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Toxic Chemicals Found in Children's Products Sold by Shein

South Korean government testing found that some children's shoes and accessories sold by Shein, a Chinese e-commerce platform, contained phthalates at 428 times the permitted limit.

The popularity of online shopping has skyrocketed in recent years, and consumer desire for fashionable clothing and accessories at rock-bottom prices has driven the success of e-commerce companies such as Shein, AliExpress, and Temu.

However, while clothing and accessories sold on these platforms may be cheap, reports suggest that some products may come at a high cost to consumer's health.

Hazardous chemicals in Shein products

Recent safety inspections conducted by government officials in Seoul, South Korea, revealed concerning levels of toxic chemicals in children's shoes and other accessories sold by Shein, a Chinese e-commerce company, The Korea Times reported on Tuesday.

Specifically, officials found harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde, lead, or phthalates, in seven of eight children's products sold by Shein.

Test results on two pairs of children's shoes showed that one contained 1.8 times the permitted level of formaldehyde, and the other had 428 times the permitted level of phthalates.

Moreover, one of the four kid-themed bags tested contained formaldehyde at 1.2 times the allowed level, and the remaining three had phthalate levels up to 153 times the approved levels.

The inspection also revealed that one leather belt contained 1.78 times more lead than Korean regulations allow.

In light of the results, city officials have requested that the China-based e-commerce retailers stop selling the products and limit consumer access to them.

Still, this is not the first time the Chinese online retailer has come under scrutiny for peddling potentially toxic clothing and accessories.

According to a Greenpeace Germany report published in 2022, investigators tested 47 clothing and shoe products sold by Shein. Of those, 15% had toxic chemicals at levels above EU regulatory limits, with five exceeding the limits by 100% or more.

Moreover, since early April, Seoul city officials have conducted safety tests on 93 products from other Chinese e-commerce companies like AliExpress and Temu. The results showed that 43% contained hazardous chemicals.

The rising threat of toxic compounds

Concern over the adverse health effects of formaldehyde, phthalates, and other harmful chemicals has increased after investigations found that they are more widespread than previously thought.

For example, formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen. Recent testing found harmful formaldehyde levels in 26 out of 40 beauty products sold in the United States, including lotions, hair products, and children's hair detanglers.

unbranded orange shampoo and conditioner bottle
Image by vittoria_vittoria via Shutterstock

Phthalates, found in plastic products, may disrupt endocrine function and have been linked to several health conditions, including immune system problems, infertility, and specific types of cancer.

Reports suggest that plastics are widespread throughout the environment and are even present in food and beverages, including organic products. In addition, researchers have found microplastics in human placentas and the respiratory system.

Moreover, reports of high lead levels in prepackaged lunch kits, cinnamon applesauce products, and chocolate have also raised concerns. Children who consume these products may be exposed to high amounts of lead, which puts them at risk for slowed growth and development and nervous system harms.

Clothing, shoes, and fashion accessories that contain toxic chemicals or lead are another way consumers are exposed. According to a 2021 study, manufacturers can use more than 15,000 chemicals during the textile manufacturing process, including detergents, flame retardants, and stain repellents. Many of these chemicals are hazardous to human health.

How to avoid toxic chemicals in clothing

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are several strategies to help reduce chemical exposure from clothing and fashion accessories.

These include:

  • Avoid buying clothes and accessories from unknown brands who are not transparent about their manufacturing processes
  • Consider staying away from bright neon, dark black, or blue colors
  • Avoid clothing and other items labeled as stain, water, or odor-resistant
  • Wash the garment before wearing it

Although purchasing eco-friendly clothing may seem like a safer option, a 2022 study found that formaldehyde levels were higher in eco-friendly garments than in regular clothing. However, the scientists did not detect the chemical in clothing that was washed before being tested.


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