Stahl Explains: Why are there chemicals in my clothes?

Stahl Explains: Why are there chemicals in my clothes?

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July 7th, 2021

In principle, everything is made from chemicals. Water is a chemical. But what about my clothes? Why do we need chemicals to make them?

Clothes are made from fibers, which can be natural fibers (for example from cotton or wool), or from synthetic fibers (for example from polyester or nylon). These fibers are made from even thinner threads of material. As the fibers and threads have a surface that is porous and not a closed surface like glass, they can be penetrated by bacteria or dirt. With time this will cause the growth of microorganisms, and the unwanted odor that comes with it. Some of the chemicals in clothes are designed to prevent bacteria or dirt from penetrating into the fibers, so that they can be easily removed by washing. Other chemicals in the fibers help with ‘lubricating’ the fibers, so that the fabric is soft and can move with less friction.

Many types of fabrics are susceptible to fire, especially when made from synthetic fibers, and flame retardant chemicals can be introduced into the fibers to reduce the risk of burning when the fabric comes into contact with flames or hot surfaces. There are different requirements for fire resistance depending on the use of the clothes (children’s pajamas, fire-brigade protective wear).

Clothes are dyed, or given a color, using colorants – natural or synthetic chemicals that penetrate and are absorbed by the fibers of the fabric. Ideally, this color will remain the same upon prolonged use and after multiple washings. However, most people will have experienced that the color intensity can drop when clothes have been washed often, which indicates that the colorants have slowly been washed out of the fibers and threads of the fabric.

Some clothes must have special properties built into them, like water-resistance or oil-resistance. The best performance in these cases is achieved when the fabrics have been treated with specially designed chemicals that have a high repellency towards water and oil. These chemicals are usually polymers, and are applied as a coating onto the fibers or threads of the fabric. These coatings are usually wash resistant so that the clothes retain their repellant properties even after washing.

So, in short, clothes cannot be made without chemicals. Some chemicals make clothing last longer, which is an environmental benefit, and other chemicals can be designed to provide specific protective properties to clothes, making us safer when we wear them.


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Stahl Explains: Why are there chemicals in my clothes?
Michael Costello
Group Director Environment, Social & Governance