Toxic chemicals in Shein and other fast fashion clothing

  • Fast fashion company Shein recently reiterated its commitment to product safety after social media outcry over chemicals in the brand’s clothing.
  • Experts told Consumer Insider that many fashion brands use toxic chemicals like PFAS and phthalates.
  • Consumers are less likely to get sick from these ingredients in clothing than workers in textile factories.

Shein has responded to claims that his clothes contain toxic chemicals, insisting he is committed to “product safety”.

“We regularly test products and take action on non-compliance, including terminating suppliers,” the fast fashion brand said in response to a Tweeter.

A survey 2021 into Shein by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found high levels of lead, phthalates, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — chemicals linked to health problems — in clothing for children and adults, including pregnant women.

Experts told Insider that Shein is not unique. Many major clothing brands like Lululemon, Old Navy, and REI contain toxic chemicals in their clothing. Although these chemicals are used at relatively low levels, exposure to toxic substances over time can increase the risk of serious health problems, such as asthma and kidney damage.

“It’s not just people who are exposed to it on a daily basis,” said Alexandra McNair Quinn, chemical sustainability consultant and founder of FWD-Mode, a nonprofit educating consumers about toxic chemicals in clothing, told Insider. “It’s the accumulation of all these exposures in a normal day that can be very harmful.”

Why chemicals are so ubiquitous in fashion

The use of chemicals like PFAS and lead is “pretty common” in the fashion industry, Marty Mulvihilla general partner of Safer Made, a venture capital fund that invests in companies that reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

Yoga pants and gym leggings sold by Lululemon and Old Navy contained PFAS, according to testing by consumer health activist blog mamavation. Outdoor apparel brands Columbia, REI, and LL Bean were given a D or F rating for PFAS by FWD-Modea non-profit organization that educates consumers about toxic chemicals in clothing.

(REI and LL Bean reiterated their commitment to product safety in statements to Insider. Columbia, Lululemon, Old Navy and Shein did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.)

A sample 2012 clothing from popular retailers detected phthalates in 31 garments, and lead was found in baby bibs sold in Walmart and Babies R Us, Previously reported insider.

Quinn said manufacturers can add these chemicals to make them waterproof or smudge-proof, and soften the ink on screen prints. Lead is sometimes found in cheap pigments and inks, as well as zippers, and chrome can make leather softer.

Exposure to toxic chemicals accumulates over time

People in a textile factory in Bangladesh work in the manufacture of garments

Garment factory workers can suffer from skin and respiratory diseases after being exposed to toxic chemicals.

Habibur Rahman/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Exposure to substances like lead and phthalates can directly harm apparel manufacturers more than consumers, said Scott Echols, senior director of the ZDHC Foundationwhich supports companies in limiting their chemical footprint.

The sustainable fashion analysis company Common objective estimates that 27 million people working in fashion supply chains worldwide could suffer from work-related ailments diseases or disease, including skin and respiratory conditions.

As for the people who buy and wear the clothes, the children, — who put the clothes directly in their mouths, – could face increased risk from toxic chemicals. Chemicals can also enter the body through pores in the skin.

Plus, exposure to toxic chemicals builds up over time, Quinn said. Not only are these chemicals found in clothing, but they also exist in our food, water, makeup, and personal care products.

“PFAS aren’t just going away, they’ve been around for a very, very long time and they’re very harmful to the environment and to human health,” Quinn said. “The government must develop a precautionary approach where products are not released until they are safe.”

How to Spot Chemicals in Clothing, Including Lead, Flame Retardants and “Eternal Chemicals”

Quinn told Insider that toxic chemicals used to make clothes include:

  • Chromiumused in leather products which can weaken the immune system and lead to liver and kidney damage.
  • Phthalates, which are used to soften the ink on screen prints. Insider’s Andrea Michelson reported that phthalates have been linked to early deaths in American adults, particularly from heart disease, and can disrupt the body’s hormones.
  • Brominated flame retardantssometimes found in kids pajamas to protect them from household fires. These chemicals, which are banned in Europe, can alter thyroid functions and alter the way the body processes fats and carbohydrates. Researchers are investigating whether there is a link between exposure to flame retardants and ADHD, Insider previously reported.
  • SPFA, also known as “eternal chemicals”, are a group of laboratory-grown chemicals that do not break down in the environment and are linked to a host of health issues such as liver damage, asthma and chronic kidney disease. The substance is water-resistant and can be found in waterproof or stain-resistant clothing, Quinn said.
  • Conduct, an inexpensive pigment or sometimes used as a cheap metal for zippers. Significant exposure to lead during childhood can lead to long-term developmental problems.


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