In a Nutshell:
- Manufacturers often apply antimicrobials and antibacterials to textiles with the intention of creating “germ-resistant” or “anti-odor” products.
- It’s not just textiles, though… Antimicrobials are often added to all kinds of products, including things like paint, carpet, flooring, kitchenware, shoes, keyboards, air/water filters, medical devices, and more.
- We’ve looked into the 6 most commonly used chemicals to find out whether or not they actually work and whether or not they are safe for human health.
- It can be very difficult to avoid antimicrobial treatments entirely, but we’ve got some tips for you below on how you can minimize your exposure.
The thought of bacteria, viruses, or fungi growing in your clothes is not comforting—especially when you’re wearing them. With the goal of keeping them in check, textile makers apply antimicrobial & antibacterial coatings either on the surface or embedded in the fibers. But do they work?
And even if they are effective at killing microorganisms, questions about their safety persist. What price are you willing to pay for microbe-free clothes if your health suffers as a result?
In this article, find out whether the most frequently applied antimicrobial & antibacterial chemicals on fabric actually kill microorganisms. Secondly, discover whether they are safe for you. If you decide that the health risks from fabric antimicrobials and antibacterials are too great to bear, learn how to watch out for them when clothes shopping.
Table of Contents
- What Are Antimicrobial and Antibacterial Fabrics?
- Is Triclosan on Fabrics Safe?
- Is Silver on Fabrics Safe?
- Are Quaternary Ammonium Compounds on Fabrics Safe?
- Is Zinc Pyrithione on Fabrics Safe?
- Is PHMB on Fabrics Safe?
- Are N-Halamines on Fabrics Safe?
- What You Can Do To Avoid Antimicrobials and Antibacterials
- 1. Read product labels carefully.
- 2. Watch out for vague language.
- 3. Vacuum and dust your home frequently.
- 4. Use a high-quality air purifier.
- 5. Ask for more info.
- Key Takeaways on the Safety of Fabric Antimicrobials and Antibacterials
What Are Antimicrobial and Antibacterial Fabrics?
Antimicrobial and antibacterial (A&A) fabrics are textiles—and all the things made from them—that are either:
- Naturally resistant to microbes (linen, hemp, wool)
- Coated or embedded with chemicals possessing A&A characteristics. This means these chemicals are applied on the surface of the textile or embedded into the textile fibers.
Antimicrobials are substances that slow or stop the growth of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antibacterials, on the other hand, work only against bacteria.
When they work, both antimicrobials and antibacterials inactivate only certain species of microbes, leading to their eventual death. Usually, it is only those species used to manufacture a specific A&A compound that will be affected when exposed to it.
- Broadly effective (against a wide variety of microbial species)
- Resistant to repeated washings
There are many popular brands sporting A&A fabrics—and some are even calling them washless—including Lululemon, Patagonia, Pangaia, and Gap.
Here are some of the most common antimicrobials and antibacterials applied on fabrics. See the following sections for more information on each of them.
Is Triclosan on Fabrics Safe?
Of all the antimicrobials and antibacterials used on fabrics, triclosan is one of the most common. Its safety is highly questionable.
Registered as a pesticide with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical. It is allowed on thousands of products and has widespread industrial use. For instance, triclosan is found in:
- Shower curtains
- Exercise mats
- Cutting boards
- Commercial and industrial equipment (conveyor belts, HVAC coils)
Unsurprisingly, given the ubiquitous nature of triclosan, it is found in over 75% of humans. It partitions in blood and breast milk.
In 2016, triclosan was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in soaps and body washes. In large part, the ban resulted from the action of the Green Science Policy Institute and other nonprofits, along with many scientists and medical professionals. They sent a document titled Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban to the FDA calling for a ban on triclosan and its sister compound, triclocarban.
