Rash, swelling, migraines and shortness of breath.
These were common cases that were brought to light in 2011 after flight attendants belonging to Alaskan Airlines got new uniforms. For years, many cabin crew members were suffering from numerous illnesses, including eye irritations, hives, and peculiar pus-filled patches on the skin. The flight attendants filed lawsuits against the manufacturers for years, without much success. The cases were often dissolved due to apparent lack of evidence. However, according to the British news media outlet The Guardian, tests commissioned by the airlines found tributyl phosphate, lead, arsenic, cobalt, antimony in the dyes, which are chemicals known to cause allergic reactions. New uniforms were procured for the flight attendants.
However, the story of unwell flight attendants was far from over. Over the years, cabin crew members from different airlines reported similar illnesses. In 2018, a research group at Harvard deconstructed the connection between the uniforms and attendants, who complained of rash, blurred vision and some with severe symptoms such as shortness of breath. The study proved what the flight attendants had been saying all along: Their physical ailments had doubled after wearing the uniforms. This brought the spotlight on the several problems in the textile industries and the process of manufacturing, itself.
The case of toxic fashion isn’t restricted to just airline attendants. It throws light on the dangerous chemicals embedded in our newly bought clothes, or even sometimes, the freshly laundered ones.
The chemicals in our clothes
Do we know what’s in our clothes?
People are so aware of their food habits and workout schedules, yet they’re not aware of what’s in their clothes, muses Ghazli Ilami, a Dubai-based general practitioner and dermatologist. It’s not the clothes itself that usually cause problems; it’s the finishing process at the manufacturers. Several chemicals are added for those finishing touches, to get that colour, smell, and wrinkle-free look.
For instance, often, there is usage of the dye azo aniline, which enhances the colours of clothing, especially in the airline uniforms. Azo dye has carcinogenic properties, as it can cause cancer, lead to difficulty in breathing, or even contribute to autism in children.
The process of adding chemicals doesn’t end with the finishing process; insecticides are also used for the transport of clothing, to maintain the smell, explains Dubai-based dermatologist Hinah Altaf.
“These chemicals are absorbed by our skin, which is the largest organ, and enters the bloodstream. This harms the development of the brain,” adds Ilami. These different chemicals localise in the various folds of the body, like elbows, underarms and calves. Sometimes it’s almost difficult for a doctor to diagnose at first. If the scarf you’re wearing leaves rashes on your neck, you know the problem is with the scarf. However, many a times, it just evolves into generalised dermatitis. It’s harder to understand the root cause, then, says Altaf.
It's also called textile dermatitis, says Ali Halawi, a Dubai-based cosmetic dermatologist. "It is a form of what we call contact dermatitis, a rash caused by irritation from or allergy to a certain substance. The reaction can be within hours of wearing an item, or after several days and weeks and is often red, itchy, scaly depending on the reactant," he explains. Halawi adds that synthetic clothes are far more prone to induce a reaction. Moreover, buttons, zippers, and stud fasteners can contain nickel, which can also result in severe skin diseases. "Some slippers and other footwear, elastic waistbands, and gloves may contain rubber accelerators like methenamine, benzothiazoles, carba compounds that can cause allergic reactions," he adds. Allergy to latex, which can be synthetic or derived from the rubber tree, is also common.
The use of pesticides in cotton
It is a form of what we call contact dermatitis, a rash caused by irritation from or allergy to a certain substance. The reaction can be within hours of wearing an item, or after several days and weeks and is often red, itchy, scaly depending on the reactant
If it’s cotton, then it’s natural. That’s the mistake that most tend to assume.
However, it isn’t as easy as that. The truth is that cotton is also produced with an abundance of pesticides and insecticides. People who actually work with the plant are known to experience poisoning, hospitalisation and death. Sometimes, these pesticides linger on in the final product, as Ilami explains. This can be in the form of glyphosate, a herbicide that kills certain kinds of plants
A lot of farmers use this pesticide while they’re growing cotton. It can also have an adverse impact on the skin, as it absorbs the pesticide into the body, leading to respiratory problems and cancer.
The right kind of dye
There’s a reason those colours pop just right.
