Clothing today is loaded with chemicals, harsh dyes and well over 80% contain synthetics, mostly petroleum-based fibers. Natural fibers that aren’t blended with synthetics are increasingly hard to find and organic, natural fibers are now considered “luxury” items. So the question is: What’s the best material to wear?
As you’ll see, even natural fabrics aren’t perfect. Many that aren’t organic contain pesticides and fertilizers and most are processed with a variety of chemicals and harsh dyes.
The best option is always to shop organic and plant-dyed, but we know everyone’s budget can’t afford that and sometimes they’re impossible to find.
The second best option is to buy used, natural materials that have been pre-worn and well-washed to remove as many of those chemicals as possible before they touch your skin. The following is a list of second-hand natural materials that we allow in our closet.
Our YES List:
1. LINENWe love linen. Not only does it feel amazing, but there’s a long list of reasons why it makes the cut:
- How it’s made: Linen is a natural plant fiber made from the stalks of the flax plant. Since it doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers to grow, it’s not necessary to buy organic. It’s a work-intensive process to create linen fabric so, since the rise of cotton and synthetics, linen has become a rare fiber, making it more expensive and more difficult to find.
- Sustainability: It’s completely biodegradable when un-dyed and it grows easily and sustainably in any climate zone.
- Wearability: Linen is durable, breathable, temperature-regulating and absorbent. If it’s stiff initially, it will soften with wash and wear. It protects your skin from sun damage and is naturally antimicrobial. It dries faster than cotton and is great for hot weather.
- Toxin alert: Some linen may be processed, dyed or softened with chemicals. Look for Oeko-Tex certified and don’t buy any linen that claims to be “anti-wrinkle” - it’s treated with formaldehyde. Linen is naturally ivory or tan, white linen has been bleached with chemicals and brighter or darker dyes require more chemicals. However, linen absorbs color easily so it requires fewer fixatives before dyeing.
- How it’s made: Silk is made from the cocoons of silk worms and spun into silk threads, so it can be woven without the use of chemicals.
- Sustainability: Silkworms are fed beechwood leaves, which are sustainable and renew each year. Silkworms, are generally killed during the harvesting process, however. If they are allowed to become moths, they emit a substance that disintegrates the cocoon (destroying the fibers) and, due to years of captive breeding, once it’s a moth it can’t eat or see or survive without humans and only lives five days, laying 500 eggs before it dies. Silk is biodegradable and recycles well.
- Wearability: Silk feels luxurious, regulates temperature, is odor-resistant and has a range of health benefits. It can help with conditions like eczema, improve sleep and it’s naturally anti-fungal. However, some people are allergic to silk fibers.
- Toxin alert: Silk is often bleached before dyeing, but dyes relatively easily without heavy fixatives. Some producers add metals to the silk to make it weigh more and some are finished with chemicals to reduce wrinkling, soften it or give it other fabric “benefits”. Look for raw silk, Muga silk, or Eri silk that are natural colored or dyed with plant dyes.
- How it’s made: Wool is made from animal fibers of sheep.
- Sustainability: Wool is natural and biodegradable. It’s renewable, since sheep can be shorn each year. It can be harvested without stress to the animal.
- Wearability: It is warm, temperature-regulating, hypoallergenic and weatherproof. It’s more breathable and absorbent than cotton, helping to keep you dry. It’s said to be similar to the outer layer of human skin, so it works with your body to protect your skin from UV rays. It’s naturally wrinkle-resistant and has a natural spring to it. It’s incredibly durable and will last you for years.
- Toxin alert: Wool is naturally stain-resistant so it requires harsh dyes to color it, natural or light colored wool is the best. Wool is naturally flame resistant, so it doesn’t require toxic flame-retardants. Wool is non-allergenic, so if you have a reaction to a wool sweater it’s probably due to chemicals used in processing. Wool may be processed with chemical abrasives, chlorine and chemicals to moth-proof it. Wool from unethical and overpopulated farms may contain pesticides used to manage pests. Avoid wool that’s “shrink-resistant” or “washable”. Organic wool is processed without chemicals for the entire production process.
MERINO WOOL - a super fine wool from merino sheep that is naturally a great insulator while also being very weatherproof, moisture-wicking and non-itchy. Merino is a great choice for all-natural high-performance fabrics to use for outdoor activities. It requires fewer conditioners, softeners and whiteners in processing.
