Health Concerns Over Underwear Materials

Recent news articles reporting skin allergies caused by underwear has brought the issue of textile finishing chemicals to the forefront of not only the fashion industry, but the general media. Comfort in underwear has taken on a larger role to include the health of the wearer in what was once considered an unseen, unmentioned utilitarian item in everyone’s wardrobe.

In November 2008, reports circulated that US lingerie giant, Victoria’s Secret was being sued by dozens of women claiming painful rashes after wearing the Angel Secret Embrace Bra. Lawyers on their behalf, filed a law suit in May of 2008 and had laboratories test the bras. Tests detected formaldehyde, often used in the textile industry to make fabrics crease resistant. A judge will decide next year if the lawsuit can be brought against Victoria’s Secret and if a class action can proceed. While the results are not yet in for this particular case, it raises questions about the use of textile finishes in the textile industry as a whole, and the underwear industry specifically.

Textile finishing chemicals may seem to some as the answer to their wardrobe worries. Modern life dictates convenience, simpler lifestyles, less housework and antiseptic environments. With finishes claiming benefits of softening, easy care and durable press, repellent, soil release, flame retardant, non-slip, anti-static, anti-pilling, color fastness, ultraviolet protection, heat absorption and release, antimicrobial, insect resistant, mite repellant, and novel finishes such as anti-odor and fragrance, it is hard to argue initially against the use of such chemicals. Daiwa Chemical Industries Inc. for example, reports of successful agents (Prethermo C-25 and C-31) used to alter heat absorption and heat release to maintain a comfortable temperature for underwear, shirts and bedding. For those living in warmer climates this comes as good news.

However, the associated negative side effects of these chemicals are becoming apparent. Industrial guides, Government agencies and Science journals are investigating and reporting on health concerns of the use of textile finishers. Industrial guides such as Chemical Finishing of Textiles by Wolfgang D Schindler and Peter J Hauser (2004), and Textile Finishing Chemicals, An Industrial Guide by Ernest W Flick (1990) describe over 3,000 textile finishing chemicals compiled from 74 manufacturers and distributors of these chemicals, currently available for industrial use. Flick’s book provides a warning notice at the start of his book saying: “In some cases, textile finishing chemicals could be toxic and therefore due caution should be exercised.” It appears then that this 18 year old issue is not a new one.

Governmental agencies have stepped up to the plate to investigate and regulate acceptable limits of textile finishes. In August 2001, The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries in the United States issued a report entitled: Clothing Dermatitis and Clothing-Related Skin Conditions. As recently as July 2008, New Zealand issued a Government Product Safety Policy Statement on acceptable limits of formaldehyde in clothing and other textiles. Specific limits for clothes for infants under 2 years of age, for children and adults with sensitive skin, for clothing and textiles coming into direct contact with skin, and for clothing and textiles not in direct contact with skin are recommended due to the critical health effects. The Australian National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme identified these health effects as sensory irritation via inhalation exposure to formaldehyde gas, aerosol or mist; skin sensitization following dermal exposure to formaldehyde solutions; and carcinogenicity via inhalation exposure to formaldehyde gas or mist. Clearly there is a need to continue to regulate and consequently legislate the use of such textile finishes.

Science journals have also explored the impact of textile finishes. As early as 1985, Kathryn Hatch et al, published an article in the Wiley Interscience Journal entitled: Textile Chemical Finish Dermatitis. The article reported that: “Chemicals used on fabrics to improve 10 different performance characteristics have resulted in irritant or allergic contact dermatitis. The most significant problem is due to formaldehyde and N-methylol compounds to produce durable press fabrics.” Twenty three years later, today’s lawsuit against Victoria’s Secret focuses on precisely this same chemical and health effect.

Clearly the fashion industry’s suppliers and retailers need to take measures to assure themselves and their customers that their clothing and textiles meet recommended guidelines for chemical usage. In particular, the Underwear industry must take note because of the high levels of skin contact with their products. One company that has taken this step is Alenver Inc. a new competitor in the men’s and women’s underwear industry. Alenver’s collections are made from pure cotton from Peru – currently considered the producer of the world’s finest quality cotton. Peru is one of only 15 nations that produce organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without toxic chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides, has a low impact on the environment, replenishes and maintains soil fertility and builds biologically diverse agriculture. This is critical when considering conventional cotton is grown on an estimated 3% of the total cultivated area in the world but uses 25% of all insecticides used in agriculture. Today, Indian descendents of ancient Peruvian cultures still harvest, gin and spin cotton by hand which does not result in the scratchy impurities that industrial harvesting creates. Additionally, finish chemicals are not added to Alenver’s products making it a safer and healthier underwear choice.

Industry analysts will be watching for the outcome of the notable lawsuit against Victoria’s Secret and observing its effect on the underwear market. Suppliers and retailers would be wise to follow the recommended guidelines for safe textile production and follow the high road in natural underwear production taken by such new competitors as Alenver Inc.