In their Statement, the authors described triclosan and triclocarban as “environmentally persistent endocrine disruptors that…are toxic to aquatic and other organisms.” They cited research—animal and human studies—that showed these antimicrobials are associated with:
- Reproductive and developmental abnormalities
- Increased sensitivity to allergens
- Antibiotic/antimicrobial resistance
- Modified gut microbiome
In most cases, triclosan was not found to be effective against microbial growth. In fact, the FDA said plain soap and water are more effective at killing germs.
The FDA requires triclosan be labeled on products it regulates such as cosmetics and body washes. There is no such labeling requirement if triclosan is present in other goods—such as clothes. Companies may simply use the word antimicrobial to indicate its presence without identifying it by name.
Is Silver on Fabrics Safe?
Silver coatings, especially those made of nanoparticles (AgNP or nanosilver), have been hugely popular ever since triclosan and similar A&A were banned in certain products and people became concerned over its safety. It’s common to find nanosilver in:
- Women’s hygiene products
- Medical devices
- Air filters
While it has been used in surgical wound dressings, it has been banned in Europe as ineffective and potentially toxic.
You may read on the Internet that nanosilver antimicrobials are safe. These sources are highly suspect in light of data from lab animals and from human cell lines showing how AgNPs harm cells. These cytotoxic effects are due to their being reactive oxygen species (ROS) when they release an abundance of silver ions.
Although some are naturally produced and necessary for cell health in moderate quantities, an excess of ROS in the body causes widespread inflammation, damage to DNA and other biomolecules, and may lead to cell death.
AgNPs kill cells and provoke immune responses easily because they are several times more reactive than larger silver-containing compounds. They also cause genetic malformations in cells. AgNPs cross the blood-brain barrier and damage neurons once in the brain.
On an environmental level, increased use of nanosilver has resulted in higher concentrations of silver ions in soil and water where they are toxic to marine life. AgNPs bioaccumulate and are persistent in the environment. There is evidence that AgNPs also promote antibacterial resistance.
In terms of odor control on clothes, research conducted using real people (not cells in lab plates) concluded that silver is not effective in removing bad smells from fabric, either.
Research into the potential longterm effects of nanotechnology is still relatively new and we will likely see more information emerge about AgNPs in the coming years.
Are Quaternary Ammonium Compounds on Fabrics Safe?
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (quats or QACs) is the general name for several hundred related chemicals that share a central nitrogen atom and four clusters of atoms around it. Thus, the prefix quat which means four. Depending on the atoms and their arrangement in the clusters, quats are categorized into four classes.
QACs entered the market before the US EPA began regulating potentially harmful chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. So, quats were grandfathered in without being evaluated for safety. This means companies could continue using them in consumer products without knowing anything about their safety.
Currently, the US EPA regulates quats as pesticides. There are over 2,000 pesticide products that contain quats.
When Covid-19 hit in 2020, quats were enlisted on a grand scale to disinfect literally everything. During this time scientists began to hypothesize that inhalation of droplets through sprays was the primary mode of entry into humans.
Quats act as antimicrobials in:
- Household cleaning products
- Fabric softeners
- Anti-cling dryer sheets
- Eye drops
- Spermicidal jellies
- Dishwashing liquids
- Hand soaps
- Air fresheners
- Water purification
- Wood preservation
- Textile and leather manufacturing
Some of the most common quats are:
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Benzethonium chloride
- Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride
- Didecyldimethylammonium chloride
All QACs are great—maybe too great—at disinfecting. This is why some wipes come with the warning to wash your hands after using them. Confused? We are, too.
There is no need for quats for normal household purposes. Safer alternatives like soap and water are adequate.
Widespread use of quats is leading to antibacterial resistance. This means superbugs capable of surviving an antimicrobial application are created with use of quats, rendering antibiotics useless. This is a serious problem that is causing millions of deaths annually.
Scientists are quickly working to develop new ones, but unsure if they can keep up with how fast microbes mutate. Using antimicrobials makes the process so much harder. In the case of a bacterial infection, maybe one day you’d have no defense—except possibly with a fecal transplant.
