Healthy Textiles

The purpose of clothing, whether made of textiles or leather, is to protect us from factors like sun, low tempe­ra­tures, wind and dampness. But clothing can also make you sick. Articles that are too tight can compress blood vessels, nerves or organs. Tightly bound corsets often made women faint and warnings about the effects on varicose veins of tight jeans pulled on in the bathtub were numerous. Today we tend to have other problems: chemi­cals in our clothing that make us sick.

Hazar­dous substances in textiles

Words like formalde­hyde, phtha­late, nonyl­phenol or heavy metals figure promin­ently in the press. You don’t need a degree in chemistry or aller­gens to know that these are not desirable substances in clothing. But their manufac­ture includes many processes based on chemical substances. Sometimes they give the fibre a better struc­ture, make clothing sturdier or are used to tan leathers or to dye textiles and skins. These chemical substances perform a neces­sary function but, to prevent damage to both man and nature, their use must be strictly controlled and limits of hazar­dous substances must be clearly defined.

In Germany and Europe, consu­mers are on the whole well protected by legally defined safeguards against hazar­dous substances.  These include a product security ordinance, the hazar­dous substance ordinance and the European chemical law REACH. Federal agencies such as the federal environ­mental agency (UBA) or the federal insti­tute for risk manage­ment conti­nu­ally conduct tests of and studies for hazar­dous substances and issue recom­men­da­tions based on these results to the German federal govern­ment and the EU. Unfort­u­na­tely, not all hazar­dous substances are forbidden or limited by law. We cannot be sure that textile products origi­na­ting outside Europe endanger the environ­ment with their produc­tion or that they do not make us sick. This is where seals issued by associa­tions and activist groups come in which require testing for hazar­dous substances in the finished product. Outside of sustainable textile produc­tion there are thousands of dange­rous dyes and helping agents which enter into the global environ­ment in huge amounts either due to bad or inexis­tent waste­water manage­ment, irrespon­sible work methods or in washing finished articles.

Pesti­cides, our old friends

At the very begin­ning of the textile chain, pesti­cides are used in the culti­va­tion of fibre plants and include a multi­tude of dubious chemi­cals. They have come under criti­cism by environ­mental advocates for years. For no less than thirty years, the Pesti­cide-Action-Network (PAN) has articu­lated the danger to man and environ­ment that an inten­sive use of pesti­cides in agricul­ture presents. It advocates legal limits on a global scale.

Among all types of fibre culti­va­tion, the most pesti­cides are used on cotton fields. No other fibre plant is so inten­sely chemi­cally treated. Although cotton grows on only 3% of  world­wide agricul­tural surfaces, over 10% of all globally used pesti­cides are applied for its culti­va­tion, and this in addition to ferti­li­zers and exfoliants.

But other fibre plants are also chemi­cally treated. The conse­quences of exten­sive chemical treat­ment in fibre culti­va­tion include salini­sa­tion of the soil, loss of soil ferti­lity, conta­mi­na­tion of under­ground aquifers and reduced biolo­gical diver­sity. In addition to ecolo­gical risks, there are social conse­quences as well.  Many of the products used are neuro­to­xins, resul­ting in serious poiso­ning among persons who apply them without adequate protec­tion. This affects regions of low literacy dispro­por­tio­na­tely. However, even in California, a highly sophisti­cated area, hundreds of poiso­ning cases are regis­tered every year that are considered related to pesti­cide use. Some pesti­cides can also be found in finished garments, provo­king problems among allergy-prone consumers.

A few substances, inclu­ding for example Endosulfan, have been classi­fied as highly toxic by WHO and are rarely used anymore. Only the EU Organic ordinance offers adequate legal protec­tion, speci­fying as it does that no synthetic pest manage­ment or ferti­li­zing substances are allowed in organic farming. As a result, fibres from certi­fied organic farming (kbA) or certi­fied animal husbandry (kbT) can be assumed to be virtually free of pesti­cides. In subse­quent proces­sing, pesti­cides (fungi­cides and moth-proofing) are only used for shipping and warehousing finished goods, fabrics or yarns.

Quality seals that ban the use of pesti­cides in agricul­ture and manufac­tu­ring and define limits for finished products are GOTS, Natur­textil BEST, Natur­land, ÖkoTex, STeP or Toxproof.

Heavy metals – the dosage does it

Heavy metals only exist in traces in the biosphere. Many are essen­tial for plants, animals and people … but in very small doses.

There are over 80 heavy metals in total but only a few are relevant for the textile industry. These include antimony, arsenic, lead, chrome, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel, mercury, selenium, zinc and tin.  Antimony, for example is used in genera­ting polyester fibres.  Many heavy metals are compon­ents for dyes and pigments (these include chromium, cobalt and copper) where they produce bright colours. Chromium salts are used in large quanti­ties to tan leather. Nickel is found in the metal surfaces of access­ories such as buttons, zippers and clasps.

