The Effect of Fabrics on Human Health and the Environment

Are Your Clothes Making You Sick? This Article Explores How to Dress for Your Health.

By Ellen Rubin

Have you ever put on a piece of clothing and it just feels really great? Conversely, have you ever worn something that makes you itch, too hot, or just somehow a bit off? Your clothing, and the fabrics that are used, have a greater effect on our health than you might imagine.

People commonly accept that what we eat and what skin care products we use can affect our health, but most of us don’t think about fabrics in the same way. In fact, skin is the largest organ in your body and it absorbs toxins through whatever it comes in contact with. Consumers don’t blink at spending $1.2 billion a year on anti-aging creams, $1.3 billion on facial and make-up cleansers, and $2 billion on tanning salons. If we’re willing to spend this much time and money on beauty products, shouldn’t we be just as committed and invested in finding clothing that will make us look and feel good?

The fact is, dozens of chemicals are used to transform raw materials into the finished clothing in your closet, and some have health implications. These can include fabric coatings and processing chemicals, or toxic dyes. It’s even possible to have sensitivities to the raw fiber itself. We also have to take into consideration what the cleaning or laundering requirements are. (See The Ultimate Guide to Safe Practices for Clean Laundry for more details on ensuring that cleaning your clothes is not making your sick.)

The Effect of Fabrics on Human Health

People who are affected by skin disorders (atopic dermatitis) such as eczema or psoriasis are much more sensitive to everything that comes in contact with skin. These conditions, while not life threatening, affect you both physically and emotionally.

While what you’re wearing may not cause these autoimmune disorders, the clothing you’re wearing certainly impacts their severity. Both conditions have become increasingly common since the 1970’s. Psoriasis, for instance, affects 7.5 million Americans and 31.6 million Americans have symptoms of eczema. About 20% of children and 3-5% of adults worldwide have some form of eczema.

While the actual cause isn’t yet known, things such as environmental factors can’t be discounted. Dermatological research estimates that 20% of contact dermatitis cases are caused by an allergen and 80% by an irritant. (See National Eczema Association, American Academy of Dermatology’s Eczema Resource Center, and National Psoriasis Foundation).

Why does fabric matter so much? The body loses moisture through the skin – almost 45 ounces every day. (This is why you need to replace it by drinking so much water.) When you wear fabric that can’t breathe, that moisture gets trapped. Yes, it makes you feel hot and clammy, but it also creates the perfect environment for bacteria to breed and body odor is caused by bacteria.

There are some fabrics that are much kinder and gentler to your skin. Knowing what you’re wearing and how it’s produced can have a significant impact in how you feel. Toxic agents can affect not only your skin’s surface — for instance, causing or exacerbating acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and contact dermatitis — but may cause internal issues such as hormonal dysfunction, negatively impact your immune and endocrine systems (i.e., lupus), cause digestive and reproductive issues, and may even contribute to cancers.

While any skin absorbs a significant portion of any chemicals that it has contact with, our underarms and genital areas absorb 100%. Makeup and skin products normally only touch a fraction of your skin, but fabric touches a majority. Most people would automatically shy away from skin products that contain formaldehyde, yet this is a common ingredient in the production of certain fabrics.

The Effect of Fabrics on Human Health and the Environment

Chemical Compounds to Avoid

It’s important, and sometimes easier, to keep track of what you absolutely want to avoid than it is to know what the most healthful fabrics are. You can compare it to only buying organic food rather than knowing the how each food item is grown and what all the items are in a recipe. After all, even relatively healthful fabrics can become toxic if they are processed or treated using toxic chemicals.

Knowing what fabrics and treatments are harmful leaves a lot of room for you to choose from all the rest. For instance, organic cotton is preferable to regular cotton, but only 1% of the world’s cotton production is certified organic. It’s also usually more expensive. Not being certified doesn’t always mean that cotton will contain the harmful chemicals that you most want to avoid. It’s still a reasonable fabric choice.

Most people will feel just fine by avoiding the worst, and most hazardous, fabric choices.

We’ll start by talking about the fabrics and fabric treatments that you should avoid whenever possible. These are the ones that rely heavily on chemical coatings.

Most products that say stain-resistant, water resistant, flame retardant, wrinkle-resistant, permanent press, or color fast contain harmful chemicals.

Beware … these are some of the consequences:

  • Color fast fabrics use a chemical dye fixative that may have a heavy metal component. When absorbed, it can accumulate in the liver, kidney, bones, heart, and brain. These compounds also leach into the environment, not only during production, but in washings.
  • Wrinkle-resistance or permanent press is achieved by adding a chemical finish, very often made from formaldehyde. This can irritate mucus membranes and your respiratory tract, and lead to increased cancer risks, cause headaches, skin irritation, or a sore throat. (see EPA, NIH, CDC, or American Cancer Society for more information) .
  • Stain- and water-resistant clothing may contain formaldehyde or perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). For more information, see NCCEH. The worst of these fabrics contain PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) substances. These chemicals are called forever chemicals because they will never break down in either the environment or your body. They’ve been linked to cancers, reproductive disorders, infertility and miscarriage, hormonal disruption, thyroid, liver and heart disease, ulcerative colitis, and immunity suppression. The underlying compound in PFAS is fluorine which isn’t, by itself, toxic. PFAS was the basis of the lawsuit against Thinx underwear.

Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on certifications to alert you to PFAS existence since there are over 12,000 different compounds. In the past, Oeko-Tex only tested for about a dozen types, but have recently changed their policy to ban all PFAS from certified products. Between the manufacturing process and clothes washing, PFAS has polluted our waterways to the point that the chemical is present in 97% of Americans’ blood and in the breast milk of 100% of nursing mothers.

