Polyester – it is everywhere! Read the label on practically any item of clothing you buy and there is a good chance that the synthetic material will make an appearance.
But is polyester fabric safe to use? Or does it harbour some potential hazards? That’s the question we address in this post. As you’ll discover, polyester can be hazardous under certain conditions. However, the overall degree of toxicity is likely low for most people.
What Is Polyester?
Polyester is not a natural fabric (like wool or silk). Instead, manufacturers make it from petroleum oil extracted from the ground. Like so many other synthetic products, it is popular because it is cheap. Brands can make fabrics from components of crude oil more affordably than more labour-intensive sources.
Technically speaking, polyester is a type of man-made plastic. For this reason, it takes a long time to break down – around 20 to 200 years, depending on who you ask.
Pure polyester has an almost rubbery feel which sets it apart from the natural fibres you encounter. Usually, garment makers don’t use 100 per cent polyester but instead mix fibres together to make items feel more like regular clothing. Thus, labels on fabrics will usually say something like “80 per cent polyester, 20 per cent cotton.” (The higher the quality of the fabric, the less polyester the manufacturer will use).
How Do Manufacturers Make Polyester?
Polyester was a fabric first developed in the 20th century by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. The company wanted to know whether it was possible to make very long plastic fibres from petroleum derivatives. Under the leadership of chemist W.H. Carothers, the firm made some significant progress, developing nylon fibres in the 1930s. By 1946, du Pont purchased the rights to produce and sell polyester fabrics in the United States and, in 1951, began selling it under the trade name Dacron.
There are two main versions of polyester on the market today. The first is regular PET – the more popular type. It’s strong, elastic and resilient, making it popular for clothing. The other is PCDT. Brands typically weave this into thicker sheets and then market it for heavy-duty applications, such as draperies or furniture coverings.
To make polyester, manufacturers first gather the materials that they need. The main ingredient is ethylene which is a hydrocarbon derived from petroleum. Ethylene molecules are the basic building block that gets converted into polyester strands during the “polymerisation” process.
To manufacture a filament yarn, manufacturers react dimethyl terephthalate with ethylene glycol and a catalyst at high heat. They then warm the resulting compound to a slightly higher temperature and combine it with terephthalic acid to form new polyester. A machine then extrudes it into ribbons and prepares it for the drying process.
Once dry, manufacturers cut the polyester into chips and melt it to form a syrupy solution. They then place the chips in a machine called a spinneret with tiny holes in it which rotates the solution at high speed. During this stage, manufacturers may add additional chemicals, such as fragrances, fire retardants and other potentially toxic substances. As the mixture spins under heat, polyester begins oozing out of the holes. The centripetal force generates long filaments, forcing all of the molecules in the substance to align. This alignment gives polyester its strength and flexibility. As the fibres dry, they become strong and resilient, not brittle as before.
While the process sounds complicated, spinning polyester is actually a relatively simple process. Once it took off in the US after 1951, dozens of manufacturers began using the material all over the world, including in Australia. Polyester became the fabric of choice in the 1960s, particular for people looking for machine washable napkins and tablecloths.
Since then, though, polyester has been dealing with a negative image. In the past, consumers didn’t like its tacky feel. But now the primary concern is the potential impacts that it could be having on human health.
The Toxicity Of Polyester
Unfortunately, polyester might not be safe. Different lines of enquiry are all converging on a negative view of the fabric, making the case against it stronger than ever.
Polyester May Release Irritant Chemicals Into Your Environment When Heated
Drying polyester fabrics in a dryer could be potentially hazardous. The application of heat may enable the outgassing of harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde. The same may happen at night time when the body comes into contact with bedsheets. Sleeping on synthetic bedding may release harmful chemicals, such as perfluorochemicals into the air which the skin then absorbs. Evidence from animal studies seems to suggest a causal link between exposure to perfluorochemicals via the skin and damage to the liver, kidneys and reproductive systems.
Polyester May Release Carcinogens
The way some manufacturers process polyester fabrics may also create issues. As discussed in the previous section, some manufacturers add chemicals to polyester to help it blend better with cottons, such as formaldehyde and ammonia. Both these chemicals are irritants and may exacerbate asthma symptoms. Furthermore, the EPA classifies formaldehyde as a “possible carcinogen,” based on numerous lab reports and human trials. The organisation believes that it may increase the likelihood of myeloid leukemia.
Formaldehyde at air levels of higher than 0.1 parts per million is associated with a range of less severe (yet distressing) health conditions too. People exposed to the chemical can experience nausea, wheezing, skin irritation, coughing, watery eyes and burning sensations in the throat.
Some manufacturers add Teflon to polyester to help it remain crinkle-free after washing. Unfortunately, these too may make it carcinogenic. Teflon is a type of perfluorochemical that allows manufacturers to offer strain-free and wrinkle-resistant clothing. But research shows that it can get into the body and accumulate over time. Evidence suggests that it may cause serious health concerns such as liver and kidney damage, plus reproductive health issues.
