Award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of EcoCult, Alden Wicker, published her book, "To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick — And How We Can Fight Back," in June about the laundry list of toxins we harbor in our closet.
"To Dye For," looks at the unregulated chemicals that we all have on our skin and how they may be contributing to nefarious health conditions. Wicker, a sustainable fashion expert, links our clothing to a slew of medical concerns like cancer, autoimmune disease, infertility, and much more.
Healthnews talked to Wicker about her new book and the ways in which we can change our world, and our closet, to be cleaner and healthier for the future.
Your new book, "To Dye For," focuses on the fashion industry and how we ended up wearing clothes infiltrated with toxic chemicals. How did we — in a cliff notes version — end up here?
Fashion has been toxic for hundreds of years — everyone's heard of the Mad Hatter, driven insane by the mercury in gentleman's felted fur hats. In the 1800s, arsenic-green fashion for women was all the rage. But with the invention of fossil-fuel chemistry in the late 1800s, driven by the textile industry's hunger for new and brighter colors, the number of extremely hazardous substances used in fashion exploded. Today, there are thousands of different chemicals deliberately applied to fashion to make it colorful, sparkly, stain-resistant, wrinkle-free, high-performance, and very cheap. And the majority of our fashion is made of synthetics and plastics, including polyester and PVC. Many of these substances have been linked to allergies (like rashes and hives), reproductive harm, infertility, thyroid disease, and cancer. And yet, very few people know that fashion comes with this risk of exposure. Even doctors are in the dark because fashion doesn't come with an ingredient list like many other consumer products we know can be poisonous. So we're left completely unknowing and unprotected.
How did you end up here? Where did your interest in sustainable fashion begin?
I've been writing about fashion sustainability since way before it was cool. I founded my website EcoCult in 2013 to share information about shopping sustainably with readers. I included information about non-toxic beauty and cleaning products and locally-grown food. But when a radio station emailed me to ask if I could comment on Delta flight attendants suing the maker of their uniforms, saying it gave them horrible reactions, I was confused. This was not something anybody was talking about at the time. When I looked into it further, I realized that there was this terrible secret that the fashion industry had effectively hid from us for over a century — that the clothing that touches our body is often filled and covered with known toxic substances. And there was enough to uncover that it easily filled a whole book!
Fast fashion has recently come under light as having 'forever chemicals,' microplastics, etc., that can be harmful to the people wearing the clothes and the environment. We've focused on these chemicals quite a bit at Healthnews and realize some people may be overwhelmed or feel helpless in escaping these chemicals that are seemingly all around us. How can people, at a basic 101 level, begin their process of living a chemical-free life? Or is this even possible?
While we deserve better protections from the government and more transparency from brands and the chemical industry, there are definitely things people can do to reduce their exposure to hazardous substances. People usually start by throwing out all the plastic in their kitchen and getting rid of any scented products in their home, including candles, plug-in diffusers, beauty products, and detergents. When it comes to fashion and textiles, there are some strategies to employ as well. Go for natural fibers whenever possible, including cotton, linen, silk, modal, and bamboo lyocell, and avoid synthetics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, PVC, polyurethane, and other plastics. Avoid performance products that promise to be stain-resistant, wrinkle-proof, easy care, or anti-odor. Look for labels such as Oeko-Tex, Bluesign, or GOTS Organic. Avoid ultra-cheap fashion brands or random, sketchy brands you've only ever seen on social media or on marketplaces like Amazon. None of these by themselves are guarantees of non-toxic clothing, but if employed together, you'll drastically reduce your exposure, and it might help reduce reactions you might be having, such as rashes or eczema.
What do these chemicals physically do to people? Why are they harmful?
Some of them, such as nickel, formaldehyde, and disperse dyes that are used on polyester, are known skin sensitizers and allergens. Some, such as BPA, phthalates, and PFAS, are endocrine disruptors. They interfere with your hormonally-regulated body systems, affecting your reproductive system and fertility, your energy levels, your brain functioning, your immune system, your thyroid function, your weight, your skin appearance, and more. The class of chemicals known as PFAS has the nickname "forever chemicals" because they never break down — either in your body or the environment. They've been linked to several types of cancer, as well as the hormone-related effects I just described. Some types of azo dyes are known to release carcinogenic amines upon skin contact. I could go on, but you get the idea!
How does the United States and the rest of the world differ in their regulations on toxic chemicals?
The European Union has banned more than 30 chemicals specifically for use in textiles, and fashion products that test high for these substances are blocked from entering or destroyed. The EU could do more, but compared to the United States, it does a lot. In the U.S., the federal government restricts zero chemicals for use in adult clothing, and only three chemicals for use in children's products. The only fashion shipments that are checked at the border are counterfeit ones, so as long as it's from a legitimate fashion company, it can go through. California does require that consumer products with known hazardous substances come with a warning label. But it doesn't ban these substances. Still, the U.S. (and the large brands that sell here) do provide more protection to consumers than developing countries such as Bangladesh or India, where pretty much anything goes.
Lastly, what do you hope people will glean from your new book?
I want people to feel empowered to overhaul their lifestyle and protect themselves and their families from hazardous chemicals. For people who suffer from chronic illness, sensitive skin, or chemical sensitivity, I hope this book gives them the language to advocate for themselves. But more than that, I want readers to be aware of our egregious lack of protection from toxic chemicals in everyday products, and to join a movement for safer fashion and chemistry at large.
We deserve better, and it is long overdue!