Are Your Clothes Becoming Intolerable?

Chemical toxins are a growing problem for everyone – you, me, your family, people everywhere. Dr. Dick Irwin, a toxicologist at Texas A&M University, stated that “Chemicals have replaced bacteria and viruses as the main threat to health. The diseases we are beginning to see as the major causes of death in the later part of (the 1900’s) and into the 21st century are diseases of chemical origin.” The chemical toxic overload growing around us is taking many forms including increases in cancer, asthma, and a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is a syndrome of medical conditions ranging from mild to life-threatening and include headache, trouble concentrating, memory problems, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and seizures. Usually the symptoms fade between exposures, but some people have the symptoms all the time. MCS symptoms in children include red cheeks and ears, dark circles under the eyes, hyperactivity, and behavior or learning problems. Medical researchers believe MCS to arise from a physiology that has been weakened by an overexposure to chemical toxins. This overexposure probably occurs gradually over many years. Researchers have long known that chemical toxins can be stored and accumulated in the fatty tissue and organs such as the liver. MCS is thought to be a result of the chemical “straw that breaks the back” of our body’s natural ability to purify and remove toxins and it causes a temporary or prolonged breakdown in the body’s natural balance. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities is sometimes known medically as Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance IEI).

The discomfort from chemical sensitivities might be triggered by a wide range of causes such as the off-gassing of chemicals from a new carpet or new, fabric-covered office partitions, lawn pesticides, cleaning solvents, or clothing grown and manufactured with toxic chemicals – which is the vast majority of clothing produced today. Many common chemically-intensive products such as laundry detergents, perfumes and skin care products can trigger physical reactions. Our skin can act as a protective barrier but it is also very absorbent, especially in areas where the skin might be damaged, have a rash or where the top layer of skin might have been rubbed off or abraded. Chemicals and toxins applied to the skin are easily absorbed and enter our blood systems. The liver and large intestine are the primary organs involved in detoxifying the body. One of the liver’s primary functions is in breaking down toxins so they can be eliminated. As the liver becomes overwhelmed with a constant barrage of toxins from the environment, toxins are not effectively eliminated and they begin to be stored in fatty tissue within the body. Nothing is closer to our bodies than our clothing and our clothes today are too often chemical toxin storehouses.

Synthetics and man-made fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylics, and rayon begin their fabric lives in a chemical vat. Most people are aware that cotton, once considered the symbol of purity, is grown in fields heavily drenched in pesticides and insecticides. California’s cotton fields are blanketed each year with more than 17 million pounds of pesticides. In the U.S., it takes nearly a third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for just one t-shirt. Does that favorite conventional cotton shirt still seem innocent?

The environmental damage due to toxic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, and synthetic chemical fertilizers is significant and sometimes deadly to farm workers and wildlife near the cotton farms. Irrigation and rainwater runoff contain high levels of chemical pollutants which poison streams, rivers, lakes and seep into wells and reservoirs used for community drink water. Many municipal water treatment centers lack equipment to eliminate these toxic chemicals before they enter city water lines.

Residues of pesticides have been measured in human amniotic fluid and they accumulate in fatty tissues and have been found in human breast milk. For the chemically sensitive and everyone concerned about the levels of chemical toxicity that ultimately travel into our bodies, the cotton fields are just the beginning of the long, chemical road to our wardrobes and closets.

The garment manufacturing industry is huge internationally and notoriously chemically-intensive and polluting. All stages of the conventional garment manufacturing process, except for the spinning process, rely upon a blizzard of synthetic chemicals, many of which are toxic. Polyvinyl alcohol is often used as a sizing to make the yarn weavable. Harsh chlorine is used to bleach and whiten. Fabric is scoured, cleaned and de-pigmented with sodium hydroxide, heavy metal salts and cerium compounds in preparation for dying. Dyes often contain heavy metal impurities, chrome mordant and formaldehyde-fixing agents. Some Azo-based dyes (Azo dye group III A1 and A2) shed carcinogenic aryl amines.