Many heavy metals, even essen­tial ones, can be dange­rous for the human organism if they are only slightly higher in concen­tra­tion or in certain chemical compounds. Some damage organs and the nervous system, others are carci­no­genic. Many indivi­duals have an allergic reaction to heavy metals such as chrome or nickel. All heavy metals are persis­tent (not biode­gra­dable) and can accumu­late in the human body. They are usually ingested with foods. Plants that absorb heavy metals from the water tend to accumu­late them so that they are subse­quently incor­po­rated into the food chain. It is there­fore of prime importance that heavy metals not be released into waste water and thus added to surface water.

The use of most heavy metals is strictly regulated in the EU.  For some quality seals, these regula­tions are not suffi­cient. Their guide­lines regulate the use of heavy metals through input limits or bans and/or through residue limits in the finished product that are stricter than those mandated by law. Bluesign, STeP and Ökotex only define residue limits for the finished product. Der Blauer Engel, the  EU Ecolabel, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST and Toxproof also, additio­nally, regulate heavy metal input.


Methanal (formalde­hyde) is also a natural substance that is found in small amounts in nature. For example, it is an inters­tage product in cells of mammals. The blood of mammals always contains 2–3 milligrams of formalde­hyde. Human metabo­lism produces about 50g/day and metabo­lises them again. We also exhale formalde­hyde. Fruits such as apples or grapes as well as wood naturally contain formalde­hyde. It has been produced indus­tri­ally in large quanti­ties for over 100 years and is contained in numerous products.

Textiles are finished with synthetic resins contai­ning formalde­hyde to make them more stable. The result is less shrin­kage in washing. The fabric becomes wash-and-wear. Conven­tional articles that claim to be wrinkle-free or no-iron usually contain formaldehyde.

Formalde­hyde is absorbed prima­rily through the air. In high concen­tra­tions it can provoke aller­gies, irrita­tion of skin, respi­ra­tory system and eyes as well as diminis­hing memory, concen­tra­tion and adver­sely impac­ting sleep. The federal agency for risk manage­ment (BfR) considers its carci­no­genic effect proven when it is absorbed through breathing. In addition, there is probable cause that it can negatively impact the genetic makeup of microorganisms.

The accep­table thres­hold value for formalde­hyde in textiles in Germany is 1500 mg/kg (1500 ppm). However, this is not an upper limit. Rather it is a thres­hold that requires label designa­tion. Accor­ding to the ordinance  Bedarfs­ge­gen­stän­de­ver­ord­nung, textile articles with a higher level of formalde­hyde must be labeled with a warning state­ment: “contains formalde­hyde. Washing before wearing is advisable”. Imported textiles often omit this warning.

Seals that require a stricter limit for formalde­hyde in the finished product are: Blauer Engel, Bluesign, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP and Toxproof. A total ban on the use of formalde­hyde is required for der Blaue Engel, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, and Natur­textil BEST.

A.O.X. — adsor­bable organic halogen compounds

AOX describes an entire group of substances: halogen organic compounds. This group contains several thousand substances which have one or several halogen atoms, for example fluoride, chlorine, bromine or iodine. The “x” functions as the variable place holder.

Some organic halogen compounds appear naturally and are considered non-critical. However, many of those produced synthe­ti­cally are among the more dange­rous environ­men­tally hazar­dous substances. Environ­mental advocates are especi­ally critical of the group of organic chlorine compounds, for example dioxin or chlorine-based pesti­cides such as DDT and Atrazine. Many organic halogen compounds are persis­tent, meaning they cannot be quickly degraded to less proble­matic substances. And many of these are toxic and suspected carci­no­gens. Their fat solubi­lity renders them more amenable to absorb­tion and accumu­la­tion in organisms. The AOX content in water is used as an assess­ment parameter in chemical analysis.

Organic halogen compounds are used for surface finis­hing of textiles. They can also be bypro­ducts in the manufac­ture of pest manage­ment substances or in cellu­lose bleaching and are found in deter­gents, disin­fec­tants and cleansers.

Channe­ling waste­water contai­ning AOX into treat­ment plants requires payment of a fine accor­ding to the waste water ordinance in Germany.  Seals that specify input bans or at least stricter limits for waste­water than legally mandated are: der Blauer Engel, bluesign, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST, STeP.

Alkyl-phenols (AP)

Alkyl-phenols and their ethoxy­lates are another chemical group whose most preva­lent forms are nonyl­phenol-ethoxy­late (NPE) and octyl­phenol-ethoxy­late. Alkyl­phe­no­le­th­oxy­lates are used in textile manufac­tu­ring to wash textiles during dying or as an additive for plastics, indus­trial clean­sers or emulsi­fiers. They are also found in textile clean­sers, glues, seals and solvents and pesticides.

