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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

30 July 2015

10 Toxic Chemicals To Avoid In Your Products

Contributor Ethical Fashion Forum

True Colours denim

Find out which common toxic chemicals are used to make textiles and other fashion products, what makes them harmful. Get some tips on how to avoid them in your supply chain and alternative processes you should further explore.

Just this week, the European Union unanimously voted in favour of extending existing restrictions on nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) to imports of clothing and other textile products.

A 2013 study by the UK environment agency found that 29% of imported cotton underwear contained NPE, which was released during the first two washes by the consumer. A 2011 study by Greenpeace found NPE in two-thirds of clothes tested, including items sold by big-name brands. NPE has been shown to be highly toxic to aquatic species, those of which humans eat. (The Guardian, 29th July 2015)

In this report, we look at NPE and 9 other widely-used toxic chemicals in the textiles and fashion industry. These substances are used in processes that range from cleaning and prepping fibres, to dyeing and printing to treating and finishing. We explore their impacts on human health and what makes them harmful.

Here, you will be introduced to some pioneering alternatives to these toxic substances and get some top tips on how to avoid each chemical – if possible.

Image: organic denim from True Colours Textile, made without harmful chemicals
Special thanks to researcher Blandine Yernaux, who has put together this report on the behalf of SOURCE Intelligence.

Toxic substances used in cleaning processes

For each of the chemicals listed in this report, we also recommend you check out the training available from the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals industry initiative (ZDHC). A lot of the below information has been synthesised from ZDHC’s training documents.

We also recommend have the REACH Restricted Substances List handy when you’re sourcing materials, you can find it here.


Chlorinated solvents include trichloroethane (TCE), are commonly used for scouring fabric. Scouring is a process that removes impurities like oils, gum, lubricants, dust and dirt from the surface of textile fibres. It prepares the material for more efficient dyeing.

How are they used for textiles?

Chlorinated solvents are mostly used on synthetic knits, cotton, silks and woollen fabrics – prior to the dyeing process. It’s a process used predominantly for knitted fabrics.

Why are they harmful?

TCE in chlorinated solvents affect the human central-nervous system, our liver and kidneys and also deplete the ozone. The use of TCEs has been severely restricted in fabric cleaning by European law since 2008.

What are the alternatives?

For each of the 10 chemicals listed in this report, we’d advise you to look for materials (including dyes) and fabrics that have been certified by a third party – Global Organic Textile Standard, Oeko-Tex ® Standard 100, the bluesign® system and the EU Ecolabel.

Here are a few TCE alternatives to consider using:

  • Check out the new ColorZen™ cotton – dyes three times faster, with 75% less energy, and 90% less water. Most importantly, it requires no toxic chemicals. This technology uses cationic pretreatment, an alternative way to increase dye fastness without the usual environmental pollutants.
  • ProTura cotton – Building on a long history of experience and knowledge in their respective fields, DyStar and Tuscarora have combined their expertise to develop ProTura Cotton, a cationic cotton fibre which reduces up to 50% of chemical, water and energy usage in the dyeing process. These yarns are good for coloured denim and cotton t-shirts. These can be bought from Tuscarora Yarns.


Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEOs, NPEs) are commonly used in industrial laundry detergents, scouring agents (wool and leather), emulsifiers and dye-dispersing agents for dyes and prints, impregnating agents, degreasing agents for leather hides, leather finishing preparations, degumming agents for silk production, dyes and pigment preparations, polyester padding and down/feather fillings.

NP is an intermediate in the manufacture of NPEOs and NPEs, which are used to protect or stabilise polymers (i.e. the basic chemical components of a material), such as rubber and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Where might you find NPEs/NPs?

NPEOs may be found on a wide range of fashion products composed of both natural and synthetic fabrics, leather, PVC and plastics.

NPs are found in the outsole materials of shoes, jelly sandals, and plastic or rubber components used for apparel, footwear and accessories.

Why are NPEs / NPs harmful?

NPEOs degrade into NPs and, when left in the environment, is very toxic to aquatic organisms. NPs can accumulate in body tissue, increasing in concentration up the food chain.

NPs, above certain exposure levels, can impair human fertility and represents a health risk for unborn children. Similar in its composition to natural oestrogen, NPs can disrupt sexual development.

NPs have been subject to an EU-wide ban since 2005.

How can you avoid NPEs/NPs?

Look for calcium/zinc stabilisers, which do not usually contain NP-based antioxidants and are widely available on the market. If you are involved in manufacturing, you can ask your chemical suppliers for more information.

