Is there plastic in my closet?

When someone asks, “what are you wearing?” would you respond with “plastic”? Probably not. But there is plastic in many of the clothes we wear.
A man and a woman strutting wearing multicolored plastic clothes.
Source: Shutterstock

When someone asks, “what are you wearing?”
would you respond with “plastic”?
Probably not.
But there is plastic in many of the clothes we wear.

One way we express ourselves is through clothing—our style can say who we are, what we like, and sometimes, how we like to spend our time. Florals are fun; athleisure is comfortable and workout-ready; boots help us blaze new trails.

Researchers at Northwestern University coined the term “enclothed cognition” in 2012 to describe how the clothes we wear affect our mental health. But what we wear may also be affecting our physical health and the health of the planet at large.

Tiny Threads of Plastic

Nylon, polyester, and acrylic are the most common synthetic fibers in clothing. Synthetic fibers are made from petrochemicals—a product of fossil fuels. In 2020, 62% of fibers produced were synthetic, according to a 2022 report from Textile Exchange. Mixed materials, such as 50% cotton and 50% polyester, cannot be recycled, giving them just one life.

However, the sustainability problem with synthetic fibers—alongside relying on the petrochemical industry—is that synthetic fibers break down into smaller and smaller pieces with wear, washing, and age. The tiny pieces that break off in the wash cycle or from friction during use are called microplastics (defined as smaller than five millimeters, which is roughly the size of a sesame seed).

At such a small size, microplastics have made their way into humans and animals by way of oceans, groundwater, and food. Microplastics are estimated to be in 94.4% of oysters around the world, according to a 2022 study by the University of Adelaide. A 2021 research study published in Environmental International was the first to find microplastics in the placentas of pregnant women.

The health consequences of microplastics are relatively unknown. A 2021 peer-reviewed research study found that microplastics can latch onto the outer membranes of red blood cells and may limit their ability to transport oxygen. It is unknown if microplastics have carcinogenic properties.

Additionally, synthetic fibers aren’t great for upcycling projects. Less than 1% of the global fiber market was from recycled textiles in 2021. Most recycled fibers come from bottles, according to a 2022 report from Textile Exchange.

Plastic’s Toxic Secret: Forever Chemicals

Microplastics aren’t the only pollutant from synthetic clothing. Rain jackets, stain-resistant shirts, hiking pants, sports bras, and more have been found to contain PFAS, a class of chemicals applied to make clothing water- and/or oil-resistant. A 2022 report by Toxic-Free Future found that nearly three-quarters of clothing labeled water- and stain-resistant tested positive for PFAS. A major way that PFAS makes its way into the water supply is when laundry water goes down the drain.

PFAS sticks around in our bodies and the environment so well, that it has gained the nickname “forever chemicals.” After decades of use, PFAS has contaminated drinking water worldwide and is in the blood of nearly all Americans, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

PFAS is linked to several adverse health effects including thyroid dysfunction and cancer, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. PFAS can end up on our skin from contact with clothes, but it’s tricky to determine if it can end up in the bloodstream through skin-to-clothing contact. The surest way to absorb PFAS is through drinking water.

While reverse osmosis filtration systems can remove PFAS from drinking water, not everyone knows about or can afford those systems for their homes. Green America has urged the EPA to set regulations on six PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Regulation of PFAS is our best bet at reducing harmful chemicals in our drinking water, as well as keeping PFAS-laden clothes out of the washing machine as much as possible.

No More Plastic! Healthy and Green Clothing

When it comes to shopping for a sustainable wardrobe, the best options are the ones already in your closet. Purchasing more clothes, especially those that contain synthetic threads and PFAS, encourages companies to produce more of those items. But cleaning out your closet of toxic clothing is important, too.

4 Tips to Build a Healthier Closet

Get a Microplastics Catcher. Firstly, wash your clothes only when necessary. Washing too often releases unwanted microplastics, eats up energy and water, and shortens the lifespan of garments. But when it is time to wash, several different products can be useful to reduce microfiber pollution from your washing machine.

First, Cora Ball, which can be bought from Green Eco Dream{GBN} for $48, and is effective at reducing 31% of microfibers; the Guppyfriend washing bag reduces 54% of microfibers and is sold for around $35 from multiple online retailers. These percentage reductions were reported by a 2020 study by scientists at the University of Plymouth in England.

If you're willing to spend more, you can attach a microfiber filter to your washing machine. Options like the PlanetCare filter are attached to the washing machine system and can filter up to 90% of microfibers, according to their website. France is the first country in the world to require microfiber filters on all new washing machines, starting in 2025.

Shop Secondhand. A huge part of reducing demand for synthetic clothing is not buying it new. But there are some items, such as rain jackets, that are harder to replace. In this case, acquiring an item secondhand is a great alternative. Whether that means you buy it from a thrift shop, pick it up in a clothing swap, or acquire it as a hand-me-down, secondhand is the second-best option after using what you have.

Buy Sustainable Fabrics. Organic clothing is the healthiest and greenest option out there. Free of synthetic materials and PFAS, organic clothes are made using organically grown fibers such as cotton or hemp. These fibers are spun into t-shirts, denim, hats, underwear, and more. Clothes with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) are free from toxic chemical coatings in addition to being made from organic fibers (other organic labels do not cover coatings). When you do buy new, choose from small businesses with short and traceable supply chains, like those on We’ve made it easy for you to choose green with our article “Sustainable Fabrics, Ranked,” at

Take Action for Safe Clothing. Green America and our allies have made significant progress on safer and healthier clothing thanks to support from people like you. Green America successfully got kids’ clothes retailer, Carter’s, to remove toxic chemicals from their clothes because readers like you signed our petitions.

We can make sure that messages make it to bad actors by writing them letters. Use some of the facts in this article to support your message!

From Green American Magazine Issue