However, there is a lot that goes into the process of dyeing these clothes and bringing out that vibrancy. Certain fabric dyes are another cause for general dermatitis, explains Altaf. There are two types of dyes; reactive and disperse dyes. Reactive dyes are used for fabrics like cotton, wool flax and clothing. This kind of dye normally doesn’t cause much harm to consumers. However, it can have repercussions on the plant workers who handle the dyes, as they are dealing with its powdered form. This can cause rather dangerous respiratory issues.
Dispersed dyes, get loosely dispersed into the skin and cause allergies. When you sweat, this leads to skin problems, as the colour bleeds onto the skin. The problem increases multifold with skin-tight clothing, as the sweat mixes with the chemicals in the dye, leading to possible inflammation, rashes, eczema or dermatitis
On the other hand, dispersed dyes are water insoluble dyes that are used for synthetic fibers and polyester. As the name suggests, dispersed dyes, get loosely dispersed into the skin and cause allergies. “When you sweat, this leads to skin problems, as the colour bleeds onto the skin,” she says. The problem increases multifold with skin-tight clothing, as the sweat mixes with the chemicals in the dye, leading to possible inflammation, rashes, eczema or dermatitis. “Tight clothing doesn’t allow the skin to breathe,” adds Altaf.
The problem with polyester
Clothing like polyester poses several risks, owing to the presence of PFA’s (Poly-Fluoroalkyl substances), explains Pamela Morris, author and the founder of Paloma St James, a luxury modular clothing brand. She explains that apart from trapping the heat and moisture, PFA’s permeate the skin, disrupt hormone balance and lead to serious health issues. This has also been linked to infertility, lower immune function and high-blood pressure, adds Morris, quoting a recent study conducted at US-based Northwestern University, Illinois.
Wrinkle-free with an alluring smell
It smells good, and it feels good to touch. Yet, your new clothes can be a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
You wouldn’t have missed the smell that your new clothes have. Explaining why they have that particular smell, Ilami explains, “Manufacturers use the chemical formaldehyde to prevent mildew formation. However, formaldehyde has carcinogenic properties and can lead to cancer, several allergies on the skin.” Formaldehyde has also taken the place of the reliable iron, making it look like an archaic household item. “It is responsible for the wrinkle-free quality in your clothes,” says Altaf.
Manufacturers use the chemical formaldehyde to prevent mildew formation. However, formaldehyde has carcinogenic properties and can lead to cancer, several allergies on the skin
Those who are extremely sensitive to formaldehyde will experience severe repercussions, including skin rashes, migraines, runny noses. This can even lead to a debilitating scenario, where the person might find it hard to breathe, too. This continued exposure can contribute to cancer and damage in the lungs.
However, there have now been several attempts to regulate formaldehyde in clothing in the past decade. The chemical was declared carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Countries such as the US and Canada declared this material as toxic. However, as most manufacturing industries in other countries still use it, it’s best advised to give your new clothes a good wash as soon as you buy it.
What’s the solution?
The fashion industry is one of the world’s top polluters, says Alyssa Mariano, co-founder of Bazaara, a sustainable brand. "With all the harsh chemicals that fast fashion brands are using to save money when producing their textiles and garments, it’s only a matter of time before we start to get sick from these pollutants," she says. Mariano suggests that in order to avoid harsh chemicals in clothes, it's best to research on brands before shopping them. Look for higher quality garments that will last longer.
The experts share some strategies on how you can take care of your health and clothes:
•Patients are often prescribed with oral agents to treat the dermatitis and alleviate the symptoms, says Halawi. However, prevention is often possible through avoidance. Wash your clothes as soon as you buy them. Pour baking soda into the washing machine, and leave the clothes soaking overnight. Repeat the process till that ‘new smell’ from the clothes has completely gone. Leave it to dry in the sunlight. This is crucial for babies, especially, as the skin is far more sensitive and they can have more allergic reactions.
• Use an eco-friendly detergent to wash your clothes
• Opt for looser clothing: Looser clothing allows your skin to breathe, and the colours will not necessarily bleed on to your skin.
• Opt for lighter fibers, as it has less dye. Fibre-reactive dyes are enmeshed with the fibre itself, and do not remain as a separate chemical entity. They will not contain heavy metals or other toxic substances.
• Trust your nose: If a garment emits a strong chemical odor, it is a chemical.
• Practise mindful purchasing, invest in a few but higher-quality garments.
• Look for more eco-friendly and sustainable brands.