Alkyl-phenols are toxic for water organisms and have an effect similar to oestro­gens (hormones). Nonyl­phe­nols are diffi­cult to degrade and accumu­late in the environ­ment. Nonyl­phe­nols are similar to female sexual hormones, impai­ring ferti­lity in fish and similar water animals. They are associated with breast cancer and impaired ferti­lity. Animal testing has proven a carci­no­genic effect. Effects on health among humans is insuf­fi­ci­ently resear­ched but DNA damaging has been verified.

Nonyl­phenol, oktyl­phenol and their ethoxi­lates have been added to the list of  REACH candi­dates. Nonyl­phenol is already banned within the European Union for a variety of uses. In contrast, the use of octyl­phenol within the EU is only banned in Norway and Switz­er­land. Despite bans, these substances are intro­duced into the environ­ment through waste­water treat­ment plants due to washing of imported textiles. Only 80% of NPO, for example, can be removed from clothing in the first wash.
The follo­wing seals ban the use of  APEO: Bluesign, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP.

Azo dyestuffs:

Azo dyestuffs are commonly used in the textile industry. An estimated 2/3 of all textile dyes belong to this chemical group. Body fluids found on the skin or in saliva can break down AZO dyes into their initial compon­ents, aromatic amines, some of which are classi­fied as carci­no­genic. Sweat and rubbing can intro­duce these hazar­dous chemi­cals into the body. Animal testing has proven that certain Azo-dyes can provoke allergic reactions. Others can change the genetic code.

Azo dyestuffs are produced synthe­ti­cally and generate brilliant colours. They are used to dye cotton, wool, silk, hemp, jute, linen, straw, wood, paper and leather. They are also used for coating fabrics.

The use of those AZO dyes which can be broken down into carci­no­genic amines is forbidden in many count­ries inclu­ding Germany for day-to-day products such as textiles, jewel­lery and cosme­tics. Here too it is unclear whether imported textiles meet this mandate.

Quality seals which not only ban the use of these substances but also require random testing for residues in the final product are: Blauer Engel, EU-Ecolabel, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP, Toxproof.


Chlori­nated phenole form a group of 19 isomers of which tetra­chlor­me­thane (TeCP) and penta­chlor­phenol (PCP) are probably the most common. Chloro­phe­nols are used as biocides, in other words to combat bacteria and moulds, and in pest repel­lants. Chloro­phe­nols also arise in the human body during the absorp­tion of benzene and other organic chlorine compounds. PCP is especi­ally toxic for water organisms. In higher concen­tra­tions it can damage organs in humans.

The produc­tion and use of PCP is forbidden within the EU but there continue to be count­ries where it is still used in signi­fi­cant quanti­ties for textile proces­sing. Last year green peace found alarming concen­tra­tions of chlori­nated phenols in Chinese water samples collected as part of a detox campaign.

Quality seals which expli­citly ban the use of chloro­phe­nols and test for them are: der Blauer Engel, GOTS, IVN Natur­leder, Natur­textil BEST, ÖkoTex, STeP, Toxproof.

And that’s not all.…

There are still innume­rable other substances commonly used in textile manufac­tu­ring which can damage both the environ­ment and our health. Per-fluori­nated chemi­cals make clothing water and dirt repel­lant, organic tin compounds prevent mould, fluoro­car­bons, quater­nary ammonium compounds…the list goes on and on…

The European hazar­dous substances ordinance (direc­tive 67/548/EWG) is attached (attach­ment I). It lists hazar­dous substances, adding a legal classi­fi­ca­tion and identi­fi­ca­tion for each. Substances not listed are classi­fied and identi­fied as per the guide­lines in attach­ment VI. So-called risk clauses describe hazards identi­fied with proper­ties of certain chemi­cals or substances, for example “toxic”, “carci­no­genic”, “changes genetic code”, etc. For most chemi­cals there are security data sheets which list these risk clauses.

In Germany and Europe, most seriously dange­rous substances are forbidden both as input and as a residue limit in the finished product. Despite this, there are still many substances for which there is no or insuf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion pertai­ning to the poten­tial effects in general and on humans, animals or environ­ment speci­fi­cally. REACH has addressed these omissions but only for chemi­cals produced in or imported to Europe. This is an ongoing process that is not completed. And we have no security regar­ding harmful substances in imported textiles. This is the gap closed by quality seals which reliably regulate what can be contained in our clothing and what can not. Not all quality seals evaluate all harmful substances and their classi­fi­ca­tion is not the same across all quality seals.

It is not without reason that green peace recom­mends the Global Organic Textile Standard and Natur­textil BEST (IVN Natur­leder has not been evaluated) as the most credible quality seal. Both seals ban or limit indivi­dual chemi­cals but also exclude a priori all substances which have been associated with risk clauses. They require a high level of degra­da­bility, a strict limit to oral and aquatic toxicity and biologic accumu­la­tion of substances. In addition they set strict standards for waste­water manage­ment for certi­fied businesses.

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