Toxic Textiles FAQs

fabric dyer

Frequently asked questions about chemicals in clothing.

The fashion industry is a highly polluting industry. Experts estimate that over 8,000 chemicals are used by the textile industry, and there isn’t enough transparency about what chemicals are being used by specific companies or in specific garments.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20% of industrial water pollution comes from the textile manufacturing industry. Wastewater containing the chemicals and dyes used in manufacturing textiles end up in local water sources; in some manufacturing countries, local water sources are so polluted by chemicals that they can no longer sustain wildlife. In some places, locals can tell what is the ‘It’ color of the year based on what color the local river source is.

Meanwhile, workers are exposed to toxic chemicals while bleaching, dyeing, and applying finishing treatments to textiles that will become clothes.

Chemicals in clothing not only affect workers, communities, and environments in manufacturing countries, residual chemicals can also affect consumer health as well.

The Toxic Textiles campaign is putting the spotlight on major American apparel companies to get them to come clean about what chemicals they’re using and how they plan on cleaning up their supply chain. We believe that clean clothes should be available to all consumers – not just consumers who can afford to buy clothing at a premium price point.

Safer alternatives and better wastewater management technology are already available – but companies and factories have little incentive to use them when they can hide the toxins lurking in their clothes. Meanwhile, there are industry initiatives that are already helping companies adopt chemical management policies. We need more companies to take part in these initiatives.


Thousands of chemicals and dyes are used to turn raw materials into our clothes. There currently isn’t enough transparency or understanding of all of the different chemicals and chemical formulations that are being used, nor their impacts on human and environmental health. Regulation like Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in the European Union is designed to help identify more of the chemicals and chemical formulations that are being used by the industry. We need similar disclosure here in the US, but since our national government is failing to protect workers and the public, we need to demand transparency directly from companies.


A Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) is a list of chemicals/chemical formulations that are restricted or banned in the manufacturing process. Through an MRSL, a company/supplier may address dangerous chemicals that are used in the process to make the clothes but do not show up in the final product. MRSL can help to protect workers and the local communities near factories.

Companies are turning to nonprofits to help them craft and implement MRSLs. Zero Detox of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) is an organization that works to help companies implement MRSLs and wastewater management policies.



A Restricted Substances List (RSL) is a list of chemicals that are restricted or banned from final consumer products. An RSL is an important component for consumer safety. Industry initiatives like Afirm Group and the American Apparel and Footwear Association provide members with RSLs they can utilize. RSLs focus on consumer safety and do not address chemicals used in the manufacturing process.


Azo dyes are one of the most commonly used dyes, comprising of 60-70% of dyes in use. Azo dyes can release a compound that is a known carcinogen. The most toxic compounds have been banned in the EU.

Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are used to help fireproof clothing and can be found in children’s clothing. Flame retardants can cause thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility.

Formaldehyde is used to keep clothes wrinkle-free and shrink-free and is a known respiratory irritant and carcinogen.

Heavy metals are found in dyes and leather tanning, and can cause nervous system damage, kidney damage, and/or be carcinogenic, depending on the heavy metal.

Perflourinated chemicals are used to make clothing waterproof and stainproof. PFCs can affect liver health and disrupt hormonal functions.  


The EU’s primary legislation for regulating chemical use is REACH, which requires companies to disclose what chemicals they are manufacturing or importing and demonstrate how risks of use can be managed.


In the US, the primary legislation for chemical management is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is an American law that was meant to regulate chemical usage. However, tens of thousands of chemicals were grandfathered into the program as “acceptable” without prior testing or understanding of their health effects. There are almost 85,000 chemicals that are currently approved for use – and only nine are banned, as the mechanism to restrict/ban chemicals is cumbersome. Recent efforts to reform the bill – including an update to the bill passed in 2016 – have recently been undermined by the EPA.

In California, Proposition 65 requires the state to maintain an updated list of chemicals that are known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Companies must provide Californian consumers if they may be at risk of being exposed to one of these chemicals. The current list has over 900 chemicals on it.


You can check out our Green Business Network members as a starting point.

Also check out these great resources:

7 tips for less toxic clothing

Secondhand clothing options 

There are a variety of certifications that you can also look for. Some certifications cover the entire supply chain while others cover a specific part. You can learn more about certifications here.
From a consumer safety standpoint, shopping secondhand can help reduce the risk of being exposed to some of the residual chemicals that may have wound up on your clothing.