The National Resources Defense Council publishes of scorecard of manufacturers’ levels of PFAS in their clothing. Luckily, there are alternatives to PFAS-based water-resistant clothing available. Look for clothing that has a DWR (durable water repellency) coating, bio-based finishes such as EcoElite, or waxed finishes. Environmental Working Group has a guide to products without PFAS.

  • Flame retardant clothing uses polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) which is highly toxic. It can pass through skin to breast milk. It’s also released as house dust and dryer lint which is inhaled. Although there is no consensus on all the health hazards, it may be a risk factor for the development of ADHD and has been shown to have a negative effect on the thyroid, liver, and brain development. (For further discussions visit the NIH or Science Direct.) As a parent, this is alarming because there are many laws and regulations that require children’s clothing and sleepwear to be flame resistant. (See the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines which require that the clothing be nontoxic but they don’t require chemical labeling). Depending on the chemicals used, your children could be breathing chemical off-gases throughout the night.
  • Moth proof clothing contains formaldehyde.
  • BPA or bisphenol A is used in some flame-retardant fabrics and is also often found in sports bras and athletic shirts. The chemical reduces static, increases wicking ability, fixes dyes, and increases the fabrics’ lifespan. It also resembles estrogen hormones and can bind to hormone receptors possibly leading to health problems in offspring of pregnant women or infertility. It’s been linked to asthma in school-aged girls, and in adults to increased blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. BPA and BPS (bisphenols) have been found only in polyester-based bras. We normally look for BPA-free plastic water bottles and food storage containers so we don’t ingest the chemical, but remember, it’s also something that can be absorbed through the skin. It’s not a chemical that will wash out of your clothing so look for items that are marked BPA-free. The Center for Environmental Health has a review of some brands. High levels of BPA in clothing, especially sportswear, continues to be a problem. The Centers for Environmental Health just brought a case of excessive BPA levels in some of the largest sportswear companies to light. (Forbes)
  • Lead has been found in some clothing — even children’s and babies’ clothing. It’s a neurotoxicant whose exposure can lead to brain and nervous system damage, impact growth and development, and contribute to behavioral issues. The risk is even greater for children who aren’t as meticulous about washing their hands and not putting clothing in their mouths. We banned lead paint, now we need to keep it out of our clothing.
  • Phthalates are often used in the production of plastics — the basis of polyester and other synthetic fabrics. The chemicals make the material more durable but they also interfere with some people’s reproductive hormones, are endocrine disrupters, and may even increase the risk of childhood asthma. Polyester manufacturing also uses antimony trioxide, a suspected carcinogen.
  • Traditional leather tanning relies heavily on toxic substances such as chromium salts. They are hemotoxic (destroy red blood cells, disrupt clotting, and/or cause organ degeneration), cause genetic mutations, and are carcinogenic. These heavy metals seriously effect factory workers and the nearby environment. Look for leathers that are vegetable tanned.
  • Many dyes, especially azo dyes are harmful to people and the environment. They are favored by manufacturers because they’re inexpensive and adhere well to fabrics. Because they’re water-soluble they are easily absorbed into the skin. Unfortunately, they can cause cancers, genetic mutations, and are allergens which cause skin and eye irritation. Because of their toxicity they’ve been banned in the EU, but are still used, especially in fast fashion clothing.

Any these chemicals can infiltrate the skin through pores and enter the blood stream. When they do, they trigger a stress response in your adrenal system causing it to secrete the anti-stress hormone cortisol. This may eventually lead to adrenal fatigue. Symptoms include: low energy levels, brain fog, reduced concentration levels, insomnia, anxiety, constipation, weight gain, cravings for fatty and salty foods, and difficulty regulating body temperature.

It’s improbable that wearing the wrong fabric is the only factor contributing to ill health, but changing what you wear certainly can’t hurt.

If you want to know which companies are doing their best to be chemical free, look for companies that display the ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) symbol or are affiliated with the Roadmap to Zero program. They publish a Manufacturing Restricted Substances List. Oeko-Tex Standard 100 tests for harmful chemicals which is helpful, but the list isn’t completely inclusive.

The best certifications to look for are Bluesign, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex Made in Green. Some (GOTS) certifications require an examination of the entire supply chain before granting certification. (For more about certifications, see Sustainable Fashion: Organizations, Certifications, Fabrics).

I think about fabrics as a sliding scale — you have to balance the raw material and manufacturing environmental impact, skin health, the look and feel you want, ability to recycle or compost, chemicals used and/or released, cost, and availability. By gathering all the information and choosing which factors are most important to you, you determine what you want to wear.

Fibers and Fabrics to Avoid

0.Some people have allergic reactions to fabrics which should be avoided at all costs. The most common allergies are to latex, spandex, and animal products such as wools. Instead of a true allergy, you may merely have a sensitivity to a fabric – this means it irritates your skin or aggravates an existing condition like eczema. If your skin is frequently sensitive, you may want to choose fabrics that are known to be hypoallergenic. As always, check with a medical professional if you have any symptoms you’re concerned about.


Assuming you don’t have any specific allergies, there are still some fabrics you may want to avoid. Synthetics are generally not good for you. The worst are those based on fossil fuels such as polyester, acrylic, acetate, triacetate, lycra, spandex, and nylon. Petroleum-based fabrics require a variety of chemicals, plus large amounts of water and energy to produce.

They still account for 52% of all production, especially fast fashion garments. There are some recycled products like Econyl® (made from industrial plastic waste, and fishing nets) that are a great use of discarded waste or ocean pollution, but they aren’t necessarily kind to your skin. Thinking sustainably, wearing recycled polyester is infinitely better for the environment than virgin polyester, but your skin doesn’t know the difference between virgin and recycled polyester.

