toxic chemicals in clothes, clean fashion

The Hidden Chemicals in Your Clothes, and How to Detox Your Wardrobe

You eat organic, you use natural products, but did you know that harmful chemicals may be hidden in the clothes you wear everyday?

In fact, around 8000 synthetic chemicals are commonly used to produce clothes. For example, chlorine bleach is prevalently used whitening clothing fiber and treating denim, formaldehyde is often applied to make fabrics wrinkle-free, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are commonly found in fabric printing, and the list goes on. 

Most of these commonly used chemicals are carcinogenic or can lead to serious health issues such as respiratory disease and hormone disruptions.

This is something that's been on my mind a lot throughout the past months as I choose my materials and suppliers.  

Not only are we unknowingly exposed to these harmful chemicals on a daily basis (for example, through our largest organ - skin), their use create health hazards to garment workers who breathe in the fumes. These chemicals also get into the water system polluting our environment, and can also cycle back to our drinking water and food. ⁠

Unfortunately, existing regulations are uneven between countries and states, and most aren't strict enough to prevent the use of these chemicals in clothing manufacturing.

Through this article, I want to discuss these hidden hazards in your clothing, what you can do to limit your exposure, and how Sonderlier is addressing this important issue as a clothing brand. 

Common Toxic Substances in Clothing 

toxic chemicals in clothes

Unfortunately, there are so many types of toxic chemicals found in clothes and it's impossible to give an exhaustive list. So below I list a number of the most notorious and common ones to give you a better understanding of where in clothing toxic substances may appear and some of the ways they can be harmful. 


Formaldehyde is commonly associated with the "chemical smell" on new clothes. It's linked to many health problems like asthma, nausea, cancer, and dermatitis. 


Pesticides such as glyphosate is used in growing conventional cotton. They are also associated with a number of health problems such as cancer, respiratory problems, and potentially autism. 

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFAS have been used in clothing for decades, and they are notoriously known as "forever chemicals" as they take thousands of years to breakdown in our environment. They are connected to many health issues including cancer and infertility. 

Azo Dye

Azo Dye is a chemical used in fabric dying for its effectiveness. It can also be easily absorbed through skin because it's water-soluble. Azo dye is know to be carcinogenic and can also cause skin and eye irritation.  

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)

NPE is an organic compound very prevalent in clothing items and some laundry detergents! They are associated with potential problems with the reproductive system and developmental issues. 

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals such as lead have been discovered in clothing dyes and synthetic fabrics. They are highly toxic and can cause permanent brain damage, kidney and liver damage, reproductive issues and more.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are most commonly found in printed textiles. They can lead to various health issues such as developmental and reproductive system damage, and some are carcinogenic. They are also a huge health hazard to textile workers through their work environment. 

You can also read more about chemicals in clothing in this goop interview and this Business Insider Article

Types of Clothing You Need to Closely Monitor

shopping for clothes

Performance Fabrics

When you see fabric qualities like wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, water-proof or flame-retardant, it's a sign that the fabric has probably been treated with chemicals to achieve these functions. So you should look further to see if there's evidence that they don't contain the harmful ones (I'll share more details below). 

Clothing with A Chemical Smell

As I mentioned above, chemical smell in clothing is a sure sign of excessive formaldehyde. Simple rule - do not buy them!

Synthetic Fabrics

Compared to natural materials, synthetic fabrics in general do expose us to more risk of toxic chemicals. Not only that, many synthetic fabrics also prevent our skin from doing its normal detox function. 

Conventional Cotton

Even though cotton is a natural material, conventional cotton farming uses a lot of pesticides. The conventional cotton processing practices can also be heavy in synthetic chemicals. 

What You Can Do to Limit Your Exposure

When you buy clothes, identifying the safe and clean choices can be daunting, since it's virtually impossible for a consumer to know the chemical content of clothing. 

However, there a few rules of thumb to stick to that will provide you with protection to reduce your family's exposure to these toxins. 

Choose Organic

Organic certification goes through a strict set of validations for the entire life of a fabric, suggesting that no harmful chemicals have come into play throughout the growing and making of the fabric. So selecting clothing made from organic fabrics and natural dyes is the most straightforward way to ensure that both the clothing and the growing and manufacturing of its fabrics are clean. The drawback of this approach is that it will greatly limit your options, as only certain materials are eligible, and only a very small portion get certified. And even though there are a lot of small farmers practice organic growing, they may not have the wherewithal to get certified.

Look for Oeko-Tex® or BLUESIGN® Certifications 

Oeko-Tex and BLUESIGN are two international authorities that specifically address chemical safety. For example, Oeko-Tex 100 Standard certified textile means that every element of the textile is tested and contains no harmful substances to human health. Unlike organic, these certifications doesn't mean that no harmful chemicals has ever entered the material, but just if so they have been removed. This information is typically shared with the consumers so you can use it as an indication that the associated clothing material is safe. For example, we have a certified non-toxic collection using only fabrics that are Oeko-Tex 100 certified.

Choose Natural Performance Fabrics

As I discussed above, performance fabrics are typically chemically treated to achieve their functions and therefore should be avoided if possible. However, there are fabrics that naturally possess some of these desired properties. For example, Tencel is a natural and renewable material that has naturally wrinkle-resistant and cooling properties.

Wash Your Clothing Right

New doesn't mean clean. If a clothing item doesn't meet the above conditions, then washing it before wearing is really important. But of course that also releases chemicals into our water system and can pollute the environment, so it's clearly not an ideal solution. 

Additionally, laundry detergent, especially used in traditional dry cleaning, can also contain harmful chemicals and increase your exposure. So choose a safe detergent (you can look to this list to find some of these options), use organic dry cleaning or avoid dry cleaning in general. 

Shop Second-Hand

Shopping second-hand is known as a sustainable option since it reduces clothing waste. But the less known reason to do it is that used clothing generally contains less chemicals as well, simply because they have been washed many times before. 

What We Are Doing As A Brand

what we do as a brand


Our mission is to enhance people's wellbeing through clothing. So the issue of health to people and the planet is hugely important to what I believe are the right way of doing things for us as a brand. 

Because chemicals so hard to identify as a consumer, I contemplated about what a clothing brand like us could do to help. After a lot of deliberation, I came to the conclusion that it would involve a combination of stewardship and transparency, which I want to briefly share with you here.

Currently, we're predominately sourcing natural, organic and Oeko-Tex 100 Standard Certified textiles. The majority of our styles use Oeko-Tex 100 certified fabrics. It's a priority for us to clearly understand the chemical compositions of fabrics so we can better inform you. We are committed to be transparent about the textiles used, and providing relevant facts to break down the information barrier experience, including clearly labeling whether they are certified nontoxic. 


Any questions, suggestions? Let me know in the comment below!


  • Xi

    Melanie, great question! I love that you are shopping consciously! Unfortunately shein is not the only company that use chemicals in their clothing, and it is very expensive to actually have your clothing tested as a consumer. Washing helps but it does not guarantee to eliminate the chemicals all together so that it is still not necessarily safe, not to mention that it gets the chemicals into our water. If you want to be sure, I would say going certified and organic are your best bet, and clearly the industry as a whole still has a long way to go regarding this issue.

  • Joanie Rectenwald

    Thank you for this invaluable information.

  • Melanie

    I have been concerned about chemicals in clothing and I do try to shop secondhand to try to keep clothes out of the landfill and to save money as well. I heard companies like shein have high levels of lead in them. Would washing the clothes remove that to make it safe to wear or is it best to stead clear of them all together, even secondhand?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.