Lastly, polyester fabrics usually contain the carcinogen, antimony. Labs regularly detect antimony residues in around 80 to 85 per cent of polyester fibres because manufacturers use it as a catalyst in the production of polyethylene terephthalate – the substance that they then extrude into yarn. Antimony remains embedded in the material and, according to research, may cause “respiratory irritation, pneumoconiosis, antimony spots on the skin and gastrointestinal symptoms.”
Polyester Exposure May Cause Allergies
Some people’s skin can suffer an allergic reaction when it comes into contact with polyester – a condition known as contact dermatitis. Researchers believe that it happens because of the toxic compounds that some polyester fabrics contain.
Signs of allergic reactions to polyester include contact dermatitis, itchiness, skin redness and dryness, and abnormally warm skin. People who have severe reactions may experience hives or blisters on their bodies. They may also experience breathing issues or sensations of tightness in the chest alongside pain.
Usually, the symptoms of an allergic reaction to polyester will show up in a matter of minutes. However, they may take several days to appear in some cases.
Is Recycled Polyester Safer?
Given the alleged health problems associated with regular polyester, many people are wondering whether recycled varieties are any better. Today, the eco-fashion industry is advertising their products as containing recycled PET-based polyester fabrics.
Most recycled polyester comes from recycled PET plastic bottles. Processing plants crush the bottles and then cut them into tiny pieces, melt them down and then extrude yarn in much the same way as described above.
In general, it is an eco-friendly choice because it reduces waste and pollution by a small amount. However, because it relies on virtually identical processes as before, it is still harmful to the individual human body and the Earth.
In fact, in some cases, recycled polyester may be more harmful. That’s because fabrics may contain Bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic bottles that contain the substance. Mayo Clinic reports that BPA exposure can lead to problems with the brain and prostate glands of children, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, particularly when exposed to heat.
What To Use Instead Of Polyester
So, are there any alternatives to polyester you can use? Fortunately, there are.
If you are worried about polyester sheets outgassing during the night, replace them with cotton or silk alternatives. Cotton is the least expensive option and feels good on the skin. It is breathable and biodegradable because it comes from the cotton plant.
If you can, choose organic cotton products. These reduce the risk of exposing yourself to potentially harmful herbicides and pesticides. They also use vastly less water and energy to rear than their conventional counterparts.
Hemp is another popular option and has been cultivated for thousands of years all over the planet. It is one of the most sustainable materials that you can buy because it requires very little water to grow. Organic versions also tend to thrive, allowing it to produce around twice as much yarn per hectare as cotton. It’s breathable, renewable and feels similar to linen against your skin.
Silk is less affordable, but generally even more comfortable than the natural options discussed so far. It’s natural, biodegradable and renewable, but because it comes from insects, it’s not vegan.
However, if you still want silk and don’t want to harm animals, then you might want to opt for so-called “Ahimsa silk” or “Peace silk” since these are cruelty-free. Note that when manufacturers make silk ethically and sustainably, it reduces waste and increases energy efficiency dramatically.
Lastly, you might want to experiment with adding more linen to your collection. Linen comes from the flax plant – the same crop we get flaxseeds and flaxseed oil from. Wearing it feels similar to both hemp and cotton. It has a slightly abrasive but robust feel on the skin – something that most people find familiar.
Hardly any of the flax plants go to waste. Manufacturers use it to make paper, biomaterials, oils and other types of upholstery.
When choosing alternative fabrics, double-check to see if they contain any polyester. As discussed, manufacturers will often blend polyester with other materials to cut costs and improve product durability.
Is Polyester Fabric Safe? A Final Note
In this article, we have pointed out all of the evidence against using polyester as a fabric, highlighting all possible ways that it might harm you. However, it is worth noting that the vast majority of people come into contact with the fabric every day of their lives with no ill effects. Polyester is not as hazardous as smoking, living a stressful life or eating junk food.
If you can avoid heating polyester in the dryer, that helps improve safety even more. Those who are worried should wear non-polyester-containing clothes and switch to cotton or silk bedding. If you do have polyester upholstery in your home, use it for fabrics that are unlikely to get hot, such as drapes.
Please note that changing your habits will incur some costs. Manufacturers use polyester because of the benefits that it brings to consumers. They are not deliberately trying to hurt people. (Most aren’t even aware that there is a problem).
Polyester, for instance, is durable and lightweight. This allows manufacturers to cut product and shipping costs. It’s also highly wrinkle-resistant, meaning that you don’t need to iron it. You can just leave it out to drip dry and you’ll have a perfectly smooth shirt.
Colours also tend to look more vibrant on polyester garments. So if you want to buy something colourful, polyester is often the best substrate.
Further than that, garments that use polyester tend to retain their shape better. Fitted shirts can go through wash after wash and still accentuate the physique of the wearer.
Finally, there’s the fact that polyester is stain-resistant and, therefore, easy to clean. Compounds don’t easily become embedded in the fabric’s fibres, often washing out on low heat.
In summary, therefore, polyester isn’t necessarily bad. Like most things, it comes with costs and benefits. If you choose to use the material, you can make your life more convenient. However, you may also be exposing yourself to harmful chemicals.