Cotton Isn’t as Innocent as You Think

The fluffy fiber can have toxins that are being absorbed by your skin every day.
May 27, 2015·
Kelly Bryant is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer covering fashion, pop culture, and parenting for a variety of national publications.

On the surface, cotton just doesn’t have a very threatening ring to it. Associations with fluffy cumulus clouds and storybook characters like Peter Cottontail have probably contributed to its cuddly reputation. Its industry touts it as the fabric of our lives. But cotton isn’t so one-dimensional, and underneath the conventional variety lies a darker side.

For instance, while fabric made of conventional cotton may feel soft against your skin, it isn’t doing your body any favors and may have a harmful impact on your health.

“People get what they put in their body matters, right? It has a direct impact on your health, your personal health and well-being,” says Marci Zaroff, an eco-fashion pioneer featured in the fashion documentary The True Cost. “What they don’t get is that your skin is actually the largest organ in your body and your primary organ for absorption. People sleep on sheets, they wear towels and robes when they come out of the bath, and they wear clothing all day long, and most people, in at least some part of their lives, they’re wearing cotton product.”

Zaroff explains that enormous amounts of chemicals go into the growth of conventional cotton and that 90 percent of the world’s supply is genetically modified. Factor in the ginning process and the bleach and other chemicals added (often including formaldehyde, acetone, and heavy metals), and the result is fabric laden with toxins.

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“At the end of the day what you’re putting on your skin and what you’re sleeping on with your mouth and your body is chemically ridden textiles,” she says. “And then you wonder why a third of the population is walking around with asthma and allergies. It’s not just what we put in our bodies—it’s the air we’re breathing and the water we’re drinking.”

This isn’t to say all cotton is bad. As Zaroff points out, cotton has great benefits when grown organically. However, according to the 2011 Textile Exchange Farm & Fiber Report, approximately 151,079 metric tons were grown on 802,047 acres in 2010­–2011. That means organic cotton equaled 0.7 percent of global cotton production. 2012 production was down from the year before owing to unrest in Syria and droughts in the U.S. and Latin America. The good news? Demand for the fiber is growing.

The harmful effects of cotton and other global fashion–related concerns are explored in The True Cost, which will be released internationally on May 29.