Chemical substances in textiles


Some chemicals are added to textiles so that they will remain in the finished the article, for example, substances that give the textile its colour. You can read about different substances that can be found in textiles here.

Large amounts of chemicals are used when manufacturing textiles. A large portion of the process chemicals and auxiliary chemicals used during production are washed out or are released into the air during the textile production process. But there are also chemicals that are used to give textiles special properties or appearances. These are intended to remain in the finished article. Here are some examples of chemicals that can be found in textiles.

Water, grease and dirt repellent chemicals

In order to give textiles water, grease or dirt-repellent properties, they can be treated with highly fluorinated substances, per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). PFAS are extremely difficult to break down in the environment and can also accumulate in living organisms and cause harm. Some PFAS have documented toxicity, but there is a lack of knowledge about toxicity for the majority of these substances. The PFAS group includes several thousand different substances. Some substances in the group are banned or are about to be banned. Many textile companies are actively working to try to replace these substances with alternatives. It is currently possible to achieve the desired water-repellent function without using highly fluorinated substances, while grease- and dirt-repellent functions are more difficult to achieve.

Ask in the store what kind of treatment (if any) has been done to the clothing you wish to purchase. Some garments, especially outerwear, are marketed with functional statements about the treatment that has been applied. Garments can sometimes be marked, for example, “PFC-free” to show that they have not been treated with highly fluorinated substances.

Some PFASs are also included in the EU’s so-called Candidate List of especially hazardous substances. As a consumer, you have the right to receive information about these substances if you request it.

Read more about your right to information here

Read more here about highly fluorinated substances here

Antibacterial or antimicrobial substances

Certain textiles may be marked with words such as “treated to prevent bad odour”, “for lasting freshness”, “anti-odour”, “hygienic protection”, “antimicrobial”. This means that they have been treated with antibacterial substances. Antibacterial substances have a bactericidal effect and belong to a type of pesticides called biocides. Articles that are treated with antibacterial substances, and where there is a claim of an antibacterial effect, must be clearly marked, and there must be information about which substance has been used.

But the antibacterial agents usually disappear after just the first few washes and are released into the environment where they can cause harm. The substances are also suspected of contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. It is therefore advisable to avoid articles that are treated with antibacterial agents. Examples of antibacterial substances that can present in textiles are zinc pyrithione and silver.

Wool clothing is usually not treated to prevent odour. There are wool garments on the market today that are thin and do not cause itching.

Read more here about antibacterial substances here

Insect repellent

Some textiles are treated with insect repellent. These are marketed for outdoor activities or for animals to protect against insect bites. The same rules that apply to the labelling of antimicrobial articles also apply for these garments. And just as they do for antimicrobial treatment, the substances end up in the rinse water when the textiles are washed. Some of these substances, such as permethrin, are very harmful to aquatic organisms. Before buying textiles treated to repel insects, you should consider if it is something you really need. Follow the washing instructions if you must wash the garments, though it is preferable to avoid washing them altogether.

Dyes and pigments

Dyes and pigments are used to lend colour to textiles. The type of dye used depends on the material to be dyed. Azo dyes, which are dyes commonly used for dyeing cotton, can be broken down into a group of substances called aromatic amines. These substances can be carcinogenic, interfere with reproduction or be allergenic. Azo dyes that can be broken down into carcinogenic arylamines are prohibited for use in textiles. Dispersion dyes, which are used to dye synthetic fibres such as polyamide and polyester, are associated with allergenic properties.

To avoid getting excess chemicals directly on the body, you can wash new textiles before using them or buy used textiles.

It is a good idea to look for textiles with an ecolabel as these labels place requirements on all parts of the production chain from raw material to manufacturing. Look for the Swan, EU Ecolabel, Bra Miljöval (Good Environmental Choice) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Plasticisers in plastic

Plasticisers are mainly used in plastic materials such as artificial leather or plastic printing. Phthalates are a group of substances used as plasticisers in plastics. Phthalates can have reproductive and endocrine disrupting properties. The use of a number of phthalates has previously been banned in toys and childcare products and will be banned in all types of articles starting in 2020. Many EU companies have already stopped using these phthalates.

Several phthalates are also included in the EU's so-called Candidate List of especially hazardous substances. As a consumer, you have the right to receive information about these substances if you request it.

Read more about your right to information.

Older textiles may contain pesticides

Older yarns and wool textiles, such as blankets and rugs, may have been treated against moths and other vermin with DDT or other pesticides that are not permitted today. The label on these textiles often states which agent has been used, but even blankets that are not labelled may have been treated.

Observera att det finns nyare varianter av Eulan som är godkända i vissa EU-länder och som kan finnas i nyare textiler.

If you would like to get rid of old wool blankets or wool rugs, you can drop them off as combustible waste at the municipality’s waste facility, not in the textile recycling. This is to make sure these substances are removed from the textile cycle.

Last published 22 September 2022