While hitting the gym, most of us focus on our fitness goals and the latest workout playlist, rarely considering what our workout clothing is made of. However, recent research has shed light on a concerning aspect of gym attire, particularly those made from synthetic fabrics like Spandex, nylon, and polyester. These materials, essentially plastics, are manufactured from petrochemicals and frequently contain harmful chemical additives such as phthalates and bisphenols.
A recent study has revealed that sweat can leach chemical additives from these plastic-based fabrics, and these chemicals are subsequently available for absorption through our skin.
Findings of the Study:
The study primarily examined a class of compounds known as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are employed to prevent fire in various consumer products, including fabrics. These chemicals have been associated with adverse health effects like thyroid disease, hormonal disruption, and neurological issues. Researchers from the University of Birmingham found that sweat, containing oil, possesses a lipophilic chemical nature that facilitates the dissolution and diffusion of chemicals from plastic, making it possible for these substances to leach into the body through the skin.
Dr. Mohamed Abdallah, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of Birmingham, emphasized that the oily nature of sweat “helps the bad chemicals to come out of the microplastic fibers and become available for human absorption.” The study primarily focused on flame retardants, not commonly associated with sportswear, and tested scenarios involving sweat and plastic contact in sedentary individuals. Further research is needed to determine the specific types and quantities of chemicals that active gym-goers might absorb from their synthetic workout wear and the gym environment.
Why Is This Significant
Until now, researchers predominantly examined plastic exposure through diet, but the University of Birmingham study underscores that humans can also be exposed to plastic chemicals through their skin. As these harmful chemicals tend to bioaccumulate in our bodies, repeated and multi-source exposure can result in high concentrations, potentially contributing to adverse health effects.
In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, 25 flame retardants were found in the breast milk of 50 U.S. mothers, some of which had been phased out a decade ago due to known health risks. Another study noted a surge in cancer rates among Americans under 50, with potential links to exposure to harmful pollutants and carcinogenic chemicals.
Alden Wicker’s book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick,” highlights various ways we are exposed to chemicals through our clothing. Workout wear, especially items marketed as “sweat-wicking” or water-repellent, often contains PFAS, a carcinogenic family of “forever chemicals.” Additionally, polyester fabrics are usually colored with disperse dyes, known skin irritants.
Research indicates that numerous more chemicals are present in everyday plastic products than the notorious ones, posing an urgent need to enhance plastic safety. Manufacturers, due to opaque supply chains, are often unaware of the substances in their plastic products, making it crucial for consumers to seek out sustainable, minimally processed natural textiles that are free from plastic-related toxins.
What You Can Do:
To reduce exposure to these harmful chemicals, opt for clothing made of sustainably produced, minimally processed natural textiles like organic cotton, hemp, or merino wool. Check fabric labels for items predominantly composed of these materials, and look for third-party textile certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX. You can also check brand websites for information about their suppliers and manufacturing processes.
While California’s Proposition 65 mandates warnings about significant chemical exposures, stricter federal legislation is needed to ensure consumer products do not contain harmful chemicals, irrespective of the state in which they are sold.
A recent survey indicated that 72% of respondents would purchase plastic-free sportswear if readily available. However, replacing your synthetic wardrobe can be costly, so consider making the switch gradually unless you have specific health concerns. Dr. Abdallah recommends minimizing synthetic fabrics and opting for natural fibers, emphasizing the importance of avoiding even low levels of chemical exposure.
In conclusion, your choice of gym clothing matters more than you might think. Being aware of the materials and chemicals in your workout wear can help you reduce the risks associated with exposure to harmful substances.