If you are seeking to source NP-free materials:
  • Pay special attention to suppliers of plastic/rubber footwear materials and plastic/rubber components for apparel and accessories like bags and belts.
  • Contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with NP <10 ppm (0.001%). Find out more here.
  • Advise your material suppliers to adjust the time and temperature used to process their plastic/rubber materials to minimise thermal decomposition of NP-based stabilisers into NP.
If you are seeking to source NPEO-free materials:
  • Pay special attention to any fibres, yarns and fabrics you’re using – NPEOs are widely used in spinning lubricants, sizing, pretreatment, dyeing, printing, finishing and coating.
  • Contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with NPEOs <100 ppm (0.01%). Again, this is a standard established by the ZDHC. Find out more here.
  • Pay special attention to suppliers of wool, wool blends and leather, since NPEOs are widely used for scouring and as a dispersing agent for dyeing.
  • Suppliers who use NPEOs in production for other clients may have contaminated machinery that can introduce NPEOs into their manufactured materials. Seek out suppliers who have phased out the use of NPEOs for all clients.
  • Cleaning agents for equipment and maintenance may contain NPEOs that can contaminate materials. Cleaning agents should contain NPEOs <500 ppm (0.05%) according to ZDHC.

Toxic substances used in dyeing & printing


Azo dyes constitute the largest chemical class, contained in 60% to 80% of all colorants.

Pigments, used in printing inks and plastics, are commonly organic, often resulting in a more intense colour finish than inorganic pigments. Many organic pigments are based on azo chemistry, dominating the yellow, orange and red tones.

A chromophore is the part of a molecule responsible for its colour. The colour arises when a molecule absorbs certain wavelengths of visible light and transmits or reflects others.

Brown and black colours tend to contain a larger concentration of azo chromophores. Many of the major brown and black dyes for application to leather are poly-azo compounds.

Azo dyes are used to produce a wide range of fashion products across all fibre types, whether in apparel, footwear or accessories.

Where might you find Azo dyes?

Commonly found in acid dyes and metal complex dyes (wool, protein fibres and polyamides), direct dyes (cotton, linen, viscose), basic dyes (acrylic), disperse dyes (polyester, polyamides, ethaonates) and make up 95% of all reactive dyes (cotton, linen, wool and silk)

Why are Azo dyes harmful?

Loosely held on the fabric structure, azo dyes can easily rub off on the skin, releasing chemicals known as aromatic amines, some of which reportedly can cause cancer. The most common allergens belong to the disperse dye groups. Disperse blue 106 and disperse blue 124 have been reported to cause allergic contact dermatitis.

The EU AZO Colorants Directive sets out that Azo dyes which may release one or more of the 22 most dangerous aromatic amines in detectable concentrations, above 30 ppm in the finished articles or in the dyed components may not be used in textile and leather articles which may come into direct and prolonged contact with the human skin or oral cavity. The directive came into force in September 2003.

What are some alternatives to Azo dyes?
  • Eco responsible polyester dyes – A new range of Terasil disperse dyes have been developed for digital printing on polyester blended fabrics and are compatible with ZDHC and Oeko-tex 100 standards. Launched in January 2015 by Swiss based manufacturer of dyes and textile chemicals, Huntsman Textile Effects.
  • Natural dyes – colourants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood—and other organic sources such as fungi and lichens. Many of EFFs member suppliers are specialists in natural dyes.

Be sure to check out Aura Herbal Textiles, who has a USA / India patented process of industrial application of GOTS certified natural and herbal dyeing techniques. Mehera Shaw Textiles in India who does beautiful block-printed fabrics using vegetable and Azo-free dyes. Organic Cotton Colours, GOTS certified Brazilian cotton that doesn’t used dyes at all. Their cotton comes in three beautiful natural colours. Panchachuli Women Weavers specialises in a gorgeous range of fabrics using nettle, wool, cashmere fibres and both vegetable and Azo-free dyes. And also be sure to check out True Colours Textiles – founded in Amsterdam, made in India – who offer a wide variety of organic textiles and raw materials such as organic silk, hemp-made fabrics and organic denims dyed naturally without the use of these harmful chemicals.


A range of heavy metals are used in textile dyes and pigments, some of the most toxic being antimony, cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium VI.

How are metals used for textiles?

Antimony can be found in cotton, synthetic fibres and leather. Cadmium is present in pigments and dyes applied to natural and synthetic textiles and leather. In particular it is found in red, orange, yellow and green dyes. Lead and mercury are present in dyes used across natural and synthetic textile fibres, though not contained in high-quality dyes.