There are reasons why people buy synthetics: they’re often less expensive, and aesthetically they can be very flowy, more elastic, or shiny (like satins). However, cumulatively, the raw material plus the production processes all have chemicals that’ll seep into skin pores and increase the toxic load on your body. Health hazards include hormonal dysfunction, immunity impairment, cancers (including skin cancer), behavioral changes, chronic respiratory infections, rashes, itching, redness, and dermatitis.

Ecologically, they’re responsible for microplastics entering our water systems through washing. Luckily, technology is now creating filters to help cope with this huge problem. Synthetics aren’t compostable, though they can be recycled many times before the material degrades too much to be usable. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of disposed clothing is just dumped in landfills and not recycled. Polyester based fabrics take as much as 200 years to break down in landfills. In other words, once created, they’re here to stay.

Furthermore, synthetic fabrics are hydrophobic which means that they don’t absorb and retain water. This is one of the reasons why, in addition to its stretchability, swimsuit, athletic wear, and outerwear manufacturers like to make their high-performance materials out of synthetics. While it wicks moisture away from the skin, that moisture gets trapped between the outer and inner layers of the fabric.

This is also the same place that bacteria hides. When the two interact, body odor blooms and synthetics will hold that odor molecule and its smell until the fabric is washed in warm water. While some high-tech fabrics are manufactured to be moisture wicking, as a whole, synthetics, with their trapped moisture, lead to rashes and clogged pores more readily than breathable natural fabrics.

closeup of a fiber
A microscopic view of microfiber


Microfiber is a blend of polyester and polyamide (a version of nylon). It has very fine strands that are porous and dry quickly. The fabric has become popular because it’s breathable and feels similar to cotton, although it doesn’t absorb moisture as well as cotton does. While it’s durable and less expensive than other fabrics such as cotton, it releases chemicals such as phthalates and formaldehyde into the air which makes it problematic for people with asthma or allergies, as well as people sensitive to chemical exposure (pregnant women). The surface of microfiber also attracts flames.

Studies have found that people who sleep on microfiber sheets have higher levels of phthalates in their urine than people sleeping on cotton bedding. The micro-particles are released by the fabric and inhaled. Phthalate exposure is linked to asthma, allergies, and cancer.

If you own microfiber clothing or bedding, be aware that washing them in hot water or drying them in the dryer will increase their toxicity levels because the combination of plastic and heat causes the fabric to release toxic chemicals. Environmentally, the micro-fibers released through use or washing enter our water supplies and leads to eutrophication of lakes and rivers. It affects our food chain because it isn’t biodegradable and ends up in all the foods we eat. (For more information, see microfiber toxicity)

Synthetics and polyesters are here for the time being. If you are going to buy something that’s polyester (or its relatives), buy recycled rather than virgin fabric whenever possible. At least this will keep goods out of our landfills and reduce the number of new chemicals used. Purchasing items that are blended with a natural fiber such as cotton, will help diminish some negative qualities such as body odor issues.

Remember to always wash all newly purchased clothing before wearing them to eliminate some of the manufacturers’ residual chemicals, and frankly dirt and germs. Also think about ways to decrease the quantity of microfibers that are released into waterways by using filters, collection balls or bag collectors (see safe laundry practices).

The Best Fabrics Overall

A good rule of thumb is that sustainability is usually synonymous with fabrics that are better for your health. Sustainable clothing will usually be less toxic because fewer chemicals are used. After all, good for the environment usually means good for your body. On a sliding scale of healthy/neutral/unhealthy, they will fall into the healthy range.


Linen comes from the flax plant. It’s one of the oldest fibers used to make fabric and can be produced much as it was thousands of years ago. Growing the plant doesn’t require the use of toxic chemicals from pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizers and processing doesn’t have to require harsh chemicals or even advanced machinery. It’s also one of the most durable fibers; it’s 2-3 times stronger than cotton and gets stronger when wet, yet softens with each wash.

What I find most rewarding about wearing linen is its thermoregulating qualities. Whether I’m wearing or sleeping on it, I stay warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Linen readily absorbs moisture (up to 20% more than cotton) before it starts to feel damp. It quickly wicks the moisture to the surface where it can evaporate so you don’t feel clammy. It also dries more quickly than most other fabrics. Cotton is breathable and absorbs moisture, but is much slower to dry.

Skin Benefits: Linen is hypoallergenic, anti-static, antibacterial, thermoregulating, quick drying, helps the skin retain its natural pH balance, and the microscopic breaks in the weave massage and exfoliate skin. Neutral colors are the most chemical-free because whites require bleaching. In ancient times linen was used medicinally as a fever blanket for its thermoregulating properties, and as bandages because it is antimicrobial and antibacterial.

Sustainability: Plants are naturally insect repellant so no pesticides are needed, need minimal irrigation, is recyclable, renewable, biodegradable, plus the entire plant can be used so there is almost no waste. Processing from raw material to finished fabric should be chemical free (although some producers, primarily in China rather than Europe, may use chemical retting). Clothing is naturally moth resistant.

Suggested Retailers:


Hemp, long used in Europe and Asia, should become more readily available in the US now that commercial cultivation has been legalized. This is good news for consumers. In additional to all the medicinal, building, and commercial applications for hemp, it’s a superior fiber for clothing.

See Also: The Benefits of Hemp: The Little Plant That Could

Growing and processing methods are very similar to flax (linen) — it requires little or no irrigation, no pesticides or insecticides (the plant naturally repels insects), herbicides (its dense growing habit crowds out any weeds) and few chemicals to process. Hemp’s natural coloring reduces the need for dyes; however, if you choose a colored garment, it holds dye well without harsh chemical aids. Hemp, like linen is ready to harvest in around 100 days.

What I’ve noticed is that hemp is usually blended with another fiber, most often cotton. If you are buying a blended item, try to find one that uses organic cotton. I’ve also enjoyed hemp/modal blends. They are comfortable and have a great drape.

Like linen, hemp is incredibly durable and actually softens the more it’s washed. I’m hoping that as hemp production increases, there will be more options for purchasing pure hemp clothing.

