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PFAS-Free Clothing: The Future of Sustainable Activewear

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The Rise of PFAS-Free Clothing

In recent years, the use of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in clothing, particularly activewear, has come under scrutiny due to their potential harmful effects on human health and the environment. As consumers become more aware of the risks associated with these “forever chemicals,” demand for PFAS-free clothing alternatives has grown. In response, many states and retailers are taking steps to phase out PFAS in textiles, paving the way for a more sustainable future in the fashion industry.

5 Key Points

  • PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in various products, including activewear, for their water-, oil-, and stain-resistant properties.
  • PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade easily and accumulate in the environment and human bodies over time.
  • Exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to various health issues, such as developmental delays, reproductive issues, liver damage, immune system dysfunction, and thyroid disorders.
  • Several states have enacted policies to phase out PFAS in textiles, with California set to ban PFAS in all textiles starting in 2025.
  • PFAS-free clothing alternatives are available, and ongoing research and innovation in the textile industry are driving the development of sustainable materials and technologies.

What are PFAS?

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of over 10,000 man-made chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s in various industrial and consumer products (Cook, 2024). These chemicals are created by joining carbon and fluorine, forming one of the strongest bonds in nature. This bond makes PFAS resistant to heat, water, and oil, making them useful in products like nonstick cookware, firefighting foams, food packaging, and stain-, oil-, and water-resistant fabrics (Cook, 2024).

The Problem with PFAS

The strength of the carbon-fluorine bond that makes PFAS so useful also makes them incredibly persistent in the environment. Once released, PFAS essentially remain in the environment forever, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals” (Cook, 2024). As humans and wildlife consume food and water containing PFAS, the chemicals enter the food chain and build up in their bodies over time, leading to higher concentrations of PFAS (Cook, 2024).

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human health effects from exposure to low PFAS levels are uncertain and require more study. However, Meg Carney, host of the podcasts Outdoor Minimalist and Forever Chemicals, explains that “the higher the exposure to PFAS, the more likely we are to develop health issues, such as developmental delays, reproductive issues, liver damage, immune system dysfunction, and thyroid disorders” (Cook, 2024). Studies have already shown that PFAS can suppress the immune system, disrupt the endocrine system, and increase the risk of cancer (Cook, 2024).

PFAS in Clothing

PFAS have been used to enhance clothing performance since at least the 1960s due to their stain- and water-repellency properties (Cook, 2024). They have commonly been used in outdoor and activewear to provide better water resistance and durability. However, recent regulatory pressure has pushed textile producers to develop less harmful stain- and water-resistant chemistries, although the process can be slow and tedious (Cook, 2024).

Meg Carney notes that “while alternatives to PFAS-treated fabrics are available, there may currently be trade-offs in performance, cost, or availability” (Cook, 2024). However, ongoing research and innovation in the textile industry are driving the development of new materials and technologies that offer sustainable alternatives. For example, Nikwax has been offering PFAS-free waterproofing alternatives for over 45 years and has recently launched an industrial-applied durable water repellent (DWR) for outdoor brands (Cook, 2024).

Laws and Regulations Regarding PFAS

As of 2024, 39 states have already adopted PFAS policies, according to Safer States (Cook, 2024). Twelve states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, have enacted phase-outs in food packaging. The FDA has also recently announced a ban on six types of PFAS in food packaging nationwide (Cook, 2024).

Eight states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, have also adopted restrictions on PFAS in carpets, rugs, and aftermarket treatments for those textiles (Cook, 2024). California will ban PFAS from all textiles starting in 2025. Other states are banning PFAS from cosmetics and firefighting foam (Cook, 2024).

While there are currently no state or nationwide policies on PFAS in clothing, 32 retail chains, including REI Co-Op and Target, have committed to eliminating or reducing food packaging, textiles, and other products containing PFAS (Cook, 2024).

PFAS are also present in drinking water, and in early April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first-ever limits on PFAS in public water systems. Under the new rule, U.S. public water systems will have to test their water for six types of PFAS and reduce PFAS levels to the new national standard within five years (Cook, 2024). Ten states already have enforceable drinking water standards for some PFAS chemicals, and 29 U.S. state attorneys general are pursuing litigation against the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals for contaminating water supplies (Cook, 2024).

PFAS-Free Clothing Alternatives

As awareness of the potential risks associated with PFAS grows, consumers are increasingly seeking out PFAS-free clothing alternatives. Many brands are responding to this demand by developing sustainable, performance-based clothing using PFAS alternatives.

Some notable PFAS-free clothing brands include:

  1. Patagonia: Known for its commitment to sustainability, Patagonia has been working to eliminate PFAS from its products since 2015. They offer a range of PFAS-free outdoor and activewear, including rain jackets, hiking pants, and base layers.
  2. Fjällräven: This Swedish outdoor brand has committed to phasing out PFAS from all its products by 2025. They currently offer a selection of PFAS-free outdoor clothing, including jackets, pants, and backpacks.
  3. Prana: Prana has been working to eliminate PFAS from its products since 2018. They offer a range of PFAS-free activewear, including yoga pants, tops, and shorts.
  4. Norrøna: This Norwegian outdoor brand has committed to eliminating PFAS from all its products by 2023. They currently offer a selection of PFAS-free outdoor clothing, including ski jackets, hiking pants, and base layers.
  5. Helly Hansen: Helly Hansen has been working to phase out PFAS from its products since 2020. They offer a range of PFAS-free outdoor clothing, including rain jackets, hiking pants, and base layers.

As more brands commit to phasing out PFAS and developing sustainable alternatives, consumers will have an increasingly diverse range of PFAS-free clothing options to choose from.

Embracing a PFAS-Free Future in Activewear

The growing awareness of the potential risks associated with PFAS has led to a significant shift in the fashion industry, particularly in the activewear and outdoor clothing sectors. As states and retailers take steps to phase out PFAS in textiles, and consumers demand more sustainable alternatives, the future of activewear is looking increasingly PFAS-free.

While there may currently be some trade-offs in terms of performance, cost, or availability, ongoing research and innovation in the textile industry are driving the development of new materials and technologies that offer sustainable alternatives to PFAS-treated fabrics. As more brands commit to eliminating PFAS from their products, consumers will have a growing range of PFAS-free clothing options to choose from, allowing them to make more informed and environmentally conscious choices when it comes to their activewear.

FAQ

Q. What are PFAS, and why are they used in clothing?

A. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals used in various products, including activewear, for their water-, oil-, and stain-resistant properties.

Q. Why are PFAS called “forever chemicals”?

A. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade easily and accumulate in the environment and human bodies over time.

Q. What health issues are associated with PFAS exposure?

A. Exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to various health issues, such as developmental delays, reproductive issues, liver damage, immune system dysfunction, and thyroid disorders.

Q. Are there any laws or regulations regarding PFAS in clothing?

A. While there are currently no state or nationwide policies on PFAS in clothing, several states have enacted policies to phase out PFAS in textiles, with California set to ban PFAS in all textiles starting in 2025.

Q. What are some PFAS-free clothing alternatives?

A. Several brands, such as Patagonia, Fjällräven, Prana, Norrøna, and Helly Hansen, offer PFAS-free outdoor and activewear options, including rain jackets, hiking pants, base layers, and yoga apparel.

Citations

Cook, C. (2024, May 06). PFAS may be in your favorite activewear—but there are alternatives. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/lifestyle/article/pfas-free-clothing

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