5 toxic chemicals used in fast fashion clothing, and how they can affect your immune system

We all do our best to try and avoid products with toxins that could affect our health. Whether it’s food, cleaning products, or cosmetics, more and more people are looking for chemical-free products. Unfortunately there’s another source of toxins that you probably weren’t aware of: Fast fashion. That’s right, there are chemicals in clothes from popular brands such as Shein, Zaful, and even Old Navy and Lululemon that could be harming your health and that of the planet.

Chemicals in Clothes Are A Bigger Health Risk Than You Realize

Recently a tweet went out about an investigation done on the fast fashion company Shein. The tweet said that the study found the brand has very high levels of toxic chemicals in their clothes – including their childrens wear and maternity clothing. This includes lead, which is known to cause some pretty serious health problems. A Twitter user called luz del abismo wrote this:

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“shein was found to have over 18x the allotted amount of lead in their clothing. lead exposure can lead to mood disorders, reduced sperm count/abnormal sperm activity, & even miscarriage/stillbirth in pregnant women…
not shaming anyone for purchasing what’s affordable for them, but y’all should be aware of what’s in what you’re wearing/putting your children in…
lead exposure can cause hella developmental issues with children and cause them to have learning difficulties…
while lead is thought to only remain in one’s blood for a month, it can stay in your bones for up to 30 years after your exposure. this is why so many people born from 1966-1970 w long term exposure to lead have lead-linked loss cognitive ability today!”
(1)

Her source for the research was an investigation reported on by CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Company – a year prior, in 2021. Shein has insisted that it is committed to product safety. They have even removed certain products from their catalog and said they were reviewing those suppliers. Toxic chemicals in clothing, however, is not just a Shein problem: It’s a problem within the entire fast fashion industry. (2)

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The Health Risks From The Chemicals in Your Clothing

Marketplace did an investigation of some of the top fast fashion companies such as Shein, Zaful, and AliExpress, among others. They tested 38 samples of various clothing items for children’s, adult, and maternity clothes. Their results showed that one in five items had high levels of toxic chemicals in them. These chemicals included lead, PFAS, and phthalates. One jacket for toddlers from Shein had 20 times more lead than what is considered safe for children in it. Another red purse had five times that limit.

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Lead is a naturally occurring chemical in the environment, but at certain levels it becomes toxic to your health. It damages the brain, heart, kidneys, and reproductive system. Infants and children are at the highest risk of lead poisoning from clothing, with pregnant people coming in close behind them. The other issue is that when you wash these clothes, the lead and other chemicals then leak into the water. This water makes its way into our waterways, soil, and environment – including our food.

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Lead is typically used to dye certain garments. Experts say there are much safer alternatives, however, often with cheap clothing manufacturers try to make shortcuts that sacrifice human health to cut costs. The other chemicals, such as PFAS and phthalates, are typically used to make clothing stain or water resistant.

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Worker and Children’s Health

Sometimes brands or manufacturers will argue that the levels of these chemicals in the clothes are not a threat because you aren’t putting the clothes in your mouth. The issue with infants and children, however, is this is often not the case. We all know that young children and babies tend to chew on or put clothing and other items in their mouths all the time. (3)
Worker health is also a problem. The factories for the majority of these fast fashion brands like Shein and Zaful are found in underprivileged countries and communities. Already, those workers are not typically paid well and don’t have great working conditions. On top of that, they are exposed to all of those chemicals and more while they are working in the factories that produce the clothes. This builds up over time and causes a wide array of health problems – from skin conditions to respiratory diseases. Common Objectives estimates that 27 million people worldwide who work in the fast fashion industry suffer from work-related respiratory and/or skin conditions or illnesses.

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It’s not just Shein, AliExpress, or Zaful, either. It’s Lululemon, Old Navy, and even Columbia. The next time you go shopping, do some research into where you are buying your clothes from. Your purchases (or decisions not to buy) could have a huge impact on your health, the health of people around the world, and our planet.

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Sources

  1. Twitter
  2. Experts warn of high levels of chemicals in clothes by some fast-fashion retailers.” CBC. Jenny Cowley, Stephanie Matteis and Charlsie Agro. October 1, 2021.
  3. 5 toxic chemicals used in fast fashion clothing, and how they can affect your immune system.” Insider. Allana Akhtar. August 27, 2022,
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