Skin Benefits: Hemp is hypoallergenic with few, if any chemicals used in processing or growing. It’s lightweight and breathable, wicks moisture well and dries quickly. The fabric inhibits bacterial and fungal growth, prevents inflammation and infections. It’s naturally antimicrobial and provides impressive UV protection. Overall, the plant is so healthful that it’s used to make skin care products and topical medicines.

Sustainability: Hemp growing requires 50% less water than cotton. At the same time, one acre of hemp produces 2-3 times more fiber than an acre of cotton. It’s a carbon negative raw material absorbing CO2 and restores soil nutrients – even cleaning impurities like heavy metals and other toxins from the soil. No pesticides or insecticides are needed. It’s biodegradable and can be composted. The durability of hemp also means that your clothes won’t wear out any time soon.

Suggested Sources: Afends (also other recycled fibers), Nomads, Arraei Collective, 8000Kicks (shoes), Mara Hoffman, WAMA (underwear), Braintree, Hempest, Tentree, Toad & Co, Patagonia, Hemp Warehouse, Delilah Home (bedding), Panagaia, Rawganique (fabric), Onno

Fabrics that are Generally Better for your health


Listening to commercials that “Cotton, the fabric of our lives” has made us think that cotton is the best fabric for clothing. It’s a bit more complex — health and sustainability-wise. Overall, cotton is certainly better to wear than synthetics. However, it can be one of the worst fabrics for the environment.

There are several cotton options:

  • Traditionally-grown cotton usually contains pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. It may contain dangerous dyes or other unhealthy finishing treatments (see above). Growing cotton usually requires excessive amounts of irrigation (enough to drain the Aral Sea and cause the area to become arid, polluted, and uninhabitable. (Learn more at The Aral Sea, Before the Streams Ran Dry (
  • Organically grown cotton doesn’t contain pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides, and relies on natural rainfall. To be certified GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) organic cotton must be non-GMO. Look for GOTS certified organic cotton, not merely labels that say “organic” or “natural.” These may be examples of greenwashing attempts to increase sales and don’t necessarily mean that the fabric meets exacting purity standards. Less than 1% of the cotton produced worldwide is organic.
  • Recycled cotton has a lower environmental burden than virgin cotton; however, it may not be organic and can contain unhealthy chemicals. Also, unlike recycled polyester, cotton loses some of its strength when it’s recycled. The biggest advantage of buying recycled is that you’ve reduced the environmental impact and waste because it keeps some of the 17 million tons of discarded clothing or manufacturing waste out of landfills. (This is the total for all fabrics combined.)
  • Recycled organic cotton is the most environmentally friendly form of cotton.

Cotton is frequently blended with just about every other fiber – both initially or in its recycled form. You’ll find it blended with linen, hemp, synthetics, wool, cashmere, and silk. It lends softness and/or moisture absorption. For instance, wearing a blended cotton/polyester garment is certainly better for you than 100% poly, but it isn’t as good as wearing something that is polyester free. If you are looking for a blend that is beneficial, look at Lyocell or Modal blends. You’ll get the softness, drape, and sheen along with the wicking and breathability you desire.

If you are looking for finer cottons that are more ecologically grown that may not bear the GOTS certification, look for cottons from Peru, or have the Supima or Pima label. There manufacturers worldwide, like some Egyptian cotton growers, who are dedicated to producing fine quality, sustainable, ethical cotton even though it might not be certified organic.

Skin Benefits: Cotton fibers are hypoallergenic and soft so they won’t irritate most skin. That’s why it’s a favored fabric for baby clothing. (Just make sure that baby clothing doesn’t contain any of the chemicals listed above.) Cotton is highly absorbent and breathes easily so it’s good for hot weather.

If you have sensitive skin, look for certified organic cotton that is made with natural or no dyes. While cotton is naturally a yellowish white and is usually bleached, there are some strains of cottons that are naturally colored in white, brown, pink, and green.

Cotton prevents skin-harming bacteria from thriving. If the cotton is unbleached, it contains natural lignins (an oxygen containing polymer in plants) that act as UV absorbers. Even though cotton is breathable and moisture wicking, it doesn’t dry as quickly as linen or hemp so it can end up feeling clammy and irritate very sensitive skin.

Sustainability: It’s not really sustainable to grow cotton unless it’s done organically. Cotton growing is responsible for the acidification and eutrophication of large areas of the world. It depletes the soil while adding chemical contaminants. Possibly worse than the environmental damage that cotton causes is the human cost. Often, workers are poorly paid, even used as slave labor, and heavy chemicals and carcinogenic dyes are used during manufacturing.

Luckily, there are increasing numbers of manufacturers who are committed to producing sustainable and ethical cotton clothing.

Suggested Sources: There are many, many brands that use GOTS organic cotton. Some of the most popular are Alternative Apparel, Pact, Mate, Threads 4 Thought, and Colorful Standard. Brands that sell recycled cotton include: Groceries Apparel, Toad & Co., Patagonia, and Levi’s Wellthread line. Harvest & Mill makes GOTS cotton clothing with either natural indigo plant dye or is dye-free.


Silk is highly recommended by many for its feel and therapeutic benefits but is not a perfect fabric. Some people don’t support silk because they consider it inhumane – generally the silk worms are killed before the silk is harvested. If this is one of your concerns, you can look for “Peace Silk®” or Ahimsa silk, which waits until the worms have emerged before gathering the cocoons. Also, silk generally has to be dry cleaned which involves harmful chemicals.

Silk is one of the strongest fibers (as strong as a strand of steel), and extremely soft. It is tightly woven, highly absorbent, and extremely smooth. Its properties make it a favorite fabric for nightwear, underwear, and bedding. In fact, silk underwear will help minimize recurrent vaginal yeast infections.

