Opinion: Hitting the gym or going to yoga? Your workout clothes could be doing more harm than you realize
In 2022, the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in California, tested sports bras, leggings, athletic shirts and other activewear and found high levels of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in those sold by Athleta, PINK, The North Face, Nike and Patagonia, among other brands. (CNN reached out to the companies for comment; a spokesperson for Athleta said the company was committed to safety standards, adding, “We believe the CEH claims have no merit and stand by our products and practices.”) This came just one year after the CEH found high levels of BPA in socks from over 100 brands.
This information spread quickly through women’s groups and group chats. As I was in the middle of researching my book “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back,” my friends asked me how concerned they should be. My answer? Very concerned.
You might remember BPA from the baby-bottle scare more than a decade ago. Or you might recognize it from all the “BPA-free” water bottles and children’s products now on shelves.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it mimics or interferes with the body’s hormones. And as anyone with a thyroid disease can tell you, the endocrine system doesn’t just regulate your reproductive system, it regulates all the important systems in your body, including your immune system, your brain, your metabolism and your cardiovascular system.
It governs weight management and your energy levels, not to mention your skin’s appearance and your ability to fend off illness. More specifically, research has found correlations between BPA exposure and infertility, brain and behavior disorders in infants and children, lifelong health effects for babies exposed to it in the womb, breast cancer, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and even acne.
According to Oeko-Tex, the safe textile chemistry certification, BPA could have been used to produce polyester-spandex in socks and athletic gear for a variety of reasons: for antistatic and colorfast properties; as dye-fixing agents for polyester; or to produce fungicides, PVC or spandex.
But BPA is not the only endocrine-disrupting chemical found in fashion. There’s also its close cousins bisphenol S and F,which are increasingly used to replace BPA;plus lead, mercury and arsenic, which can be used in the dyeing process; alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs), which are surfactants often used in the scouring, dyeing and printing of fabrics;perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of chemicals that are so persistent they’re known as “forever chemicals” and are often used in clothing for water and stain resistance; and phthalates, which are used to make bendy, pliable vinyl for things like pleather skirts and clear shoe straps.