Exposure to quats have been associated with negative health outcomes in humans including:
When accidentally splashed into eyes or ingested, quats could cause blindness or death in humans. Some quats, such as quaternium-15, are formaldehyde-releasing. This means the chemical releases carcinogenic formaldehyde as a preservative. There are no regulations for quaternium-15 in consumer products.
In lab animal studies, exposure to quats causes reproductive and developmental abnormalities and immune dysfunction. Researchers don’t know enough about quats to conclude these effects would be observed in humans. However, a small human study showed 80% of people possessed quats in their blood. Their cells displayed decreased mitochondrial function and an increase in inflammatory cytokines.
In the environment, quats break down quickly in water and most soils. However, they are highly toxic to marine invertebrates and fish and moderately toxic to birds.
Is Zinc Pyrithione on Fabrics Safe?
You may be familiar with zinc pyrithione (ZnPT) as the active ingredient in anti-dandruff shampoos. It is also commonly used to treat seborrheic dermatitis. Do you also know that in 2022, the European Union banned it in cosmetics because of concerns about its reproductive toxicity? This fact makes you question its safety for other uses, too—even on fabrics.
In 1984, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), was granted a patent for applying ZnPT to cellulosic textiles (cotton, hemp, linen) as an antimicrobial effective against bacteria and fungi and able to withstand repeated washings. Today, the US EPA regulates ZnPT as a pesticide.
More recently, companies developed antimicrobial substances based on ZnPT. Some of them are incorporated into the fabric fibers. They claim to work against odor on polyester and Lycra. One of them boasts a 99.99% effectiveness against bacteria and fungi (mold and mildew) even after 50 launderings.
Incidentally, a research study showed cotton and wool stacked up better than treated polyester in terms of odor control, even after washing them.
Zinc pyrithione may be used in:
- Athletic clothing
- Shower curtains
- Bath mats
- Protective padding
- Foam sandals
- Shoe linings and inserts
- Adhesives (including those used in food packaging)
- Industrial equipment (including food processing)
- Dishwashing liquids
- Air filters
- Water treatment
As noted previously, the European Union has flagged ZnPT for its reproductive toxicity and banned it in cosmetics. In a study using human cells, it causes DNA damage.
In another study, ZnPT did not exhibit estrogenic activity in lab animals. In other studies spanning 60 years, it is generally considered as safe when used as prescribed.
Interestingly, there is experimental evidence that ZnPT, in conjunction with certain antibiotics against one type or bacteria, slowed down the process of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. The development of bacterial resistance to life-saving antibiotics is a major concern with the use of other types of antimicrobials discussed in this article. However, it isn’t known whether ZnPT would show this effect for all types of antibiotics.
ZnPT is commonly used to kill algae and bivalves on boats. Although it degrades rapidly in sunlight, it is toxic to crustaceans and fish even in small amounts. Research by the USDA indicated ZnPT is “more persistent than expected in the coastal environment, and has a potential for bioaccumulation.” The research also showed DNA-damaging effects from non-lethal doses in bivalves leading to cell death. Thus, widespread use of this antimicrobial raises concerns about toxicity to aquatic systems.
Is PHMB on Fabrics Safe?
Polyhexamethylene biguanide (polyhexanide or PHMB) is a widely used broad-spectrum biocide, especially in hospital settings. You may also find it in:
- Wet wipes
- Contact lens solutions
- Personal care products
- Wound and burn treatments
- Pool disinfectants
Unlike other A&As known to cause antibiotic resistance, PHMB is not believed to do so. Due to its ability to form strong chemical attachments to cotton fibers, PHMB is a popular choice as an antimicrobial in clothing worn by health professionals. A study among hospital workers showed PHMB on clothes could kill almost all bacteria and inactivate 95% of coronavirus after five months of regular use and washings.
In 2011, the European Chemical Agency declared PHMB to be a possible human carcinogen (category 2). PHMB “is fatal if inhaled, causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure, is very toxic to aquatic life…with long lasting effects, is harmful if swallowed, causes serious eye damage, is suspected of causing cancer, and may cause an allergic skin reaction.” As a result, it was banned as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products in 2015 across Europe. However, PHMB is still found there in some brands.
