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Written by Stephanie Wagner
(CEO of For The Feel)
And Candler Clawson
(For The Feel Role Model and Medical Student)
Most people are unaware that there are a myriad of unregulated carcinogenic chemicals used in the dyeing and finishing process of our clothing, and many of these toxic chemicals have been strongly linked to various diseases and health issues. Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the daily use of facemasks, that same fabric is going directly onto our faces! Once it became clear that fabric face masks, largely produced by the fashion industry, were going to become a vital part of our everyday wardrobe, we knew we needed to do something.
There are over 8,000 synthetic chemicals used in fashion manufacturing to date. The fabric we put on our skin is being coated with these harsh chemicals throughout various stages of the production process. Most of these chemicals contain known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. (Let’s also not forget about the significant environmental impact and the human cost of underpaid workers in factories where most clothing/ face masks are being made.) This is why as a company we have decided to use our voices to speak out and encourage conscious decision making among consumers and do our part to help keep the people and the planet healthy and safe.
So, how are these harmful chemicals kept undisclosed and hiding within our threads, and now our face masks? Believe it or not, unlike the food industry, there is no single U.S. federal agency that oversees the chemical content used in the production of our apparel. Furthermore, there is also no overarching U.S. law that requires brands or retailers to disclose anything outside of fiber content and country of origin on the labels. Basically, no one is telling us what's in our clothes... or masks.
Take formaldehyde for example, which is a known carcinogen and allergen and is often found in synthetic fabrics because of its useful preservative properties.
Formaldehyde is ubiquitous in nearly every product industry but is particularly abundant in the clothing industry due to its ability to make products crease-resistant, moisture-wicking, and waterproof. According to a report from the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, formaldehyde in clothing leads to eye and nose irritation and allergic reactions on the skin. This is a particular issue for consumers who suffer from asthma, seasonal allergies, or dermatitis. Wearing fabric that contains formaldehyde creates more exposure to these consumers which makes it more likely that they will suffer from a reaction to the chemicals in the mask.
The likelihood of developing these reactions is increased when wearing fabrics that fit tightly to the skin such as underwear and face masks. The increased humidity from sweating gets trapped on your skin and cannot be evaporated through an impermeable layer of polyester, which promotes the release of the chemicals coating the fabric, such as formaldehyde, onto our skin. Once released, these toxins can now coat your skin and create microabrasions (really tiny cuts that you can’t see) on your face where they go on to cause acne, irritation, and allergic reactions.
People have begun asking us if clothing and facemasks that contain these chemicals become safer with every wash, and to some extent, that’s true, as toxic finishes scrub off a little bit every time you wash them. But beyond the obvious problem that those chemicals are then released into our environment, there are harmful health impacts that result when we wear these fabrics on our bodies.
Most of these garments and face masks are made of polyester, which is essentially another way of saying they are made of plastic. These plastic fibers are constructed from tiny microplastics that bind tightly to formaldehyde and other chemicals. And washing the clothes causes the release of these microplastics not only into your washing machine but also onto your skin.
These microplastics bind to the released chemicals and bury themselves into your skin, where they will sit for hours and days and cause irritation, allergic reactions, and acne. Some studies have even found evidence that these microplastics can penetrate your skin and enter your body, taking all of those chemicals with them!
The bottom line is... not all clothing and facemasks are created equal. These common ingredients used to make our apparel and masks are more likely to cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and potentially serious long-term side effects.
So let’s break down a handful of these fabrics, dyes, and finishes being used and how they could affect you:
Polyester is a synthetic fabric that derives from petroleum, which essentially makes polyester a byproduct of oil. For the consumer, the issue with this fabric is that it doesn’t breathe as natural fibers do, which means that your sweat can’t evaporate, which is uncomfortable and can cause acne and rashes. For the environment, the consequences are even greater as polyester is not naturally broken down, which is a big problem as it continues to fill our landfills and oceans.
Neoprene (wetsuit fabric) is a synthetic fabric. The North American Contact Dermatitis Group performed 10 years of research into neoprene allergy, and found that sensitive individuals can develop allergic reactions ranging from simple redness to painful blisters. For many people, the only way to avoid a reaction is to avoid the product.
Acrylics can be found in anything from sweaters to masks. The issue with acrylics is that they contain dimethylformamide, a chemical known to cause liver damage. This chemical is so potent that the people who manufacture acrylic fibers have to wear protective gloves just to touch the clothing they are making.