Opinions on silk’s wearability differ: some people find that silk’s average breathability and moisture wicking capabilities make it too warm and cause irritation, others find it regulates temperature very well. You’ll have to decide how well silk works for your body. If you find you need something more breathable, but still want silk’s luxurious look and feel, consider knitted silk rather than woven or a silk blend.

Skin Benefits: Silk is a favorite for bedding, especially pillow cases, for several reasons. The fabric is slightly acidic so it has the same pH as skin. It absorbs less moisture than most fabrics, including cotton, so it helps your skin maintain its natural moisture and oils. Silk’s protein structure makes it hypoallergenic and prevents dust mites from penetrating through the sheets.

It also contains sericin, a protein that prevents the growth of mites, mold, and fungus. Silk’s smoothness and anti-static properties (due to negative ions) also helps prevent skin wrinkles, and keeps your hair smoother preventing bed-head and split ends. Its hypoallergenic properties will cut down on nighttime sneezing and stuffiness. Those that suffer from Allergic Fungal Sinusitis will appreciate this.

Very few people are allergic to silk. Its protein structure makes it a good fiber for people with eczema, rashes, weakened immune systems such as those going through chemotherapy. The shiny surface of silk will reflect UV rays away from skin and protect you from harmful sun exposure.

Sustainability: Silk’s sustainability depends on its source. You can choose Peace Silk which is sustainable, but some inexpensive silk manufacturers don’t care about environmental or ethical considerations.

Suggested Sources: Peace Silk: Peace Silk Global, Etour, Sustainable Jungle, Puratium.

Sustainable Silk: Rare and Fair, Lunya

If you are looking for silk-like fabrics, but don’t like the idea of silkworm cocoons, there are a couple plant-based options. Lyosilk™ is dermatologist recommended for sensitive skin, especially for those with eczema. It’s anti-microbial, breathable, fast wicking, and cools the body temperature.

You may think that jute is only a rough fiber used for rope or rugs. However, it can be made into very fine fabrics. Ecologically, it’s cultivation and processing are much the same as flax linen and hemp. Fabrics can range from rough burlap to fine silk substitutes. It is highly absorbent, anti-static, and has low thermal conductivity. It’s also highly breathable and dries quickly. While there hasn’t been much reported about the health benefits of wearing jute clothing, but there has been a lot written about its nutrition, medicinal, and healthful properties. (See Healthline)

Fabrics Made from Processed Wood Pulps

There are a number of fabrics made from eucalyptus, beech, or bamboo wood pulps. You might know this group of fabrics by names such as viscose, rayon, modal, or lyocell. They are generally comfortable, breathable, and drapey.

Classifying these fabrics is a bit muddy because they use a natural fiber (wood cellulose), but require synthetic processing with toxic chemicals such as carbon disulphide. This shouldn’t dissuade you from considering them because they combine many of the benefits of natural fibers (health qualities) with synthetic fibers (look, feel, and cost). One of the clearest explanations I’ve found of the differences between different wood-based fabrics can be found at A Comparison: TENCEL, Lyocell, Rayon, and Modal – Eucalypso Home.

This group of fabrics have varying degrees of sustainability. You want to be sure that the manufacturer doesn’t use old-growth trees to avoid deforestation. You can look for FSC certifications (Forest Stewardship Council). Actually, if you are really sustainably minded, also look for packaging and labelling on your purchases that is FSC certified. This will ensure that any wood used was responsibly forested.

You also want to purchase wood pulp fabrics that use a closed loop manufacturing process. This means that the overwhelming majority (up to 99%) of the water and chemicals needed to transform the wood pulp to usable fabric fibers is being reused and recycled. These safeguards ensure that the fabric is sustainable and keeps chemicals out of the environment.

Rayon is the least refined of the wood-based fabrics; the carbon disulphide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, and caustic soda used to make the fabric can cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, and insomnia if worn constantly.

There has been some evidence that tissue necrosis, anorexia, and Parkinson’s disease may also linked to these fabrics. When closed loop production processes aren’t used, factory workers and nearby communities may be affected by psychosis, coronary heart disease, cancers such as leukemia, tuberculosis, reproductive problems, birth defects, and stomach disorders.

Lyocell™ Tencel™/ Modal

Lyocell is one of the most sustainable wood-based fabrics. The manufacturer that you most commonly see attached to the fabric is Lenzing who makes Tencel. They are extremely sustainable.

Skin Benefits: These fabrics are flowy (like silk, rayon, or some polyesters) and resist wrinkling. They wick moisture well (70% better than cotton), so you can remain odor free for longer. It is also breathable and soft which helps reduce acne flare-ups (3 times more breathable than cotton).

These fabrics interact with your skin well by reducing static electricity buildup. The fibers are naturally white so they don’t have to be bleached. Unfortunately, they don’t take dye well so more chemicals may be needed. The fabric is also antibacterial and antifungal. Overall, Lyocell Tencel is hypoallergenic and a good replacement for conventional cotton or silk.

Sustainability: Always check that the wood source is FSC certified and that a closed loop process is used. These fabrics are biodegradable and can be composted in the back yard as long as they haven’t been blended with synthetics.

Suggested Sources: prAna, Reformation, Thought, People Tree.

There are many choices of bedding manufacturers including: Eucalypso, Buffy, Sheets and Giggles, Olive + Crate


Bamboo fabric has become much more popular. It is a renewable, fast-growing plant (as much as 3 feet a day) and can be harvested without disturbing the roots. It has a smooth and silky hand that makes it a favorite for clothing and bedding. Don’t let the smooth feel fool you – bamboo is also very durable.

Skin Benefits: Many people believe that wearing bamboo clothing is not only beneficial to your skin, but also to your body. Bamboo contains anions which are helpful in purifying blood, calming the nervous system, and relieving allergy symptoms. It has antimicrobial properties that help keep your skin bacteria-free. The soft fibers will caress your skin rather than scratch it.

