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What is polyester and why should parents try to avoid it?

In the spirit of continuing our #sustainabilityfacts series I wanted to share some information on something I get asked a lot about: polyester and more specifically, the negative effects of polyester clothing on our children's health.


Let's start simple: What is Polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic material made from petroleum-derived products. It is commonly used in clothing manufacturing due to its durability, wrinkle resistance, and ultra low cost. Polyester fibers are created by melting the polymer and extruding it through tiny holes to form threads. These threads are then woven or knit into fabrics. Polyester is also used in other applications, such as carpets, upholstery, and plastic bottles.



Why is it harmful to our little ones' (and our) skin?

Polyester clothing can be harmful to our skin because it doesn't breathe like natural fibers do. According to a study published in the journal Ergonomics, wearing polyester clothing significantly increases skin temperature and reduces skin moisture, leading to skin irritation, rashes, and bacterial infections.

In addition, polyester fabrics are often treated with chemicals that can irritate our skin and cause health problems. Formaldehyde, a common additive used to prevent wrinkling, is classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that exposure to formaldehyde in textile workers resulted in higher rates of skin allergies and respiratory problems.

Many polyester fabrics are treated with flame retardants to meet safety standards. These chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been linked to developmental delays and reproductive problems. A study by the Environmental Working Group found that PBDEs were detected in the blood of pregnant women and newborns.


Are there any other harmful potential effects other than to our skin?

Yes, polyester can be harmful to our health in ways beyond our skin. As mentioned earlier, polyester fabrics are often treated with chemicals during production, such as formaldehyde and flame retardants. These chemicals can off-gas and be inhaled, potentially causing respiratory problems, eye irritation, and even cancer.

Formaldehyde, in particular, has been linked to various health issues, including asthma, headaches, and skin irritation. A study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that textile workers exposed to formaldehyde had an increased risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer. Formaldehyde is also a potent respiratory irritant and can worsen the symptoms of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been linked to developmental delays, reproductive problems, and thyroid disruption. A study by the Environmental Working Group found that PBDEs were detected in the blood of pregnant women and newborns, highlighting the potential risks of exposure.

In conclusion, polyester clothing can pose health risks beyond skin irritation, such as respiratory problems and potential exposure to harmful chemicals used in production. Opting for natural fibers or recycled polyester can help reduce our exposure to these potential hazards.


So, why hasn't polyester been banned?

Polyester hasn't been banned because it is a widely used and inexpensive synthetic fabric that has been used for decades. The general population is not aware of the many health concerns linked to polyester use so there has not been the same level of demand for regulation around the use and treatment of polyester as there has been in other parts of the world. Furthermore, polyester is durable, wrinkle-resistant, and dries quickly, making it a popular choice for clothing, bedding, and other textiles.

The good news is that people are now more aware of the risks and are moving towards more sustainable alternatives and calling for more regulations and industry standards.


Is there a difference in EU regulations and US regulations when it comes to polyester clothing?

Yes, there are differences between EU regulations and US regulations when it comes to polyester clothing. The EU has stricter regulations on the use of chemicals in textiles than the US does. In particular, the EU has banned certain chemicals, such as azo dyes and phthalates, which are still allowed in the US.

The EU's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation is one of the most comprehensive chemical regulations in the world. It requires manufacturers to identify and assess the risks of chemicals used in production, and to substitute hazardous substances with safer alternatives where possible. This includes chemicals used in textile production, such as formaldehyde and flame retardants.

In the US, the regulation of chemicals in textiles falls under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which has been criticized for being less stringent than the EU's regulations. The TSCA allows chemicals to be used in textiles without requiring testing or evaluation of their safety, and it can be difficult to regulate the use of hazardous chemicals once they are on the market.


So, what does this all mean for parents as consumers?

As a parent and consumer, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with polyester clothing and other synthetic fabrics, and to make informed choices when purchasing clothing for children.

Here are some tips for parents to consider:

  1. Choose natural or organic fabrics whenever possible. Natural fabrics like cotton, wool, and linen are breathable and less likely to cause skin irritation or other health problems. At The Green Kid we stock certified organic and/or OEKO-tex certified cotton, wool and linen so you can be sure you're getting the very safest items for your littles.

  2. If you are shopping for items that are not certified, look for clothing that is labeled as "low chemical" or "hypoallergenic." These labels indicate that the clothing has been tested for harmful chemicals and is less likely to cause skin irritation or other health problems.

  3. Consider the source of the clothing. Some companies have stricter manufacturing standards than others and may use safer materials and production methods. Look for clothing from companies that prioritize sustainability and transparency in their production practices.

  4. Wash new clothing before wearing. This can help remove any residual chemicals or irritants that may be present in the fabric.

  5. Be aware of potential health risks associated with synthetic fabrics, such as respiratory problems and exposure to harmful chemicals used in production. If your child experiences any health problems related to clothing, speak to a healthcare professional.

By being aware of these issues and making informed choices when purchasing clothing for children, parents can help reduce the potential health risks associated with synthetic fabrics like polyester.


Have you had any experiences with polyester clothing and its effects on your child's health? Let's discuss in the comments below.


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