Did you know that what you choose to wear can affect the health of your skin? It makes sense when you think about it. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and for most hours of the day, your skin is in contact with a variety of materials, most notably the fabrics of the clothing covering your body. Because your skin is porous, certain textiles or finishing resins and dyes used in the clothing production process may cause irritation, especially if you already have sensitive skin . This kind of irritation is commonly referred to as textile contact dermatitis. Though people with sensitive skin are especially prone to developing textile contact dermatitis, learning about potentially problematic fabrics and chemical agents is an important step to caring better for your skin whether or not you have a preexisting skin condition.
Look out for the CIA: Chemically Irritating Agents
Although certain fabrics can themselves cause irritation, the most common cause of textile contact dermatitis is the use of chemical agents, such as certain dyes, finishing resins, or other additives, used in the production process of the fabrics . These chemicals often remain in fabrics even after washing, hence becoming a source of long-term dermal exposure and irritation . For example, one of the most common offenders is formaldehyde, which is commonly used as a finishing resin to make fabrics wrinkle-resistant.
Aside from being recognized as one of the most common allergens, several studies ,  have found that formaldehyde exposure through textiles is a common cause of contact dermatitis. There have also been reports of allergic contact dermatitis from other chemical irritants in fabrics, including:
- Azo dyes. These dyes easily irritate the skin because they are not strongly bound to the fabric and can rub off onto the skin. Fortunately, due to toxicity concerns azo dyes are less commonly used in clothing fabrics these days.
- Flame retardants. If a fabric claims to be fire-resistant, watch out, as the flame retardant used may cause skin irritation.
- Para-phenylenediamine (PPD). This chemical is commonly used in textile and fur dyes and has a history of causing allergic reactions. One study even found that hair dyes and temporary tattoos containing PPD could cause lifelong contact dermatitis.
So, how can you put this information to use? It can be difficult to determine by sight alone whether a clothing fabric contains or was made using harmful chemicals. Fortunately, there are a few guiding principles you can use to help you keep your skin safe.
What You Can Do
Avoid most synthetic fabrics.
According to one study, polyester contained much higher concentrations of harmful chemical agents compared to cotton or other blended fabrics. Additionally, synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and blends are often dyed using dyes that do not completely bind to the fibres. This means that the dyes can more easily be absorbed by the skin, causing irritation . Also, take care to avoid any fabrics labelled “wrinkle-resistant”, as these have most likely been chemically treated.
Wear more natural fabrics.
Try to wear mainly natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and silk. Even better (for you and the Earth!) if they’re organic, as this helps minimize your exposure to other toxins and irritants. For winter fabrics, try merino wool, cashmere, and alpaca. Though wool can sometimes irritate sensitive skin, merino wool is usually well-tolerated as it is much finer and smoother than regular wool. In fact, there is evidence that merino wool can actually improve atopic dermatitis symptoms!
Try looser fits.
Especially in hot or humid environments, tighter clothing which traps moisture and sweat can cause more irritation to the skin. This is especially true if the fabric contains irritating chemicals, since a tighter fit means contact with a larger area of the skin.
Choose lighter colors.
Lighter colored fabrics usually contain less dye, which will be less irritating for your skin. Another alternative is to opt for clothing made with natural plant-based dyes, which are often less irritating to sensitive skin. Keep in mind that clothing marked with “wash separately” may mean that the fabric is not color-fast and will release more dye, which could irritate your skin.
Having sensitive skin can be challenging enough on its own without having to worry about what to wear! Luckily, you are now armed with knowledge that will both help you care better for your skin as well as make your next shopping trip a more enjoyable experience. 😉
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