All these qualities make bamboo a good choice for bedding and clothing. Bamboo fibers have millions of microscopic holes which allow air to pass between the wearer’s body and the environment to wick away moisture and act as thermoregulators.

Sustainability: In general, bamboo is sustainable if properly harvested. It grows extremely fast without any chemicals or irrigation. It also self-regenerates and acts as a purifying crop to remove pollutants from the air, soil, and water through the process of phytoremediation. Some growers have cleared natural forests to make more room for bamboo growing which reduces biodiversity.

Industrial removal of the plants can devastate the habitats of local endangered species so look for FSC Certification. Also, if processed with chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid the fabric can become harmful to the reproductive system.

Suggested Sources: Cozy Earth, Boody

Animal Fibers

Source: Woolmark

There/s no real consensus whether wool is a favored fabric – much depends on how you react to it. There are a variety of wool fibers: different sheep breeds, goat (cashmere & mohair), camel, llama, and alpaca. Some people are allergic to one or more types of wool. If you’re not sure, the easiest way to wear wool is to use an underlayer of cotton, silk, linen, or another favorite fabric. If you’re wearing wool trousers or skirts, make sure they are lined, especially with cupro (see below).

Wool has many advantages and certainly a place in most people’s wardrobes. Overall, wools are great insulators that are also breathable. They can absorb 50% of their weight in moisture without feeling damp and allow excess warmth to be released so you don’t overheat.

However, many wools can trigger eczema or atopic dermatitis flare-ups and cause itchiness even if you aren’t technically allergic to it.

Sheep Wool

One of the earliest depictions of a Merino. "El Buen Pastor" (The Good Shepherd) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650
One of the earliest depictions of a Merino. “El Buen Pastor” (The Good Shepherd) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650
Credit: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – [1]

If you’re going to wear sheep wool and are afraid it will be itchy, look for Merino wool products, especially those that are certified RWS or ZQ Merino Standard. Merino wool is much softer and finer than other wools.

Wool processing: Sheep wools have “barbs” or scales that can scratch your skin, and lanolin that will cover the micro-scratches creating bacterial micro-infections. The scales also collect dust. The amount of lanolin in wool can be reduced when it’s dipped in peroxide chemicals. Other chemicals used to process wool include chlorine, hypochlorous acid, sulphuric acid, sodium hypochlorite, and metal salts.

Some wools, like Merino wool, has finer fibers and smaller scales so there is reduced irritation and less need for chemical processing. All wools can be put through a “superwash” process with acetones and synthetic resins that burn the fibers and reduce the sharpness of the barbs. Superwashed wools may feel much smoother but expose your skin to more toxic chemicals.

Skin Benefits: Very fine Merino wool has been shown to have therapeutic qualities and help the skin retain moisture. In addition to its thermoregulating properties, its moisture management can be beneficial for eczema sufferers. Wool is known for its wicking capabilities.

Sustainability: Wool is a renewable resource. For the most sustainable wool, look for wool certifications, buy recycled wool, and check whether the sheep are mulesing-free (a sheering practice that some believe to be inhumane). Certifications and logos to look for include: PETA, Responsible Wool Standard, and Woolmark.

Suggested Sources: Both of these companies offer a full range of merino clothing including underwear Unbound Merino, WoolX


Pashmina goats in India
Pashmina goats from India
Credit: Redtigerxyz – Own work

Cashmere wool comes from goats, primarily from the Himalayan Mountains. It’s an even better insulator than sheep wool.

Skin Benefits: Cashmere is softer than sheep wool so many people believe that it’s less irritating to your skin. It has good breathability and wicking qualities and the exterior repels water.

Sustainability: It’s important to purchase your cashmere from reputable, ethical sources to ensure that the animals and their human caretakers are treated fairly. Goats can be very hard on the environment – land often becomes overgrazed and their sharp hooves cut into the ground leading to erosion. Some brands ensure that the herds are free range or even go so far as to initiate replanting of grazing pastures.

Suggested Sources: Naadam, White & Warren, Asket


Angora Goat
Angora Goat
Credit: Ltshears – Trisha M Shears – Own work

Mohair comes from Angora goats. Its fiber is composed mostly of keratin, the same protein found in hair, horns and our skin. It’s much kinder to our skin. The fibers are hollow so instead of absorbing moisture, they push the molecules to the exterior of the garment 85% faster than any other wool.

Mohair is an excellent insulator that’s also soft, silky, and takes dye extremely well to produce vivid, saturated, rich colors. You can find raw mohair fibers in white (most common), brown, black, or gray. Mohair fibers are also stretchy so the resulting fabric drapes well, resists creasing and wrinkles, and tends not to attract or hold dirt. The slick surface of the fibers also makes it naturally water repellant.

Skin Benefits: The scales on mohair aren’t fully developed like they are on sheep wool so it’s much smoother and won’t irritate most skin. This is one of the reasons why it’s often blended with wool. It’ll help a garment retain its shape and it’s more durable than pure sheep wool. Mohair is one of the most fire-resistant fabrics on the market.

Sustainability: 50% of the mohair produced comes from South Africa. The fleeces are very fast growing and shorn twice a year. Like all wools, it’s still a fairly resource intensive enterprise and overgrazing can become an issue. While natural grease and dirt are removed before processing the fiber, it doesn’t require the same type of super-washing that most sheep wools do.


Alpacas near a mountain in Ecuador
Alpacas near a mountain in Ecuador
Credit: Philippe Lavoie – Own work

Alpaca yarn is probably the most sustainable and skin-friendly wool available. It has 85% more wicking ability and is warmer than merino wool, as well as being a great thermoregulator. The fibers are completely hollow instead of having only pockets of air like sheep wool.