Chrome VI is mainly found in poorly tanned leathers and can be found on wool, cashmere and angora garments where it is used as a mordant in after-chrome dyeing processes. Read more about sustainability and leather, here.

Why are these metals harmful?

Once absorbed by the human body, heavy metals tend to accumulate in internal organs such as the liver or kidney. The effects on health can be tremendous when high levels of accumulation are reached.

High levels of lead can seriously affect the nervous system. Cadmium and lead and Chromium VI are classified as carcinogens. Cadmium has been restricted in Europe for a long time. Mercury and lead have been classified as “priority hazardous substances” under EU regulation and their uses have been severely restricted in textiles. Chromium VI is still used to produce the vast majority of the world’s leather.

What are some alternatives to these metals?
  • DyStar, a german based sustainable textile auxiliaries and colorants supplier has launched a new Levafix ECO Black dye, compliant with Oeko-Tex standard 100, free of heavy metals and restricted aromatic amines.
  • US based company Greener Shades ™ offer a range of heavy metal free acid dyes, used for silk, wool, nylon and animal fibres.


Chlorobenzenes are used as dyeing carriers or leveling agents for dyeing, printing and coating.

How are chlorobenzenes used for textiles?

Chlorobenzenes are present in chemical mixtures mostly used on polyester and polyester blend textiles. They are less often applied to natural fibres and leather products. They can be found in dyeing carriers, dyestuffs, leveling agents, deodorizers, fumigants, degreasers, insecticides, herbicides and defoliants.

Why are chlorobenzenes harmful?

According to ZDHC, chlorobenzenes are toxic by inhalation and skin contact. They tend to accumulate in the body over time and can affect the liver, the thyroid and the central nervous system. Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), the most toxic chemical of this group is also a hormone disruptor. Above certain levels, some chlorobenzenes are carcinogenic. Chlorobenzenes are restricted under EU law in the production of apparel, footwear and accessories above the dose of 1.0mg/kg.

How to avoid chlorobenzenes?

Pay special attention to polyester and polyester-blend textiles since chlorobenzenes are often used in the dyeing of these materials.

Suppliers who use chlorobenzenes in production for other clients may also have contaminated machinery that can introduce these substances into their manufactured materials. Work with suppliers who have phased out the use of chlorobenzenes for all clients.

What are some alternatives to chlorobenzenes?

Safer alternatives include dyeing carriers composed of aromatic esters and substituted phenols such as benzyl benzoate, CAS 120-51-4. This dyeing carrier requires no additional solvents for dilution. Ask your suppliers for more information as it gets pretty technical.

If you are seeking to source chlorobenzene-free materials, ZDHC recommends to contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with no intentionally added chlorobenzenes. All materials should contain <1 ppm (0.001%) of each chlorobenzene.

This includes synthetic textiles and natural/synthetic leather with polymeric coatings or finishes, since chlorobenzenes may be used as a dyeing carrier or leveling agent in the dyeing, printing and coating of synthetic textile and leather materials.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in printing and the softening and dyeing of artificial leather, rubber and PVC. They are added to plastics to make them soft, increase flexibility, prevent cracking and facilitate molding by decreasing its melting temperature.

How are phthalates used for textiles?

Phthalates can be found in flexible plastic parts of accessories, plastic buttons, plastic sleeves and print pastes. You know there are phthalates present when the product gives off a strong plasticky smell which is often the case with freshly printed clothing and footwear.

This includes textiles and natural/synthetic leather with polymeric coatings or finishes, since phthalates are common ingredients in coating, screen-printing and finishing formulations.

Why are phthalates harmful?

Phthalates are classed as “toxic to reproduction” in Europe and can impair fertility. Commonly found in human tissue, blood and breast milk, they can rapidly metabolise to their more toxic ‘monoester’ form. Some phthalates, above certain exposure levels, may contribute to the development of certain cancers.

Phthalates are toxic to aquatic organisms and can lead to long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Recent research has shown that children whose mothers had the highest levels of phthalates in their urine had an IQ score about seven points lower than those whose mothers had the lowest levels.

At present there are no restrictions on any phthalates for fashion products in the EU – although some phthalates are deemed to be substances of very high concern by REACH standards and must be reported down the textile supply chain, due to be banned by 2015.

How to avoid phthalates?