CASHMERE- made from goat hair. It’s a non-allergenic natural fiber that is breathable and warm. No heavy chemicals are needed to create its silky, smooth texture.
ALPACA- made from alpaca fibers. It’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t contain lanolin like wool does for those with lanolin sensitivities.
MOHAIR- made from the hair of angora goat. Known for its shine and durability.
- How it’s made: Hemp is made from the stalk of the hemp plant. It doesn’t generally need pesticides to grow and doesn’t need chemicals to reduce it down to a pulp. It can be processed mechanically instead of chemically.
- Sustainability: Incredibly eco-friendly and sustainable. It grows quickly and recycles easily.
- Wearability: Hemp is incredibly strong and durable. It insulates well to keep you warm and keeps it’s shape well while still being soft. It’s more absorbent and temperature regulating than cotton and does better at protecting you from UV rays.
- Toxin alert: Hemp requires less bleaching, since it’s naturally colorless, but is a rather stiff fiber, causing manufacturers to use caustic sodas and acids to soften it. Chlorine is generally used to clean the fibers and synthetic dyes - some containing heavy metal fixatives - may be used to color it.
RAMIE- made from the stem of a nettle plant that’s similar to linen but stronger and stiffer. It can be grown sustainably without fertilizers and requires fewer chemicals in processing. Nettle is a strong, durable fiber that’s naturally mildew resistant.
Cotton goes at the bottom of our list because its largely loaded with chemicals and pesticides. If you are going to wear cotton, it’s best to choose organic or well-washed thrifted items.
- How it’s made: Cotton is made from a cotton plant when it goes to seed. A gin is used to separate the fiber from seeds and it's spun into yarn.
- Sustainability: Conventionally grown cotton takes a big toll on the earth, water and soil. However, it’s renewable and biodegradeable.
- Wearability: Cotton is breathable, soft, durable and absorbent.
- Toxin alert: Conventionally grown cotton uses a quarter of all the pesticides used in the U.S., including some of the most toxic. It’s harvested by spraying glyphosate (Roundup) to kill the plant. Organic cotton is pesticide-free and harvested without chemicals. Cotton requires chemical processing to make it soft. It’s sprayed with chemicals to make it easier to weave, to bleach it, to dye it, scour it and add finishings to it. These chemicals can be formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, bromine, caustic soda, sulfonamides and more. Always wash new cotton items well, since washing can remove some of the formaldehyde and urea resins used to finish the fabric, though most of the chemicals are heated so they permanently bind to the fabric.
The following “natural” fibers may be deemed natural but they’re not our personal preference due to chemicals used in the processing of them.
Conventional leather - which constitutes 90% of leather in stores today and is made from animal hide - is tanned with incredibly harsh chemicals like chromium 6, which is carcinogenic and pollutes the environment. Just wearing leather tanned with chromium can lead to immune system, kidney or liver damage. Look for vegetable-tanned leather. We find leather acceptable only for use in accessories and as the outer shell of a jacket (that is lined with something less toxic).
- How it’s made: There’s a couple ways bamboo is made into fabric. The first way is to physically mash it up and break it down with enzymes before spinning it into yarn - similar to creating linen. The second, and far more popular way is for it to be broken down chemically - much like rayon - in caustic soda and carbon disulfate until it’s a liquid, then hardened with sulfuric acid and spun into yarn.
- Sustainability: Bamboo itself is highly sustainable, sometimes growing a yard a day, and biodegradable. It can grow without pesticides and fertilizers. The chemical process of producing bamboo fabrics chemically is highly unsustainable, however, and takes a huge toll on the environment.
- Wearability: Bamboo is incredibly soft, feels silky, is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, hypoallergenic, absorbent and wrinkle-resistant.
- Toxin alert: Bamboo fabrics generally require fewer chemical finishes and dye easily. However, it requires chemical solvents to produce, which are generally toxic chemicals that can cause nausea, headaches, muscle pain, insomnia and vomiting. The natural way of producing bamboo fabrics is work-intensive and not generally used today, so it’s hard to find “natural” and “healthy” bamboo fibers, so we've left it off our list.