Did you know that most of the clothes you wear when exercising are made from petroleum? Popular synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, polyamide, and spandex that give sportswear their stretch contain plastic.
The plastic materials present in synthetic clothing are harmful to the environment because the manufacturing process emits greenhouse gases. They pollute our waterways and the air with microplastics that they release when we wash them. And now there are concerns about the impact of these fabrics on our health, as harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) seep through our skin.
Recent research from the Environmental Health Center (CEH) found high levels of BPA in fitness clothing. Levels were up to 40 times the safe limit based on the most stringent standards in California, especially Proposition 65.
Yes, the same toxic chemical removed from plastic water and baby bottles 15 years ago is still there. It’s in leggings, shorts, shirts, socksand sports bras from major brands like Athleta, Champion, Kohl’s, Nike and Adidas. It’s ironic considering you were trying to stay healthy by exercising, right?
Impacts of BPA on health
BPA is a synthetic chemical produced by petrochemical companies to make certain types of plastics. Concern about BPA has grown in recent years, as studies found how widespread human exposure to the chemical is. THE National Health and Nutrition Survey 2003-2004 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of urine samples tested. Additionally, some animal studies have indicated effects on fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it can mimic hormones like estrogen, according to Kaya Marie Allan Sugerman, director of illegal toxic threats at CEH. “Hormones send signals to the fetus or baby and direct the growth and development of cells. BPA can disrupt this signaling and alter the way cells grow and reprogram body systems. Some negative health effects associated with exposure to BPA include damage to development, delayed onset of puberty, anxiety, depression and hyperactivity. Exposure to BPA is also associated with the development of breast cancer and prostate cancer.
The main source of exposure to BPA is food. But studies show that BPA can also be absorbed through the skin. It can end up in the bloodstream after handling received paper for only a few seconds.
Why Many Fitness Brands Contain Plastic
It is very difficult to find durable sportswear that is 100% plastic-free. Plastic-containing fabrics have long been the preferred choice of businesses and consumers because they add stretch and hold up well to sweat. “Unfortunately, in the era of fast and cheap fashion, it is difficult to avoid sportswear made of toxic plastic fibers that pollute the Earth and our bodies,” acknowledged Erica Cirino., communications manager at Coalition Against Plastic Pollution.
Although there are several smaller brands online using safe and innovative fabrics that contain little or no plastic, sustainability has yet to catch on in the fashion industry as a whole for a multitude of reasons.
According to Aileen Lee, Founder of Sustainable Fashion Online Marketplace Infinite Goods“The fashion industry is complex due to the multiple stages involved in the supply chain. There are many places where it could be broken when it comes to sustainability. Maximizing profits is not compatible with sustainability, and it’s hard for companies to justify the upfront costs to make changes.”
Another barrier is the cost and lack of predictability of plastic alternatives such as bio-based materials made from substances derived from living (or once lived) organisms. Mallory Ottariano, creative director and founder of Your, an activewear brand that focuses on sustainable fabrics and supply chain, explained that when companies use recycled or bio-based content, the raw material varies a lot. “Colors, textures and wearability can be inconsistent. This is a hurdle for big brands that they don’t want to address.
Finally, consumers are either unaware of plastic issues in their garments or are still hesitant to trade their spandex for safer alternatives. According to Ottariano, “There’s such a lack of understanding that these materials are plastic.”
Who takes action?
CEH has pushed more than 100 sock manufacturers – Adidas, Hanes, Columbia and others – to remove all bisphenols, including BPA, from their socks. The organization has already entered into legally binding agreements with some companies that require them to either reformulate their products or clearly warn consumers of the risks of BPA. See it list of companies on board so far.
Socks are a good start, but we need progress in all clothing that contains BPA.
what you can do
So what can you do to protect yourself from harmful plastic in sportswear?