ZDHC recommends to contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with a sum of all phthalates <500 ppm (0.05%). This includes textiles and natural/synthetic leather with polymeric coatings or finishes, since phthalates are common ingredients in coating, screen-printing and finishing formulations.

Pay special attention to plastic trims like buttons, shoelace aglets (tubes) and filler components that provide structural support in products like handbags, since phthalates are commonly used to provide flexibility.

Suppliers who use phthalates in production for other clients may have contaminated machinery that can introduce phthalates into their manufactured materials. Try to work with suppliers who have phased out the use of phthalates for all clients.

Toxic substances used in finishing


Organotin compounds are often composed of tin. They’re used in apparel and footwear manufacturing to prevent body odour caused by the breakdown of human body sweat.

Organotins are also used as a heat stabiliser in PVC or as catalysts in the production of polymeric materials such as polyester. They also may be used in anti-fungal agents and biocides or preservatives for textile and leather. Silicone-based finishes (for example, fire retardants and water repellency) may also contain organotins. Fine out more from REACH.

How are organotin compounds used for fashion products?

Organotin compounds are used on natural and synthetic fabrics, natural and synthetic leather and PVC materials. They are common in products such as gloves, socks, synthetic shoe insoles and sports clothes.

Why are they harmful?

Widespread organotin compounds- tributyltin (TBT) and dioctyltin (DOT) – build up in the body and can affect immune and reproductive systems. As endocrine disrupters, they have been shown to prevent the body’s hormones working properly, and can cause muscular weakness, breathing problems and severe skin, eye and mucous membrane irritation. Products containing more than 0.1% of TBT and DOT compounds have been banned across the EU since January 2012.

How to avoid organotin compounds?

Contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with no intentionally-added organotins. According to ZDHC, material organotin concentrations should be compliant with the following limits:

  • MBT: Adults < 1 ppm, Babies < 0.5 ppm
  • DBT: < 0.2 ppm
  • TBT, TMT, TPhT, TCyHT, TOT, TPT: Sum < 1 ppm
  • All others: Sum < 1 ppm

Pay special attention to PVC materials since organotins are often used as a stabiliser in PVC production (for example, plasticised PVC). PU materials, including synthetic leather and coatings, may also contain organotins since they are widely used as catalysts during PU production. FYI – Leather and textiles treated with biocides may also contain organotins. Ask your suppliers about these substances.

Calcium-zinc stabilisers are considered safer organotin alternatives. These stabilisers offer clarity, good mechanical properties and good weatherability. Bismuth, titanate, titanium and zirconium catalysts can be used for PU or polyester production.

You can find out more here.


How are PFCs used for textiles?

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are widely used across the industry for their non-stick and water-resistant properties, making textile and leather products breathable while also water and stain proof. Mostly used for outdoor apparel and footwear.

Why are PFCs harmful?

PFCs have been known to affect the liver and to alter levels of growth and reproductive hormones. Highly resistant to degradation, certain PFCs are banned in Europe. Find out more from Greenpeace.

What are some PFC alternatives?
  • PFC free water repellent technology from Switzerland – A new range of PFC water repellents for polyester, nylon and cotton-based textiles has been launched by Swiss based chemical supplier Archroma. Compliant with the latest ZDHC criteria as well as Oeko-Tex 100 requirements, this new generation technology promises a PFC free future for our fashion products.
  • PFC free water repellent technology from the UK – Jack Wolfskin, a popular British outdoor apparel company, has developed an alternative PFC free textile finish using polymeric dispersion, containing encapsulated paraffin waxes, which allow a durable and even film formation on the surface of the fabric. The alternative is used at partial capacity and the technical performance is comparable concerning water repellency. The alternative textile finish was chosen out of a number of PFC-free products due to its good performance results on certain fabric types. Find out more here.
  • Bluesign® accredited Sympatex co-polymer for waterproof clothing – used by EFF member Brand, No Such Thing. The Sympatex Membrane is a non-toxic recyclable, waterproof and breathable fabric, produced in Europe. Sympatex is a polyester and polyester co-polymer processed in a way that emits 50% less carbon compared to common polymers found on the market.


Formaldehyde acts as an agent in textile finish resins which contribute to making an make an easy-care finish. It helps to prevent shrinkage and to make a fabric crease-resistant. Other qualities of textile finish resins include rendering fabric perspiration proof, waterproof and mothproof.

How is formaldehyde used for textiles?

Textile finish resins are widely applied to natural and synthetic fabrics, natural and synthetic leather and prints.

