Are you dressed to kill?
Ever since I was a teenager I’ve loved shopping for new clothes. I still enjoy the guilty pleasures of carrying my purchases home, emptying them out onto the bed and staging my own private fashion show! Clothes are a great outlet for self-expression and individuality. They can make a huge difference to how we feel about ourselves: the right outfit can help us to feel comfortable, confident, professional, powerful, relaxed, romantic, you name it. Let’s face it, clothes also keep us warm - and without them we’d feel pretty foolish! One thing I never stopped to consider though - until now - was that my clothing might possibly be making me ill.
I began to develop vitiligo (#leukoderma) at an early age and, as it gradually spread, I noticed that new white patches often appeared after a period of intense itching, often accompanied by an angry-looking rash. I also noticed that certain materials irritated my skin if I came into contact with them. For example, the labels that are typically found in the necks of T-shirts and sweaters, the elastic and invisible thread used in some garments and – rather bizarrely I always thought - car seat belts, if they came into contact with my skin would cause an itchy, red reaction virtually immediately.
At the same time as my skin was becoming more sensitive I also developed #allergic rhinitis (runny nose, itchy throat and eyes, etc.). I also suffered from digestive problems and aching joints and was variously diagnosed with IBS and ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Both these diagnoses seemed to me to be a convenient way of labelling a bunch of apparently unrelated symptoms that my doctors didn’t know how to explain or treat. I always felt that all these symptoms were connected in some way because whenever one became worse, they all became worse and if one improved, they all did.
My increasingly poor general health has been a frustration to me throughout my adult life because I remember being such an active and energetic individual until I reached my early twenties. I have never thought of myself as a weak or sickly person and I am not a hypochondriac (although you would be forgiven for thinking so). I simply became more unwell as time went by and have never understood why. The only way I could describe how I felt was to say that it was as if I were being slowly poisoned – which was, needless to say, totally ridiculous… or was it?
Could it be that I was, in fact, being gradually poisoned by an accumulation of toxic chemicals from somewhere in my environment and that this build-up caused – or at least aggravated - all my ailments, including my vitiligo? I simply don’t know, of course, because the difficulty with symptoms like these is that they can have any number of different causes, just like vitiligo itself. One thing I am convinced of is that my vitiligo was a result of digestive issues because my dramatic and permanent repigmentation, using a nutritional approach, clearly demonstrated this. But what, I wonder, caused the digestive problems in the first place? And are my allergies and aching joints also a result of the same digestive deficiency or could environmental factors have been involved in the entire process?
What I can safely say is that, whether you suffer from vitiligo or allergies or IBS or ME, or any other chronic condition, your body’s ability to deal with harmful environmental influences is compromised. And if you are coming into prolonged and repeated contact with allergens and toxins this will inevitably exacerbate your symptoms and possibly trigger new ones.
So, what potentially harmful substances do we all come into contact with for prolonged periods on a daily basis? A frighteningly large number, as it turns out, and a lot of them are present in our clothing and bedding.
As far as I was concerned, synthetic fabrics were a triumph of modern technology – a game-changing contribution to the world of fashion and they had the added benefit of being easy to care for. But, apparently, today’s clothing industry uses a staggering 8,000 different synthetic chemicals and these have been linked to a rise in skin disorders, respiratory diseases, contact dermatitis, infertility and even cancers. More worrying still is the fact that this applies to children’s clothing, bedding and toys too.
#Petrochemicals in the synthetic fibres themselves are not the only culprits. The dyes used to create today’s multi-coloured wardrobe choices can also contain a harmful cocktail of industrial by-products and the treatments used to protect, fireproof , waterproof and dress many garments, which include formaldehyde, are equally pernicious. So it is little wonder that continued close contact with these substances can cause surface irritation at best and, worse still, can be absorbed through the skin and introduce an excessive #toxic burden into your system, which it may not be able to deal with, resulting eventually in chronic illness.
Unfortunately, the fabrics and clothing industries are not required by law to publish lists of the chemicals used during manufacture of their products or to include them on their labels, so the only way to be reasonably sure we avoid most of these “nasties” is to buy all our clothes, bedding and towels in natural fabrics, preferably organic, unbleached and un-dyed. With the best will in the world, this would make for a pretty limited wardrobe and would, in any case, be hard to achieve. But, when it comes to contaminants of any kind, the more you can reduce exposure, the better for your health, even if you can’t eliminate them altogether. So, it’s well worth doing a bit of research before you buy. This website, for example, might be a good place to start looking for suitable suppliers.
I’m not for one minute suggesting that synthetic clothing is the single root cause of vitiligo, or of any other specific health condition. But what I do believe - as a result of reading up on this fascinating and deeply worrying topic - is that anyone who suffers from any skin disorder or any type of chronic ill health (and even those who don't) would be well advised indeed to think carefully about what they bring home from their next clothes-shopping spree.
My name is Caroline.