Beware! Your favorite antimicrobial workout shirt or water-repellent hiking jacket may contain some surprising and potentially toxic chemicals. A recent Swedish report found that 10 percent of the 2,400 chemicals found in an analysis of fabrics could pose a risk to human health — and less than 1 percent is regulated in the U.S.
While a single piece of clothing may contain tiny amounts, exposure could add up, researchers note. Workout gear poses a special risk, because sweat and movement may release more bad-acting substances. Troubling compounds found in active wear include Phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, triclosan and silver nanoparticles. In many cases, these chemicals also might pose a risk for wildlife as they’re laundered out of clothes and wind up in streams, rivers and lakes. One 2012 European report even found cancer-causing chemicals and lead in soccer jerseys!
• Perfluorinated compounds. PFCs repel water, oil and dirt, and are used in some waterproof jackets, pants and shoes. But they’re also associated with health problems like low birth weight and prostate cancer. Many companies have stopped using them, including H&M, Levi’s and Puma. Others are phasing them out.
• Phthalates. These plasticizing chemicals are found in vinyl clothing and some printed fabrics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reproductive problems have been found in lab animals exposed to these chemicals. And in a 2011 review, University of Pennsylvania scientists noted that Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with hormonal systems in the body.
• Alkylphenol ethoxylates. APEs are sometimes found in detergents used by textile manufacturers to wash fabrics. They don’t break down easily, and instead hang around for long periods of time. Some get washed out at home and go into local waterways. According to the Environmental Working Group, they accumulate in the bodies of fish and people. Some research links these chemicals with reproductive problems in fish.
• Triclosan. Used in some antibacterial and antimicrobial fabrics, triclosan is better known as an ingredient in antibacterial soaps and body washes, kitchenware and even toys. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is conducting a review of the chemical, shown to affect hormone regulation in animals. It may be a hormone disruptor for humans as well, and it doesn’t remove any more germs than washing with regular soap. And once it’s washed down the drain, triclosan can morph into the chemical dioxin, which is showing up in the mud at the bottom of American lakes.
• Silver nanoparticles. These tiny, bacteria-battling orbs are used to make workout clothes and even hospital gowns resistant to smelly or infectious germs. They can be absorbed into your skin when you sweat, recent research shows. It’s unclear whether silver nanoparticles pose a threat to people, but the little metal balls do break down when clothing is washed with strong detergents containing bleach or bleach alternatives. That releases silver nanoparticles into water, where they may be toxic to aquatic organisms and beneficial bacteria living in soil. (Microparticles are OK, though. They’re too big to be absorbed.)
Three ways to reduce your exposure:
• Wear clothes from companies that are phasing out toxins. According to Greenpeace, some companies — including Adidas and Puma — are taking significant steps to eliminate 11 toxic chemicals from clothing, including APEs, phthalates and PFCs. Others, the group says, have eliminated some but not all. Get the current lineup of Greenpeace’s Detox Leaders, Greenwashers and Detox Losers at greepeace.org.
• Slip an old cotton T-shirt under your workout shirt. Not sure what’s in your favorite athletic wear? Add a barrier. A nontoxic layer between your skin and your workout shirt will help protect you.
• Wash before you wear. It’s a good rule to follow with all new clothing. New fabrics may contain dyes and formaldehyde resins, which prevent wrinkling and discourage mildew but also can trigger a rash, even at safe levels. Sometimes, levels exceed safe limits according to a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office study.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit sharecare.com.