Fashion versus health | The clothes conundrum

You have probably heard the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ many times. My own favourite is a variation on that theme - ‘you are what you think‘ - but until recently, I had never considered how we might also be affected by the clothes we put on our backs. Read on and choose carefully, because evidence suggests that, more and more, ‘you are what you wear’.

Have you ever been into a clothes shop and been overwhelmed by the strange chemical smell that pervades the entire store? Walked out because it just doesn’t feel ‘right’ and it’s hard to breathe? It doesn’t happen often in the more expensive stores, but possibly that’s because they have air fresheners and ventilation units in their shops. You will notice it much more in the downmarket, ‘bargain’ stores, where container-loads of cheap, sweat shop made garments flood the floors with new products daily, and the turnover is so fast that there’s little time or point in covering up the stink that should alert us all to the hidden health dangers that await us as we fill our baskets with this week’s latest fashion must-have.

Make no mistake: however pretty the shiny top you grabbed off the rail for a bargain £4.99 may be, its smooth and silky folds are drenched in pollutants that can harm you.

We have become so dependent on today’s throw away fashion - cheap to the point of ridiculousness - that the delight of finding six items for the price of a decent restaurant meal overrides common sense. How can those shirts and dresses be so much cheaper today than they were even five years ago? Think about it. Lately, the issues of child labour, poor wages and terrible working conditions have been brought to all our notices. Has that stopped the frenetic buying? Not really. We may have cut down on our purchases from the worst offenders, but the ‘need’ for that latest fashion accessory will more often than not override conscience and, when you know the facts, common sense.

Consider what you buy very carefully, because your health is likely to be affected by the content of the clothes you choose. Synthetic fibres hide invisible chemical dangers.

Back in your great-grandmother's day everything she bought - and more probably made herself from a roll of the material of her choice - was made of natural fibre. Wool, cotton, linen and silk fabrics were all that was on offer, 100% organic because those were also pre-pesticide days. We, in our more industrial age, are not so lucky. Natural fibres have been edged out of the market, replaced by petroleum-based synthetic fabrics made in chemical laboratories. Rayon was first introduced in 1924, quickly followed by nylon. Remember those frilly crinkle-proof, nighties that burst into flame if you stood too near to the electric fire? And the non-iron, slightly sweaty sheets that transformed your grandmother's laundry day?

Acrylic and modacrylic arrived next in 1950, rapidly followed by polyester in 1953 and Spandex and olefin for swimming suits and sportswear in 1959. The clothes industry was transformed. Goods were increasingly factory-made rather than hand-made, and creativity soared as costs reduced dramatically and modern machinery made mass market garment production viable. Production moved abroad, where labour and manufacturing costs were less expensive and the fashion business began its meteoric rise... to the point today where clothes shopping has overtaken religion to become the nation's favourite hobby. As addictive as sugar or alcohol, there is no shame in firmly claiming to be a shopaholic, and fashion bloggers are frequently followed by millions.

Cheap synthetic imports have flooded our market and changed our evaluation of clothes entirely. Where your grandmother might have owned an average of ten items in her wardrobe, all well made, and meant to last her lifetime, we fill our closets with hundreds of clothes at a twentieth of the cost. And we certainly don’t expect them to last a season, let alone a lifetime. If the size is wrong, or that particular fashion fades (manipulated by the industry to encourage our spending further) or if we simply don’t like what we bought that day, the clothes are now so inexpensive that it is often less effort to throw them in the bin than return them or even walk the short distance to the charity shop down the road.

But from the 70s onwards clothes became toxic. And we didn’t have a clue. So many fabrics, so much choice, there was far too much else to focus on. Did you know that synthetic fibres give off electro-static discharges? Clothes are sprayed with fungicidal, flame retardant and easy-care finishes. They are made moth-proof, anti-odour, anti-static, mildew resistant, stain resistant, water repellent - all with a combination of chemicals. Formaldehyde levels have been found up to 900 times the ‘safe’ level in clothes made, as the majority now are, in China. And with every wash those chemicals leach out. Every time you sweat in your new nylon sports shirt, not only does your body heat trigger the release of a whole host of chemicals, but your pores conveniently open up to suck them all in.

How clothes can make you unwell

Headaches, memory difficulties, dizziness, tingling sensations, insomnia, visual disturbance or depression? These symptoms may have been triggered by multiple chemical sensitivities from your clothes. Is there a connection between the rise in skin problems and cases of cancer and the rise in the amount of chemicals in our clothes? Do overly tight, chemically-laced clothes and underwear contribute to the increases in vaginal and urinary tract infections? Is there a link between male infertility and tight clothing which raises testes temperatures to levels that interfere with sperm production? We need to stand back, take stock, and think very carefully.

The Ecologist magazine says that 8,000 chemicals are used in the processes that transform raw materials into clothes - bleaching, dyeing, scouring, sizing and finishing the fabrics. Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and it takes an average of 26 seconds for what you put on it to permeate through to your bloodstream. Perfluorinated chemicals (classified as cancer-causing by the US Environmental Protection Agency) are frequently used by manufacturers and yet there are no studies on how clothes are affecting human health. Presumably because it doesn’t serve the garment industry to fund them.

So, take the clothes issue seriously. It’s another layer of pollution for your body to struggle with, alongside the toxins from cosmetics, body products, household cleaners and environmental pollutants and pesticides, not to mention the air that you breathe and the water that we all drink. Our bodies are getting slowly overwhelmed as the variety of toxins we all live with daily with builds up inside us and we gradually sicken in the process.

How to make better choices when buying clothes

Check all labels and buy organic and pesticide-free where you can to lighten your own load - and the load of the planet. Toxic production methods, wastewater problems, cleaning chemicals and disposal of these non-biodegradable products into our waterways is poisoning the earth just as much as ourselves. Each non organic t-shirt that you buy contains 1/3lb of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. We are overloading ourselves and our world with toxic waste.

In the USA, 85,000 chemicals are in commercial use and studies done by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that every American now carries at least 700 of these in their bodies. On average, at least 200 of these toxic substances pass onto your unborn children. Your choices are affecting future generations.

Buy cotton, flax, hemp, silk or wool instead. Or try out the more unusual options that include ramie from East Asia, cashmere, angora, alpaca, bamboo, mohair, and the charmingly named salutations from Philippines.

There are endless options. You will certainly pay a little more... though not much more. And what price safety?


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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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