Are Your Fast Fashion Clothes Slowly Poisoning You?

That trendy Shein dress could end up costing you a lot more than $10.

By Hana Tilksew4 min read

By now, it’s no mystery that fast fashion is an unethical industry. Everyone knows that the low prices offered by Shein, Temu, and similar retailers are possible thanks to labor abuse and poor production quality. Still, business is booming. In 2023, Shein made $2 billion in profits alone (a figure that doubled from the previous year), and Temu made enough money to buy three Super Bowl LVIII ads.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that seems to be too good to be true: The customer gets inexpensive clothing, and the company gets tons of money. So what’s the catch? It turns out, you’re not just paying for mass-market fast fashion with dollars – you might also be paying with your health. Few people want to question what their $5 crop tops are made of, but the answer isn't pretty.

How Can Clothes Be Poisonous?

We’re living in a time when being health-conscious is officially “in.” Organic grocery stores have become luxury brands, beauty companies are marketing themselves as nontoxic, and almost every celeb under the sun has started a wellness company. But while we’re all distracted by viral Erewhon smoothies and plant-based skincare, we may be ignoring another vital factor in our health: our closet. 

An exposé by The Guardian revealed what we might find in the cheaply produced clothes that make up most of our wardrobes. In 2011, Alaska Airlines decided to present their flight attendants with new uniforms made from inexpensive synthetic fabric. As a result, hundreds of flight attendants reported symptoms including (but not limited to) rashes, breathing issues, and swelling of the skin.

Tests later conducted on the uniforms revealed that lead, arsenic, cobalt, and other chemicals were present in the fabric. In 2021, a decade after Alaska Airlines introduced this uniform, a flight attendant by the name of John passed away due to long-term symptoms that were officially attributed to asthma. He was reportedly “in perfect health” before coming into contact with this synthetic uniform.

The Guardian also spoke to nurse practitioner and mom Karly Hiser, whose toddler son broke out with eczema that couldn’t be alleviated by any lotion. According to Hiser, the only thing that helped relieve her son’s skin was getting rid of the mass-market polyester children’s clothes she’d previously bought and sewing new clothes herself. When the skin reacts negatively to polyester, it’s typically due to a synthetic dye allergy, which can trigger eczema and dermatitis

Synthetic fibers now make up 60% of the world’s clothes, and these synthetic fibers come from fossil fuels.

But it’s not just the chemicals in these fabrics that should raise suspicion — it’s the fabrics themselves. Synthetic fibers now make up 60% of the world’s clothes. Where do these fibers come from? Fossil fuels. And polyester – which became the most commonly used fiber over cotton at the turn of the century – is made primarily from crude oil. As Euro News put it, “the clothes on your back are essentially oil and gas.” Even if you get lucky and score some synthetic fast fashion that doesn’t contain traces of lead or BPA, the garment itself could pose a risk to your health.

If you’re thinking that you’ll just protect yourself by giving up fast fashion sites like Shein and Temu to shop at your local “trustworthy” stores, think again. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. In the past couple of years, California’s Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has found high levels of BPA – a hormone-disrupting chemical linked to infertility and cancer – in sportswear made from polyester-spandex blends by reputed legacy brands including Nike, Champion, and New Balance. 

The CEH also found “shockingly high” levels of lead in fashion accessories being sourced from off-price stores such as Ross, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and more. For years now, the CEH has been alerting these retailers about the issue. So why is it still a problem? Modern consumers find it ridiculous that people of centuries past used lead paint in their homes or applied lead makeup to their faces, but it turns out that we’ve been wearing the same deadly substance on our backs this whole time.

Protecting Yourself As a Consumer

Fashion has become a more cyclical industry than ever. The old saying goes that trends repeat every 20 years, but in the current influencer-powered climate, it’s more like every couple of months. With such a rapid switch in popular aesthetics (old money yesterday, mob wife today, clean girl tomorrow) comes a market that benefits from overconsumption. This is what incentivizes fast fashion to take production shortcuts at the cost of our health. 

If you’ve decided that you don’t want to give any more of your hard-earned dollars to these greedy corporations, here are some strategies you can adopt to avoid supporting them.

  • Read composition labels before buying and prioritize natural fibers (cotton, silk, linen, wool, hemp, etc.) or semi-synthetic (rayon) over fully synthetic ones.

  • Buy less and better, not more and cheaper.

  • Visit a skilled tailor/dressmaker in your area if you have a special occasion coming up.

  • Go thrift/vintage shopping (older clothes are usually much more well-made).

Just because the market is so saturated with poorly made clothing, that doesn’t mean some well-produced labels don’t still exist. Here are some places to shop for clothes that 1) will last and 2) won’t harm you.

  • For elevated basics: AYM is a British brand that I’d describe as a more sustainable version of Skims. Instead of using synthetic fabrics to create their stylish, form-fitting basics like Skims does, AYM has an entire collection of dresses, tops, and bottoms made entirely from organic fabrics like bamboo.

  • For daily wear: Look for brands that sell organic cotton clothing like Pact, Happy Earth, and Garnet Hill.

  • For workwear: Whether you’re looking for some office-appropriate outfits or just naturally gravitate towards preppy style, Hawes & Curtis produces the perfect shirts for you. Their semi-fitted button-up shirts are made of 100% cotton. Quince also sells office-appropriate clothing made with natural fabrics like silk and linen. 

  • For the perfect sundress: The Evie Bra Sundress in Limoncello Floral is the perfect outfit for the season. It has all the feminine charm of this popular summer style, without including any of the risks of poor production or labor abuse (it's made in the USA!)

We Need To Lay Down the Law

While there are definitely some fast fashion customers who have the means to purchase better and just don’t care (trust me, I know a few), much of the industry’s base is made up of people who find it hard to fit anything else into their budget. It’s not always possible to simply make smarter shopping choices. 

So what are you supposed to do if you can’t afford ethically made clothing? Should you just accept that your clothes will heighten your risk of cancer, disease, and infertility? It would be one thing if we were talking about a single company engaging in unsavory practices, but these harmful fibers have penetrated our country’s entire mainstream clothing market. This is where our government owes it to us to step in. 

The EU has banned textiles using hormone-disrupting chemicals to keep European consumers safe.

In 2022, the European Union became the world’s first legislative body to publicly call out fast fashion’s use of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. The EU’s plan to combat this was outlined as a financial one: For every cheaply produced item sold by fast fashion stores like H&M and Zara, the company would have to pay a waste fee. This means that selling “less ecological” items would lower a company’s proportional profits over time. To avoid the fee, companies will be incentivized to use better textiles and adopt more honest production conditions.

This is just one of many actions the EU has taken to combat the issue. For a while now, textiles using hormone-disrupting chemicals like dimethyl fumarate and nonylphenol ethoxylates have been banned in the EU, and this more recent initiative will go even further to keep European consumers safe. But what about those of us across the Atlantic? How long will we have to wait until our government decides to act in our best interest and step in?

Congress has already shown us that it can stand against potentially harmful companies by moving to ban TikTok. So why not do something about fast fashion? However you feel about TikTok, it’s hard to believe that a social media app could be as dangerous as clothing that could literally kill. Not all Americans use TikTok, but all of us put clothes on every single day, and most of these clothes are mass-market produced. If our government won’t take measures to keep us safe, who will?

Closing Thoughts

Exposing the dangers of fast fashion isn’t meant to make us paranoid; it’s meant to make us aware. If we don’t know what we’re fighting, we can’t possibly win the battle. And as consumers, we shouldn’t be fighting alone. Among an American’s inalienable rights should be the right to get dressed without risking your life.

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