You probably wouldn’t see “formaldehyde” listed as a chemical used, instead look out for other chemical names, including:

  • Formalin
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene oxide
  • Morbicid acid
  • Oxymethylene

Why are they harmful?

After textile dyes, formaldehyde and textile finish resins (also called durable-press resins or permanent press clothing finishes) are the most frequently reported allergens. The release of formaldehyde can irritate mucous membranes and the respiratory tract.

How to avoid formaldehyde?

There are not many ways. Alternative flame retardant technologies, free of formaldehyde, heavy metals and halogens are being developed by US flame retardant company Alexium. These will be fully REACH compliant and in the process of applying for the Oeko-Tex 100 standard, this flame retardant technology will be used for synthetic fabric blends, nylon and polyester.


SCCPs are used as flame retardants and finishing agents in plastics, rubbers, inks, paints and surface coatings in clothes, footwear and accessories.

How are SCCPs used for textiles?

SCCPs can be found in plastic, rubber, adhesives, paints and lacquers, coatings, plasticisers, fat-liquoring agents and leather.

Why are SCCPs harmful?

SCCPs can cause skin dryness and cracking, and are carcinogenic. They are highly toxic to aquatic organisms, do not readily break down in the environment and have a high potential to accumulate in living organisms. SCCPs are included in the EU list of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) of REACH. Their use has been restricted in some applications in the EU since 2004.

What are some alternatives to SCCPs?

Non-chlorinated SCCP alternatives include alkylphosphates and sulfonated fatty-acid esters and are available for specific applications.

Natural animal and vegetable oils may be used as substitutes in leather production. Polyacrylic esters, diisobutyrate and phosphates may be used in paint and coating applications. Aluminum hydroxide and phosphate containing compounds can be used as flame retardant alternatives.

Find out more here. http://www.subsport.eu/wp-content/uploads/data/chloroalkanes.pdf

How to avoid SCCPs?

If you want to be sure you’re using SCCP free materials, ZDHC recommends you contact your suppliers and explain that you require materials with no intentionally added SCCPs.

Material SCCP concentrations should be <50 ppm (0.005%). This includes textiles and natural or synthetic leather with polymeric coatings or finishes, since SCCPs are common ingredients in coating and finishing formulations to provide flexibility.

Look out for plastic components and screen prints, which may contain SCCPs as a plasticiser. Pay special attention to textile and plastic materials treated with a flame retardant finish.

Natural leather can contain residual SCCPs since they may be found as impurities in fat liquoring agents used in leather production. Suppliers who use SCCPs in production for other clients may have contaminated machinery that can introduce SCCPs into their manufactured materials. Try to work with suppliers who have phased out the use of SCCPs.


1) REACH Restricted Substances List – Accessed here.

2) What Are Leather Dyes Today? report from TFLAccessed here.

3) PFC-free water-repellent textiles report from Subsport – Accessed here.

4) Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals: The Roadmap to Zero – Accessed here.

5) Clothing Dermatitis and Clothing-Related Skin Conditions (PDF file) – Washington State Department of Labor and Industries – Accessed here.

6) Toxic threads: The big fashion stitch up- Greenpeace Study 2012 – Accessed here.

7) Greenpeace: “11 hazardous chemicals which should be eliminated” – Accessed here.

8) Oeko-Tex ® Association – Accessed here.

9) Study on the Link Between Allergic Reactions and Chemicals in Textile Products. Principal European Commission, DG Enterprise and Industry. Authors: Dr. Ike van der Putte, Dr. Shufan Qi, Femke Affourtit, Kenny de Wolf, Dr. Stijn Devaere, Eddy Albrecht. Report reference : VRM11.8088 Date : 7 January 2013. Accessed here.

10) ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) – Accessed here.

11) Textile Restricted Substance List (RSL) EU: Master list – Accessed here.

12) Fashion and Sustainability – Design for Change. Kate Fletcher & Lynda Grose. 2012.

13) California Department of Toxic Substances Control, “Source Reduction of Chlorinated Solvents,” June 1991. Accessed here.

14) Uses of Toxic Heavy Metals in textile, leather product & Its Effect of human body & environment report – Accessed here.

15) Intertek, “For brands that care
from make to wear” report, 2012. Accessed here.

16) Formaldehyde in your fabrics report, 2011 – Accessed here.

17) Impact Analysis of Regulating Pentachlorophenol (PCP) in Consumer Products, 2010 – Accessed here.

18) Ecotextile News,Phthalate exposure in pregnancy linked to low IQ.” 11 December 2014. Accessed here.

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