Is Cheap Synthetic Fashion Killing Us? The Truth About Polyester Fabric

Bianca Piazza - Author

Nov. 30 2023, Published 3:56 p.m. ET

Close-up photo of a hand holding 100% polyester fabric in front of a black background
Source: iStock

The Gist:

  • Polyester is a synthetic fabric derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum.
  • It's durable and cheap, making it one of the most popular fabrics in the world.
  • The production, use, and washing of polyester clothing releases microplastics and toxic chemicals into the environment.
  • These chemicals and microplastics make their way into our food and water and can negatively impact our overall health over time.
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Considering the fabric reeks of tacky mundanity, it's no wonder camp filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos) named his 1981 satire flick about an in-over-her-head suburban housewife Polyester. And though it's associated with cheapness, most of us — from all points on the financial spectrum — own at least three items of clothing possessing polyester shells, blends, or linings. So, what is the common textile, really?

According to textile supplier Apex Mills, polyethylene terephthalate is a synthetic fiber made by mixing ethylene glycol with terephthalic acid. It's so popular because its' durable, moisture and wrinkle resistant, and moldable.

Polyester is an oil-based plastic and isn't considered biodegradable, so it's hard on the environment. But how does that discounted polyester dress affect your health; is it bad for you? Could budget-friendly fashion be ... deadly? Without fearmongering, let's talk facts.

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Photo of plastic water bottles, twine, and polyester fabric in front of a light blue background
Source: iStock

Why is polyester considered "bad"?

Here at Green Matters, we typically associate plastic with, well, evil. To put things in perspective, environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage relayed that 12 million tons of plastic is discarded into the ocean annually, 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide is generated when producing 1 ton of plastic, and about 1 in 3 fish captured for human consumption currently contains plastic. Plastic pollution is a major contributor to the climate crisis.

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When it comes to clothing, many brands offer recycled polyester pieces, which is a kinder alternative to using virgin plastics.

Still, when polyester clothing is produced, worn, and washed, it sheds microfibers — aka microplastics — which end up in our waterways and oceans. According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the washing and disposal of polyester also pollutes the water via the release of heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Organic clothing company Opok wrote that "a single synthetic garment can release up to 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash." Shockingly, an estimated 5.25 trillion macro and microplastics currently float in the ocean. Big yikes.

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And while we can't help but giggle at satirical Gen Z bumper stickers that say "I eat microplastics," there's a sad truth to this. According to The BBC, "microplastics have infiltrated every part of the planet," including the land, water (yes, drinking water), and air. Therefore, microplastics are a sneaky ingredient in the food we eat.

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The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered "sewage sludge has contaminated almost 20 million acres of U.S. cropland with [PFAS], often called 'forever chemicals,'" as reported by the publication. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon may contain PFAS, which don't typically break down.

From there, sewage sludge (a wastewater byproduct) is routinely used as an organic fertilizer in the U.S. and Europe. Why? It's both expensive to eliminate and rich in nutrients.

In short, sludge contaminates farmland and microplastics end up in food.

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Willie Peijnenburg, an environmental toxicology and biodiversity professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, found that crops absorb nanoplastic particles (which are even smaller than microplastics) via cracks in their roots. While leafy veggies like cabbage and lettuce likely contain small amounts of plastic particles, Peijnenburg warned that root vegetables contain higher levels of plastic particles.

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Microplastics and chemicals found in synthetic materials can negatively impact human health.

Evidence has shown that chemicals added during the production of plastics can mess with the endocrine system, affecting hormones in the process. As detailed by The BBC, these nasty chemicals have also been linked to cancer, heart disease, and fetal growth restriction.

The fetal development disruption research was specifically connected to BPA (bisphenol A) exposure, as mentioned in a 2022 scholarly article. However, it's important to note that the Center for Environmental Health's study only found BPA in "polyester-based clothing with spandex." Because of this, the CEH recommends removing synthetic activewear and socks directly after exercising.

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As for microplastics, researchers at the University of Hull in the U.K. found that ingesting high amounts of microplastics can cause cell damage and, in turn, inflammation and allergic reactions. The Caco-2 cell line was the most susceptible to damage.

We know, you're likely questioning your whole life. If you're looking to make the switch from polyester this winter, check out our various articles on eco-friendly and vegan fabric alternatives.

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