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.
“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.”