Alpacas live primarily in the Andean Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina where they’re subjected to large weather fluctuations. However, alpacas are now being raised throughout the world. Alpaca fabric naturally resists water, wrinkles, and flames, and doesn’t pill like cashmere and sheep wool.

Although it’s not as common, llama wool is very similar to alpaca. It may not be quite as fine, but the characteristics are comparable.

Skin Benefits: Alpaca wool doesn’t contain lanolin which can trap environmental allergens so it won’t irritate anyone’s skin. It’s also antimicrobial, hypoallergenic, soft, and strong. The wool isn’t waterproof, but because it has such good wicking ability the moisture will evaporate quickly. Alpaca wool comes in more than 20 natural colors so it’s possible to get a range of clothing that hasn’t been dyed. Other than washing the raw fibers in a gentle soap, no other chemicals are necessary to produce the yarn.

Sustainability: Don’t let the softness and lightness of alpaca fool you, it’s extremely strong and durable. Alpacas are very easy on the environment – grazing on the tops of grasses and plants that grow naturally while leaving the roots intact. They have large, soft hooves that don’t tear up the ground.

Suggested Sources: Alpacas of Montana, Arms of Andes, SOL Alpaca, Peru Unlimited

Lesser-Known Fabrics


Cupro is a silk-like fabric that’s made from the linter of cotton (that’s the fiber that sticks to the seeds). It’s most often used as a lining material, although it’s used for some clothing. Cupro is soft, lightweight, breathable, can be washed (although dry cleaning is recommended), and hypoallergenic.

If you want a silk-like fabric that is sustainable and guaranteed vegan, cupro might be just the fabric you’re looking for. It’s resistant to tears and rips, but it can pill and wrinkle so it’s best used for lining where it’s more protected.

Skin Benefits: Cupro fibers are uniformly round and smooth unlike viscose/rayon, silk, or cotton. When tested compared to silk and polyester, it creates much, much less friction. Because it’s anti-static, it will attract much less pollen and dirt particles. Because of the thinness of the fibers, cupro fabrics are very soft.

Structurally, there are spaces between molecules so water and air flow easily through the fabric making it breathable and moisture wicking. The structure also allows it to be thermoregulating and anti-odor, actually eliminating the ammonia, acetic acid, and isovaleric acid that make sweat smell.

Sustainability: The cotton linter used to make cupro is a by-product of cottonseed oil production. There is a chemical process needed, much like the ones used to make Tencel Lyocell. In this case, the linter is mixed with ammonium and copper and dropped in a caustic soda to create the filament. The chemicals are removed before spinning the filament into fabric so it’s very easy on the skin.

Cupro is biodegradable and compostable, breaking down in as little as 2-3 months. It’s even more environmentally safe when burned than nylon, silk, wool, or polyester – releasing fewer toxic substances such as oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and CO2.

Suggested Sources: One of the best sources of cupro fabrics is Asahi Kasei, the manufacturer of Bemburg linings. They are an extremely sustainable and ethical company.

Milk Cloth

Yes, this fabric is made from waste milk proteins called casein. The process has existed for around 100 years, and due to improvements in technology it’s becoming commercially available. Not only is the fabric extremely sustainable, but it’s beneficial for your skin. People who have reactions to other fabrics, even cotton, find that they can wear casein clothing. In addition to being toxin and chemical free, it is so soothing that it’s recommended for people undergoing chemotherapy. Don’t worry, casein is lactose free.

Casein can be easily bonded with other fabrics like model and other cellulose-based fabrics, merino, alpaca, cashmere, silk and cotton because of its naturally thermobonding properties. It’s 30-60% lighter than cotton, and is known for being smooth with a soft and fluffy texture. It can be machine washed, even at high temperatures. Its characteristics have been compared to wools because it’s permeable, soft, warm, resilient, and wrinkle resistant.

Skin Benefits: Casein’s pH is similar to that of skin, it’s hypoallergenic, and naturally antibacterial. It contains 15 types of amino acid extracts that help nourish the skin and regulate blood circulation. The fabric absorbs water easily (it’s hygroscopic) and dries twice as fast as cotton. It can be made with no chemicals and is dermatologically certified. It deflects UV light, is flame retardant, thermoregulating, and resists microorganisms. The fabric resists heat, is color fast, and easily dyable. It’s possible to implant micro-zinc into the fibers to make it bacteriostatic as well.

Some casein fabric is made with acrylonitrate, a carcinogen and mutagen. The chemical is absorbed through the skin. Make sure your fabric is all natural and/or Oeko-Tex 100 certified.

Sustainability: Casein uses surplus milk that would otherwise be thrown away. The fabric is renewable, compostable, and biodegradable. Production is zero-waste and has low energy production needs.

Suggested Sources: Qmilch or Qmilk is the German company that produces the fiber. Sunad (blended with modal), Mademoiselle Chi Chi, Uniqlo’s Heattech (under layers). For more about milk fiber see: 10 Reasons to Buy Clothes Made from Milk or MCC Style (

The Future of Fabrics

While synthetics and fast fashion still dominate the market, many innovators are exploring new ways to sustainably and ethically create fabrications.

Many use waste or renewable products. Probably the most popular cause is to find replacements for leather. For instance, instead of cow leather or “faux” leather made from petroleum products, you can get very credible leather-like items made from pineapple waste (Piñetex®), cactus, apple, banana (Bananatex®) or mushroom byproducts. The goal is to find a plentiful, renewable resource that can be manipulated into practical fiber.

Other interesting food waste materials are being explored. S.Cafe® uses recycled coffee grounds to make fibers that can be used in blended fabrics. It’s been used to make sportswear, lingerie, bedding and footwear. The fiber offers odor control, UV protection, and very fast drying speeds. It’s already been used by The North Face, Puma, Timberland, and American Eagle.

