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Background

I've seen a large number of health blogs that describe Polyester, Rayon, Acrylic, and Nylon, as harmful or toxic (usually due to chemicals used during the manufacturing process). Some examples include:

I know that the internet is prone to blow things out of proportion, especially when it comes to supposedly toxic household items. I don't know enough to assess these claims myself, which is why I'm posting here.

From my perspective, it seems like any residual chemicals used in the manufacturing of synthetic fabrics should come off in the wash. In addition, many of the sites may be connected to a company that's trying to advertise alternatives to polyester, and these sites may be especially prone to exaggeration or misinformation.

Question

Are there health concerns related to the use of polyester or other synthetic fabrics in clothing and mattresses?

  • Good question but I count 5 questions, some of which would probably be more appropriate on the Chemistry or Biology exchange. To avoid attracting close votes for being overly broad, consider using your title as the only question. You can ask the other questions separately. – Carey Gregory Sep 30 '19 at 21:05
  • Cotton and hemp require a lot of water to grow, or process. For that matter the almonds so popular now require a lot of water to grow. So it is a complicated subject. They used to flood the hemp to get the fibers to loosen so they could process them. I don’t know about now. – Gordon Oct 3 '19 at 2:39
  • I edited your question as I suggested above. You can revert my edits if you disagree, but if you do so I think that will make your question too broad. – Carey Gregory Oct 3 '19 at 23:36
  • Thank you for the edit. For future reference, would it have been better to ask my question as multiple separate ones? – J. Antonio Perez Oct 3 '19 at 23:36
  • Yes, definitely. Questions should be focused and ask only one thing that can be answered in an equally focused fashion. Asking people for comprehensive subject reviews is asking too much. Also, some of your ancillary questions would probably be better fits on the Chemistry or Biology exchanges. It's not likely that medical professionals will be experts in things such as product composition, outgassing, etc. – Carey Gregory Oct 4 '19 at 0:59
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Sources mentioned in the question (Fashionbi.com, Thehouseofpillows.eu, Whowhatwear.co.uk) claim that certain synthetic fabrics and related chemicals can cause health problems:

  • Polyester: skin, lung and heart cancer, chronic respiratory infections, dermatitis, reduced sperm count and behavior changes
  • Rayon (from recycled wood pulp or bamboo cellulose; involved chemicals: carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone and caustic soda): nausea, headache, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, insomnia, tissue necrosis, anorexia and Parkinson’s disease
  • Acrylic: breast cancer
  • Nylon (involved chemicals: caustic soda, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, chloroform, limonene, pentene and terpineol): cancer, skin allergies, dizziness, headaches, spine pains

A search through studies (mainly on PubMed) and reports of related US government institutions reveals the association between certain fabrics and contact/allergic dermatitis, but not with any type of cancer or other significant health problems. (I did not include studies about occupational textile-related diseases and studies about dyes.)

Evidence:

1) In 2010, U.S. Government Accountability Office found excessive amounts of formaldehyde in some cotton clothes produced mainly in Asia, but not in synthetic fabrics. They say the main health risk is allergic contact dermatitis and that washing reduces but not always successfully removes all formaldehyde.

2) Giovanna Luongo from Stockholm University in his 2015 doctoral thesis Chemicals in textiles, 2015 mentions formaldehyde, dyes and certain other chemicals that can be found in clothes, but, except dermatitis, does not provide any evidence about other related health risks.

3) A review article Textile dermatitis (Contact Dermatitis, 1994) mentions formaldehyde-related resins as the main cause of textile dermatitis.

4) There are many anecdotal reports of excessive sweating when wearing polyester clothes.

In conclusion, very few studies mention the association between synthetic fabrics and health problems. One of the most commonly mentioned substance that is found in fabric is formaldehyde, but this is more likely found in cotton than in synthetic fabrics.

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