Toxic Chemicals in Shein and Other Fast Fashion Clothing
- Fast-fashion company Shein recently reiterated its commitment to product safety after social media outcry over chemicals in the brand’s clothes.
- Experts told Insider consumers many fashion brands use toxic chemicals like PFAS and phthalates.
- Consumers face less risk getting sick from these ingredients in clothing than textile plant workers do.
Shein has responded to claims that its clothing contains toxic chemicals, insisting it is committed to “product safety.”
“We regularly test products and take action when non-compliance is found, including terminating suppliers,” the fast fashion brand said in response to a tweet.
A 2021 investigation into Shein by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found elevated levels of lead, phthalates, and and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — chemicals linked to health problems — in clothing for children and adults, including pregnant people.
Experts told Insider that Shein is not a unique case. Many large clothing brands like Lululemon, Old Navy, and REI have been found to contain toxic chemicals in their clothes. While these chemicals are used at relatively low levels, exposure to toxic substances over time can elevate a person’s risks of serious health conditions, such as asthma and kidney damage.
“It’s not just people are exposed to one on a regular day,” Alexandra McNair Quinn, a chemical sustainability consultant and founder of Fashion FWD, a non-profit educating consumers about toxic chemicals in clothes, told Insider. “It’s the accumulation of all of these exposures in a regular day can be very harmful.”
Why chemicals are so pervasive in fashion
The use of chemicals like PFAS and lead is “fairly common” within the fashion industry, Marty Mulvihill, a general partner with Safer Made, a venture capital fund that invests in firms reducing exposure to harmful chemicals.
Yoga pants and gym leggings sold by Lululemon and Old Navy contained PFAS, according to testing done by consumer health activist blog Mamavation. Outdoor apparel brands Columbia, REI, and L.L. Bean received either a D or F grading for PFAS by Fashion FWD, a non-profit educating consumers about toxic chemicals in clothes.
(REI and L. L. Bean reiterated their commitment to product safety in statements to Insider. Columbia, Lululemon, Old Navy, and Shein did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.)
Quinn said manufacturers can add these chemicals to make them waterproof or stain-resistant, and soften ink on screen prints. Lead is sometimes found in low-cost pigments and inks, as well as zippers, and chromium can make leather more pliable.
Exposure to toxic chemicals builds up over time
Exposure to substances like lead and phthalates may directly harm people manufacturing clothes more than consumers, said Scott Echols, a senior director at the ZDHC Foundation, which works with companies to limit their chemical footprint.
The sustainable fashion analytics firm Common Objective estimates 27 million people working in fashion supply chains worldwide might suffer from work-related illnesses or diseases, including skin and respiratory conditions.
As for the people buying and wearing the clothes, children
, — who put clothes directly in their mouth , — might face increased risk from the toxic chemicals. The chemicals can also get into the body through pores in the skin.
Plus, the exposure to toxic chemicals builds up over time, Quinn said. Not only are these chemicals in clothing, they exist in our food, water, makeup, and personal care products.
“PFAS don’t just go away, they’re around for very, very long time and they’re very harmful to the environment and to human health,” Quinn said. “The government needs to develop a preventative approach where products don’t go on the market until they’re proven safe.”
How to spot chemicals in clothes, including lead, flame retardants, and ‘forever chemicals’
Quinn told Insider toxic chemicals used to make clothes include:
- Chromium, used in leather products that can weaken the immune system and lead to liver and kidney damage.
- Phthalates, which are used to soften the ink on screen prints. Insider’s Andrea Michelson reported phthalates has been linked to early deaths in American adults, especially due to heart disease, and can disrupt the body’s hormones.
- Brominated flame retardants, which are sometimes found in children’s pajamas to protect them from house fires. These chemicals, which are banned in Europe, can change thyroid functions and shift the way the body processes fats and carbs. Researchers are studying whether a link exists between flame retardant exposure and ADHD, Insider previously reported.
- PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are a group of lab-grown chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and are linked to a host of health conditions like liver damage, asthma, and chronic kidney disease. The substance is water resistant and can be found in waterproof or stain-resistant gear, Quinn said.
- Lead, a low-cost pigment or sometimes used as a cheap metal for zippers. Significant childhood lead exposure can lead to long-term developmental problems.