One newer source of raw materials is the ocean. Research is being conducted on how to sustainably harvest and transform seaweed and algae into usable products that are beneficial to your health. After all, 71% of the earth is covered by the ocean. This is just another reason to make sure we stop polluting it. (See: The Effects of Microplastics on Humans: An Introduction)

Algae Fabric

Algae is being explored as a source of fiber for fabric, dyes, and screen print ink. It’s able to regenerate itself through photosynthesis with just sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. It’s even becoming possible to make bio-plastic from algae.

The algae can be coated onto cellulose underlayers using 3D printing methods. Ingesting algae has benefits such as weight loss, cholesterol and stress reduction, cancer fighting, heart health, and is an inflammation and pain reducer which help with fibromyalgia and arthritis. Studies haven’t yet been done to yet to see if any of these benefits are present with algae fabric. At the very least, it isn’t toxic to the skin.

Skin Benefits: Algae fabric is fortified with bacterial cellulose which makes it more resilient.

Sustainability: Algae fiber is biodegradable and compostable. Some versions decompose within 12 weeks. It’s carbon negative since it absorbs CO2 from the air and releases oxygen.

Suggested Sources: Vollebak – t-shirts blended with linen, eucalyptus & beech and dyes made from algae. 8000 Kicks (hemp shoes with algae soles), Bloom (shoe soles used by various manufacturers).

SeaWeed/SeaCell Fabric

SeaCell fabric is made from seaweed which is known to reduce inflammation and provide anti-aging nutrients that are also antimicrobial. Fabric made from Brown algae (Ascophyllum nodossum) or Knotted Wrack seaweed passes these nutrients to your skin through its trace elements.

The seaweed is harvested from Icelandic fjords or off the coastline of the British Isles where it hasn’t been exposed to pollution or ship waste. The seaweed is processed the same way Lyocell, Tencel and some bamboo is produced in a closed loop system that locks in the inherent properties of the raw seaweed. Companies such as Nanonic Inc. and Smartfiber developed this healthful and sustainable fabric and it’s sold under brand names such as Vitadylan™.

The fabric absorbs sweat faster than cotton, is twice as soft, moisture-regulating, has a high tenacity, and is flame retardant. It is a good option for baby clothing. You’ll also find SeaCell fibers blended with silk.

Skin Benefits: Nutrients found on seaweed fabric include vitamins A, B12, C, and E, iron, magnesium, and calcium. When the fabric comes in contact with your skin and natural body moisture, these vitamins and antioxidants react with the free radicals in your skin and neutralizes them. It helps reduce environmental damage that’s already occurred and slows down the aging process.

The fabric is infused with metal ions which can screen electromagnetic waves and silver ions which enhances anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, and odor reducing properties. Unfortunately, these ions are released during washing and can enter wastewater and accumulate in bio solids which may affect the microorganisms in the soil. The usefulness of these ions is still under debate.

Overall, Vitadylan and other seaweed products are hygienic and antibacterial. The seaweed contains zinc, a trace element that impacts our overall wellbeing and is a skin regenerative enzyme. There is a direct exchange of the mineral between the fabric and our skin.

Seaweed elements also affect our immune system, sensory functions, and metabolism. It acts as a shield against harmful UVA and UVB radiation, providing up to +50 SPF protection. It also helps keep your garments fresher longer because of its antibacterial properties. Vitadylan fibers meet the ISO 9001 standards for safety.

Sustainability: Only the top part of the seaweed is harvested using a sustainable process so the seaweed is renewable. The production process is similar to other cellulose-based products using a closed loop system which uses 38 times less water and releases 97% less CO2. Overall, seaweed processing is carbon neutral.

Suggested Sources: Oliver Charles, WYLD1

Final Thoughts…

Ideally, you want to wear fabrics that allows air to circulate but is also thermoregulating — fabric that traps body heat in the winter but lets it escape in summer. That thermoregulating quality has a lot to do with the structure of the fibers themselves (whether they are hollow, have hollow spaces, or are solid).

You also want to wear fabric that encourages moisture to travel from your body to the fabric’s surface so it can evaporate. Yes, we’re talking about breathability and wicking action. If your fabric doesn’t have these qualities you can end up feeling like you’re wearing a plastic bag! You’ll be hot, sweaty, and smelly.

Choosing a healthy fabric means you want to look for fibers that breath, wick moisture, don’t have excessive chemicals, and are smooth so your skin doesn’t get irritated. Fabrics that encompass these factors will feel good… and be good for your skin. Of course, in the best of all worlds, they will also be sustainably and ethically sourced.

What clothing you decide to wear does more than just affect how you look – it can affect how you feel and even your long-term health. Much has been written about the adverse effects of unsustainable clothing production, but it’s also important to think about how fabrics affect your skin.

If you take a bird’s eye view of healthful and sustainable fabrics you see that what’s good for the environment is usually good for your body. You’ll also find that the best fabrics (both sustainability-wise and health-wise) are either ancient or cutting-edge technology. Linen and hemp are great, and new fabrics from food waste or the sea have the potential to be great.

What isn’t good for either is that murky spot from the 1950’s to today where polyester was the go-to fabric. Yes, it can be inexpensive, but it’s horrible for the environment and not great for your health. The damage petroleum-based fabrics are doing is immeasurable. Anything that requires the use of heavy chemicals has the potential to do great harm.

This is another case of form vs. function. Pay as much attention to what goes into your clothing as to what style it is. Wearing something solely based on how it looks may actually be making you sick.

When you are choosing clothing, think about its long-term use, whether it is recycled or recyclable/compostable, and how that fabric is made. Are there harsh chemicals involved? Is this something that’s going to remain intact for hundreds of years after it’s thrown away? Is it ethically sourced and manufactured?

What you’re putting on affects the environment, farmers and factory workers, and most immediately, your skin and overall health.