Have you ever noticed that organic cotton baby clothing seems way more prevalent than organic clothing for adults? I have a friend whose child had terrible eczema as a baby. She was able to manage it by following a particular protocol which (among other things) included dressing her in only organic cotton clothing. When I asked whether she could tell if the clothing alone made that much difference, the answer was a resounding yes! So in this article I'm going to unpack this for you, to help give a better understanding of some of the benefits (and things to watch out for) when choosing organic cotton for your little people.
First we need to understand what organic cotton is.
Conventional cotton is typically grown using a host of synthetic chemicals including insecticides (for killing bugs), herbicides (for killing weeds), fungicides (for killing plant diseases) and fertilisers (to aid plant growth). Conversely, organic cotton is cotton that is grown without the use of these synthetic chemicals or genetically modified seed. However, organically grown cotton is only half the story.
Well actually less than half of the chemical load story…Once a cotton crop is harvested it goes through many processes to be transformed into cotton fibre and then fabric. Up to 8,000 synthetic chemicals are known to be used in fashion manufacturing, many of which contain known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. Unlike our food, fabric labels aren't required to come with a list of ingredients and so our level of exposure to these hazardous substances is largely undisclosed. In fact this source claims that at least 10% of the weight of a conventionally woven cotton fabric is made up of synthetic chemicals!
Babies skin is extremely delicate, it is also less resistant to bacteria and triggers that can cause irritation. The skin barrier, which is what protects us from losing too much moisture and protects the skin from harmful germs or irritants, can be less developed in a baby and therefore less effective at protecting them. There are so many potential irritants found in conventionally woven cotton fabrics and many babies have a reduced ability to absorb, process or eliminate them. For example, formaldehyde is a chemical that is often applied to non-organic fabrics primarily to prevent wrinkles and mildew during shipping. As well as affecting the skin, this can also be inhaled and may trigger respiratory symptoms.
How do we know what we're buying?
So when buying organic cotton clothing we need to make sure that we are buying a fabric that is both organically grown and organically processed. The best way to do this it to purchase clothes that are GOTS certified. GOTS certification is internationally recognised and covers the entire production process from the use of organically farmed fibres to fabric processing and manufacturing. It is a rigorous process which even includes criteria relating to fair labour practices. Choosing GOTS certified items will ensure that you aren't inadvertently buying clothes that are made from organically farmed fibres that have been manufactured into fabric using conventional methods and therefore are still caked in a cocktail of mystery chemicals (such as formaldehyde, synthetic dyes, perfluorocarbons dioxins and heavy metals). If you want to learn more about why these toxic substances are used in fabric manufacturing, you can find out in our blog article here.
You may have also seen cotton clothes that have been labelled as Oeko-Tex certified. This refers to the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification which indicates that the fabric has been tested and certified to be free from harmful levels of more than 100 chemicals known to be harmful to human health. However, this certification only considers how the fabric is processed and not the raw materials or how the fibre is grown. Therefore it is very different from organic certification and most fabrics with Oeko-Tex certification will have been grown conventionally with the use of synthetic chemicals.
Can't we just wash the chemicals out?
We've always been reminded to wash new clothes before we wear them. But another thing to consider is that a single wash is unlikely to eliminate all of the harmful chemicals in non-organic clothing, for a number of reasons:
some chemicals are added to fabrics to serve an ongoing purpose, such as being non-slip, anti-microbial, stain resistant or fire resistant. So they don't necessarily (and aren’t meant to) disappear when washed the first time.
Some chemicals break down and form different chemical compounds and it can be these by-products that are harmful. For example, when azo dyes (a range of synthetic chemicals used for colouring fabric) breakdown they form aromatic amine compounds which can be absorbed by the skin and sweat glands. Some aromatic amines have been identified as potential carcinogens and can be harmful to human genes and reproduction. A study undertaken by Australia's ACCC showed that a single wash of an item may not decrease the concentration of the aromatic amine compounds. In some cases, the concentrations after a single wash were slightly higher than the pre-wash results because the azo dyes continue to break down with more washes and wears.
Why isn’t everything made from organic cotton?
According to Cotton Australia, in 2010 about 1% of all cotton produced worldwide was organic. The increasing demand for organic cotton fabric and its lower economy of scale compared to conventional cotton, means that it is usually more expensive than non-organic cotton products. However, choosing organic clothing for our children does help to give a little extra peace of mind about the potential health effects of what we are choosing to place against their precious skin. Aside from the potential health benefits of choosing organic cotton fabric it is also much better for the environment, which we explore in our blog article here.
As parents we do everything we can to protect our little people and make their lives and their environments as healthy as possible. For me, it was incredible and eye-opening to discover the types of chemicals that might be lurking in my kids clothes. As with everything, the more information we have on issues like this, the more empowered we are to make the best decisions we possible can for our families.