Do You Really Need that New Raincoat?
It sounds good and the price is right, but the chemicals might not be
Little sucks more than being caught in the rain. So, why are we suggesting you hold off on getting a new raincoat? The answer may surprise you. It has to do with what makes the coat itself waterproof. Often for coats to be impervious to water the outer layer is covered in a chemical that belongs to a family of chemicals we at Because Health affectionately call pretty freaking awful stuff – the technical term is PFAS.
PFAS chemicals are special because they have a chemical bond between a carbon atom and a fluorine atom. That is one of the strongest bonds in chemistry and means that it makes it very hard for anything to get past it. Think of it like when you would play red rover in elementary school. The carbon-fluorine bond would be like the two fifth graders playing with a bunch of first graders that nobody could ever get past. Because of this super strong bond, anything that uses these chemicals can do what seems like some pretty magical things. One of those things is that the item becomes waterproof. While that sounds like a desirable quality, because these bonds are so strong, they also never break down. That may seem like a positive for something like your jacket, but it’s a negative when those chemicals break down or get into the environment and your body because they don’t break down there either. That’s why they have been given the name forever chemicals. These forever chemicals can cause some pretty serious health problems including increased cholesterol levels, lowering a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, harming the growth and development of children, messing with your immune system, and increasing risk for cancer. None of those sound like good things.
So, when it comes to making a decision about a new coat, think about how much time you will actually be spending in the rain at any given time and assess how much waterproof protection your coat really has to provide. If you work in an office and are only using it while you commute, you probably don’t need a super waterproof coat. But, if you are a professional mountain guide trekking through a rainforest for hours on end, we get it, the waterproof coat might be worth it. We’re just asking that you weigh the pros and cons before making a decision and help keep some of these forever chemicals out of circulation when you can.
The more we buy these products, the more we are hinting to companies that we are happy with the products and don’t mind that these chemicals are all around us. By finding alternatives, purchasing decisions are telling companies that we don’t want these chemicals around. And it’s more than just not wanting these chemicals in our products, but it is recognizing that producing them at all has a way of polluting our ecosystems.
So, what can you do about it? Well, first is assess if you need another raincoat. If you already have one, do you need another? If you do need a new one, there are some outdoor companies like Columbia, Marmot, and Nau that are also making the move to create raincoats that do not contain PFAS – way to go! (Columbia’s and Nau’s sites says the jackets are PFC free, that’s good too, it’s just a different acronym for fluorinated chemicals.) You could also look for a coat that doesn’t absorb water but also isn’t waterproof – like one made of wool which is naturally water resistant. That doesn’t mean a wool coat will keep you dry in the same way that a waterproof one from an outdoor store that can withstand 24 continuous hours rain would, but it’s a good start – and who stands in the rain for a whole day anyway. At first, the water will bead up on wool, then as it does start to sink in, the wool will hold onto the water without passing it on to you – at least for a little bit. For something like running errands or meeting a friend for dinner, this is probably enough to keep you warm and dry.
Another option is to get a waxed cotton coat. This is a coat made of cotton that has been made water resistant with a proper layer of wax. The wax gets in between the fibers and makes it tough for water to enter, while still being breathable. Many companies sell waxed cotton or canvas coats, and there is even a brand of wax – called Nikwax – that you can use to re-wax an old coat if it started to lose its water repellant abilities.
If you are wondering about umbrellas, many that are sold today are also either coated in a waterproof coating (the same thing that would be on a raincoat) or are made of plastic. While the plastic umbrellas are inherently waterproof without needing a coating, that plastic is usually vinyl or PVC, which has its own host of health concerns including liver damage, cancer, and nervous system problems.
Of course, you could also just do the wacky run through the rain to spend as little time as possible out in the rain.