In the United States, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) concluded from its review that PHMB is safe. It is still permitted in cosmetics if there is no risk of inhalation, which is believed to be the major exposure route. However, the SCCS stated that its use in sprayable formulations is not advised.
Are N-Halamines on Fabrics Safe?
N-halamines are chemicals containing one or more halogen (chlorine or bromine) atoms bonded to a nitrogen atom. This type of linkage is called a halamine bond.
In textiles, N-halamines are unique in their antimicrobial activity because they are rechargeable. First, the release of halogen atoms from N-halamines to microbial cell walls leads to the death of those microbes. Then the antimicrobial function of the textile diminishes without those halogen atoms. But, if it is washed in a halogen-containing solution like bleach, the fabric regains its antimicrobial activity.
N-Halamines are considered broad-spectrum antimicrobials because they are effective against a wide range of microorganisms. Some of their uses include:
- Wound dressings
- Hospital linens and curtains
- Contact lens solutions
- Air filters
- Water filters
- Food containers
- Synthetic and natural fabrics
Chlorine-containing compounds, N-chloramines, show much promise as antimicrobials. Since they target a number of different points of entry on bacteria, the likelihood of antibiotic resistance is reduced.
However, exposure to some chloramines, when in water or inhaled, are associated with cancer risk. As a general class, though, N-halamines are considered less toxic to humans and the environment compared to other A&As.
What You Can Do To Avoid Antimicrobials and Antibacterials
Since the most likely ways you’re exposed to antimicrobials and antibacterials (A&A) on fabrics is through skin contact or breathing in or ingesting dust carrying these chemicals, try these strategies to reduce your exposure:
1. Read product labels carefully.
Look for the common names of A&A given above and don’t purchase them. If you see something that resembles one of these common names—there are many chemical cousins with similar names—assume it is an antimicrobial.
Unfortunately, labeling is not required for fabrics so it can be difficult to tell what’s on it.
2. Watch out for vague language.
On fabrics, you may see ambiguous terms like washless, germ-resistant, anti-odor, biodegradable fabric softening agents, or catatonic surfactants. These are code names for A&A and you may want to avoid them if possible.
3. Vacuum and dust your home frequently.
Use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter if possible, paying special attention to curtains, furniture, flooring, carpeting, and walls. This is especially relevant if you have young children who spend most of their time on the floor or carpet.
4. Use a high-quality air purifier.
This will help ensure contaminated dust is removed from your indoor air. Portable units allow you to target certain rooms, whereas large air purifiers are effective over a wider space.
5. Ask for more info.
When in doubt, always ask the product’s manufacturer questions about A&A coatings on their goods. They may not be listed on a material safety data sheet (MSDS). If they insist it’s proprietary information and won’t tell you, look elsewhere.
Key Takeaways on the Safety of Fabric Antimicrobials and Antibacterials
Fabric makers apply antimicrobials and antibacterials (A&A) to textiles with the intention of creating germ-free products. However, there is no proof that they are broadly effective in doing this, although they may slow the growth or even inactivate a limited number of microbes used to develop them.
And if they’re not able to keep fabric microbe-free, they’re even less likely to keep you free of them. In fact, as a group, a lot of evidence shows that they provide little to no benefit to people. To the contrary, A&A may cause harm to your health and to the environment.
The use of antimicrobials and antibacterials encourages microbes to develop resistance to them, creating “superbugs.” So when you really are infected with microbes, antibiotics or antifungal medications won’t work. For this reason, try to avoid purchasing anything that is labeled antimicrobial when possible.
There is also evidence that some antimicrobials are endocrine disrupting. This means they will upset hormonal balance, possibly causing reproductive harm to you or your children.
Unfortunately, textile makers do not have to label their products with the names of the microbials applied to them. Your safest bet for antimicrobial-free clothes is choosing organic fabrics.
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