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Choose natural baby clothes

By Jennifer Spero |
Even organic and natural fiber baby clothes may be dyed or treated with dangerous chemicals. Choose clothes that are dye- and chemical treatment-free to go one step further in protecting your baby.

Natural baby clothing helps you take your organic baby clothes to the next level in protection. By choosing unbleached baby clothes or clothes that do not contain dangerous dyes, you'll contribute less to (or completely avoid) the chemical textile dyeing process- a practice detrimental to both the environment and to human health. And choosing untreated baby clothing means your little one won't be swaddled in fabrics that have been doused with chemical flame retardants or other chemical stain- and wrinkle-resistant treatments.

Before you buy

When shopping, beware of labels that proclaim "natural" in the product description as this term is not federally regulated and can mean just about anything. Instead, look for terms like: nontoxic, natural dyes, low-impact dyes, unbleached cotton, and manufactured without chemical finishes. Also look for products that carry Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification.

Choosing natural baby clothing helps you go green because…

  • Conventional dyes are commonly synthetic and originate from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
  • The manufacturing process uses fewer toxic chemicals that can pollute our waterways.
  • Eco-friendly dyes frequently require less water and less energy in the textile finishing process compared to conventional dyes.

When considering the eco-impacts of manufacturing-related chemical additions to clothing, there are two main areas to ponder: that which is used to color the garment, and that which is used to provide convenience features, such as stain- and wrinkle-resistance.


The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion — the equivalent weight of 441 average-sized cars, like the Nissan Altima.[1] Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil.[2] These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and other caustic ingredients. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants.[3]

In conventional textile production, caustic chemicals and bleaches are also used to remove all color before dyeing. Throughout the manufacturing process, the fiber and fabric is flushed with water, which creates a potential for wastewater contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach, which produces dioxin — a human carcinogen.

Although the use of synthetic, petrochemical dyes is prevalent in the garment industry, alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as "low-impact." For instance, cotton can be "color-grown," which means the color is inherent in the fiber. These cotton plants are cultivated in native white, tan, green yellow, red, and brown colors.[4] Other options include fiber-reative and natural dyes which are two of the more common options available to eco-garment manufacturers.

Fiber-reactive dyes, although synthetic and petroleum-based, form a covalent bond with the target fiber resulting in enduring, vivid, colors. The environmental benefits of fiber-reactive dyes come from a high absorption rate (around 70 percent) that results in less hazardous waste water, the absence of heavy metals and mordants, and the need for a dramatically decreased (thus less energy-consuming) application temperature in comparison to conventional dyes.[5] On the downside, fiber-reactive dyes are more costly than other dyes and pose some increased health drawbacks.

Natural, plant-based dyes are a rarity in mass garment production, but can be an eco-friendly, nontoxic alternative for home-dyers, especially those who garden or have access to wild-growing plants. Many plants used to produce dyes — indigo, Lady's Bedstraw, sassafras, and woad, for example — veer towards plant-esoterica yet beets, onion skins, berries, and dandelions can also be used. Coffee grounds and tea are common natural dyes as well. Dyeing fabric with plant-based dyes requires the use of chemical or non-chemical mordants.

Fabric treatments

Conventional baby clothes can be treated with chemical finishes to repel water and stains. These "stain-proof" and "water-repellant" finishes can off-gas formaldehyde. Additionally, their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) or dioxin, which may harm the environment or your body.[6]

Most sleepwear-style baby clothes are polyester, and according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), less than 1 percent of polyester or cotton sleepwear is treated with flame retardant chemicals.[7] But this figure only accounts for clothing that is treated with chemicals after it is made. Most often, flame retardant chemicals are actually bonded into the sleeper's fabric composition. Fire retardant chemicals used on sleepers and baby pajamas include halogenated hydrocarbons (chlorine and bromine), inorganic flame retardants (antimony oxides), and phosphate-based compounds. According to the EPA, chlorine causes environmental harm at low levels, mostly to organisms living in water and soil.[8] Likewise, phosphates are a major source of pollution in lakes and streams.

The good news? Since 1997, the CPSC has stated that snug-fitting untreated cotton sleepers are just as safe as flame retardant synthetic baby clothes.[7] Consumers wanting natural — and safe — clothing for their babies should read labels carefully and avoid products with these keywords: permanent press, crease resistant, no-iron, shrinkproof, stretchproof, stain-proofed, water-proofed, water repellent, or those that have been treated with flame retardants.


A European certification by the International Oeko-Tex Association is given to chemically treated textiles. Known as Oeko-Tex Standard 100 or Confidence in Textiles, products that have received this certification have been tested to assess the environmental impact of various chemicals, such as carcinogenic dyes, formaldehyde, softeners, heavy metals, pentachlorophenol, and substances that are harmful to health but not yet regulated (pesticides, allergy-inducing dyestuffs or tin-organic compounds).[9] The organization's website includes the ability to do a brand name search for certification. Manufacturers that meet the standards are licensed to use the registered Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label on their products.

Related health issues

Contact with the chemicals used in textile dyeing can lead to various human health issues. To those with chemical sensitivities, garments containing some dyes can lead to dermatological and respiratory allergies. Although fiber-reactive dyes are believed to be gentler on the environment they contain sodium carbonate, a source of asthma and other lung ailments.[10]


  • mordant: In textile dyeing, a mordant is a substance used to permanently attach a dye to the target fiber. Common mordants include metal-based tin, cooper, alum, and iron, as well as plant-based tannic acid.
  • formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC (volatile organic compound) family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
  • volatile organic compounds>volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

External Links


  1. - Natural, "Green" Dyes for the Textile Industry
  2. The Green Guide - Mattresses and Box Springs
  3. US Environmental Protection Agency - Federal Register: 40 CFR Parts 148, 261, 268, 271, and 302
  4. Metaefficient - Color Grown Cotton: Fox Fibre
  5. Organic Lifestyle - Low Impact Dyes
  6. The Green Guide - The Eco-nomical Bedroom
  7. The Green Guide - "Inherently" Flame-Resistant Pajamas?
  8. US Environmental Protection Agency - Chemicals In The Environment: Chlorine
  9. Oeko-Tex - Tests for Harmful Substances
  10. Green Guide - Color By Nature
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