As former athletes, we are well versed in the commercially available athletic clothing options. One thing that we noticed is that most of the gear is made from synthetic materials, which we admit are very comfortable. We also noticed that America’s clothing overall has shifted away from natural materials and has moved into synthetics, mainly because athleisure has become increasingly popular.
The reason that we started Opok was because we learned that these synthetic materials can be detrimental to our health, let alone devastate our environment. We have heard feedback that people are unaware that polyester, the most widely used material in clothing, can be toxic given that it’s in everything. So we did our research and here are our findings.
John Whinfield and James Dickson first invented polyester in 1941 and since then, its rapid uptake has made it the most popular cheap fabric choice. Because it has a synthetic feel, it is more often than not, blended with cotton fibers in an attempt to get some breath-ability into these fabrics. However, there are a ton of athletic clothing brands that use 100% polyester in their products. Polyester is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of bottles, glass and cans, clothing and sportswear, sanitary pads, upholstery, nappies, blankets, mattresses, pillows, curtains and carpet. You will be surprised how very many products in your life are composed of polyester fibers.
In terms of clothing, the widespread use is most likely because polyester is extremely cheap and versatile and is frequently used for its wrinkle-free properties. Clothing made from this textile tends to not need to be ironed or pressed to maintain their shape and surface. Because it often doesn’t need to be ironed and it can be washed easily in the washing machine, it is very convenient for the wearer to maintain. It also tends to be quick drying which is useful in places that have long periods of cold or wet weather.
The Physical Harm
Man-made fabrics like acrylic, polyester, rayon, acetate, and nylon are treated with thousands of harmful toxic chemicals during production, according to ScienceDaily. They reported on a study from Stockholm University, in which researchers chose four groups of substances related to health risks and tested them for "occurrence, quantity, toxicity, and how easily they may penetrate the skin." The highest concentrations of two of the substances were found in none other than polyester.
Toxic chemicals aside, synthetic fabrics simply don't breathe, and anyone who's worn polyester on a hot summer day is probably well aware of that. The fabric also traps odors, which Popular Science explained in an article. Not to go into too much gory detail, but skin germs found in sweat feast on chemicals, which synthetic fibers can't absorb, therefore creating an environment for smelly bacteria to grow. All signs point to polyester being the number one worst fabric for skin, which makes it a strange choice for athletic clothing.
Polyester is also highly flammable and is often treated with flame retardant, increasing the toxic load. So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.
The Environmental Harm
Polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fiber, and is therefore made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. Petroleum products are used as feedstock (raw material to make the fibre) and also used to generate the energy needed to manufacture. More than 70 billion barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. It is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even as it eventually breaks apart. In fact, it is believed that synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans because up to 1900 fibers can be washed off one garment every time it is washed.
Although polyester is less energy intensive than nylon to produce, it still requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and if emitted to water and air untreated, can cause significant environmental damage. Most polyester is produced in countries such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where environmental regulations are lax, and air and water pollution is often discharged untreated, resulting in significant pollution and harm to communities in the vicinity of (as well as downstream and downwind of) manufacturing plants. The water-intensity of production is much lower than for natural fibers. However, polyester cannot be dyed using low impact and natural dyes. This means that the detrimental impact on water supplies is potentially far greater.
If you care about your health, we strongly recommend switching to organic fibers so you can limit your toxin intake. Make it a habit to always check the clothing tag to understand the composition of the product you are evaluating.