Conventional Cotton: We tend to think of cotton as a “natural” fabric, which to a certain extent it is. While cotton is grown from the ground and not in a lab, the cotton used in the fashion industry is usually still treated with a concerning amount of toxic chemicals. Typically cotton that is used in textiles is treated with pesticides, colored with toxic dyes, and treated with chemical coatings in order to give clothing the bright and shiny effects that consumers are drawn to. And while we all may love the convenience of having a wrinkle-free dress, all of those added chemicals make this “natural” fiber anything but natural.
Azo dyes are common synthetic dyes used for coloring clothes, leather, and textiles. These dyes contain amines, which have been shown to increase the risk of bladder cancer in dye factory workers and hairdressers. The next time you’re looking for a dress in your favorite color, try reaching for a product with organic dyes to avoid these toxic effects.
Phthalates are a fast fashion favorite. They are used in waterproof clothing, so think raincoats and leather. These phthalates are known “endocrine disruptors” that have been linked to both male and female reproductive issues because they interfere with how hormones communicate with our bodies.
Nanosilver is an antimicrobial agent used to treat a wide variety of medical equipment, including gloves and face masks. Some research has already found that silver nanoparticles can kill brain cells in exposed rodents. There is also a concern that this risk may apply to humans as well, but lack of research has made it determine what level of exposure is considered dangerous and what the long term effects could be.
Anything that advertises itself as static resistant, stain-resistant, flame retardant or wrinkle-free develops these properties by being treated with formaldehyde, nonylphenol ethoxylates, or triclosan. These chemicals are absorbable through the skin and have been associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents, and potentially in humans as well.
Formaldehyde has also been associated with skin reactions and nasopharyngeal cancer and is a likely culprit for facial dermatitis that is being seen in healthcare workers required to wear face masks all day while at work. Studies on factory workers who are exposed to triclosan suggest that regular exposure may contribute to increased cancer risk.
Despite these known effects of these chemicals, there is no regulation for the number of chemicals that can be used in products sold in the United States or a requirement for brands to report which chemicals are used in their clothing.
So you may be asking yourself now - Ok... so what's the solution?
That’s why we are here. For The Feel is on a mission to educate, empower, and inspire consumers to seek apparel that FEELS good - not only people, but also the planet.
This mission includes designing and developing clean fashion essentials. We are attempting to lead by example, proving it can and should be done a different way, a better way, from day one. We also aim to equip consumers with the tools and information they need, to begin consciously curating their wardrobe with fashion that leads with compassion.
Transparency and accountability are key components to a fair and healthy fashion future. That is why we strongly encourage consumers to begin asking brands questions and demanding truthful answers. (This includes asking us!)
3 Important Questions To Be Asking Brands:
1. Who made this mask?
The For The Feel mask was designed and developed in collaboration with our manufacturing partner, who cuts, sews and dyes our masks. This takes place in Los Angeles, CA at a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)* factory. All the workers involved in the production of our masks are paid 37% above living wage and do not handle any harmful chemicals. We are in constant communication with our production team, and have personally met the people sewing our masks. All workers are also treated with the care and respect they deserve especially during COVID. Every single component of our manufacturing process is tracked and verified to meet stringent environmental and ethical standards - all of which we have access to.
*Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification that ensures organic status of textiles from seed to skin. From harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.
2. What’s in this mask? (Ask for the FULL list of ingredients, not just the fiber content!)
Our mask are currently made of PFD* deadstock* cotton with 4% spandex in the adjustable straps for fit. It’s dyed using 4 organic ingredients — salt, vinegar, baking soda and organic dyes.
*Prepared for Dying (PFD) Cotton has had no optic whiteners added and is dyed in its natural state/color (which is off-white).
*Deadstock is leftover fabric from other brands that overestimated their needs. If this fabric goes unused it ends up in the landfill.
3. How do you know that this mask is safe and effective?
We use zero toxic chemicals throughout the production process of our mask. All the chemicals used are 100% safe for human consumption*. Our mask design and quality has been approved by one of the largest hospital systems in the U.S., and is currently being worn by over 1.2. million doctors and nurses. Our manufacturer was granted emergency-use authorization by the FDA and has met or exceeded the FDA’s guidelines.
*Why do we use the term consumption? When we think of consumption, we automatically think of what goes inside of our bodies. What goes in our bodies is a pretty big deal, and because of that we have a lot of regulations on what chemicals can be put in our food, drinks, and medicine. But what about what goes on our bodies? We never talk about the effects that these products can have, but as you can see, there are a lot of them. We want to challenge readers to start thinking about the content of their face masks and to choose masks that do not contain any of these harmful chemicals. Consider it a lifestyle choice for your long term health, one that makes you feel good! #ForTheFeel