few, to partake, including raw material producers, fashion houses, and ultimately the consumers.
As with most things, if more people and fashion houses jump on board and demand and design natural apparel, the production of textiles and source material would follow, and the cheaper it would become. Whilst it may not be entirely practical to change from synthetic to natural fibres across your entire wardrobe, starting with using as little of it as possible, would already make a huge difference.
Whilst natural fibres come at a higher price, prevention is better, and dare we say cheaper, than a cure.
We can’t avoid synthetic fibres entirely, however, try to live by the principle that anything lying right on the skin should be natural.
At Inner Mettle we adhere to this philosophy, developing apparel, which is good for us and the environment within the current limitations of the apparel manufacturing industry.
The content in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, always seek the advice of your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment immediately. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this article or linked materials.