Not only do toxic residuals of these chemicals remain in the clothing, but they also find their way into ecosystems as waste and waste waters from the manufacturing processes. This is especially true in developing nations where most garments are manufactured and where environmental protections are lax and ignored.

Finishing is the last step of the manufacturing process and it is here that the last remnants of the natural fibers are paved over with harsh chemicals. A urea-formaldehyde product is frequently applied to cotton fabrics to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling. Cotton is a fiber designed by nature to absorb and heat is used to lock finishes into the cotton fibers. When heat is applied, these chemical finishes expand and are permanently bonded into the fabric preventing them from being removed by washing or dry cleaning. People concerned about chemical overloads should be “anti-” any garment that is advertised as being anti-shrink, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-static, anti-odor, anti-flame, anti-wrinkle, anti-stain, or any of the other “anti-” easy care garment finishes. Easy care finishes for cotton garments are achieved through chemicals, most of which will not wash out. That “new clothes smell” found in most conventional clothing chains is because of the chemical finishes used on their clothing.

So what is the chemically sensitive Cinderella to wear? Begin with natural fiber organic clothing such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and organically grown wools that have been grown organically and manufactured using organic and eco-friendly manufacturing processes. Both the growing and the manufacturing phases are critical to produce healthy clothing. If the finest natural organic fibers are smothered during manufacturing with harsh and toxic chemicals, the result will still be wrapping your body like a toxic sushi and allowing these chemicals to be introduced through your skin into your body. In a sense, your skin “eats” your clothing because chemicals in your clothing do pass through your skin into your blood system and throughout your internal organs. For babies and young children, this is even more of a concern because they often put their clothing in their mouths and suck on their clothing.

Because Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a syndrome of symptoms and can have many different causes, clothing that might be acceptable for one person will be intolerable for another person. At, we have worked with many people with chemical sensitivities and have found that people with mild sensitivities can often wear organic clothing dyed with low impact dyes but people with more acute chemical sensitivities can only wear natural, non-dyed or color grown organic cotton clothing. Clothing made from hemp and various wools is often intolerable for the acutely chemically sensitive; probably not because of some problem with the natural fiber but with chemicals added during the manufacturing process.

Certified organic cotton from Peru generally receives the best ratings for its purity and comfort from the chemically sensitive. Some manufacturers in India are also starting to produce some healthy organic cotton garments. Organic clothing from Turkey and Egypt can be “iffy” often because of the dyes. Garments manufactured in Asia tend to be the most problematic as Asian manufacturing processes are often more chemically intensive and there is less transparency into their manufacturing processes. These are just general guidelines based upon our experiences helping many people with chemical sensitivities find healthy – and tolerable – clothing.

Another area of problems for the chemically sensitive is the presence of elastic and latex in clothing. Some people are very sensitive to direct contact with elastic or latex. This is especially a problem in underwear where the waistband and leg openings have elastic or latex that comes into direct contact with the skin. This is why some manufacturers wrap their elastic or latex within organic cotton.

New clothing wrapped in white tissue or packaged in some plastics can cause discomfort and health problems for the very chemically sensitive. White tissue wrapping paper has usually been treated with harsh chlorine bleach and colored tissues have been soaked in strong chemical dyes. Packaging and wrapping plastic is made from petrochemicals and some plastics off-gas fumes that can causes physical discomfort. New shipping boxes are bonded and held together with adhesives which can off-gas into clothing being shipped inside. At, we prepare clothing for shipping by wrapping it in unbleached, non-dyed tissue and, when requested, use old cardboard boxes for shipping because they are largely off-gassed after time.

For people with MCS, the modern world is becoming a chemically toxic labyrinth and MCS is an environmental disease that can affect anyone. For more information, visit the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service report on MCS. We must all do what we can to reduce toxins and improve the purity of our environment – including our clothes closets.

Michael Lackman is the founder of, an online organic clothing store offering purely beautiful and healthy organic clothing for exercise, yoga, casual wear, and sleepwear.

Next: How Organic Lifestyle can help with MCS symptom relief