UPDATED: November 2016
If you’re a Gimme the Good Stuff reader, you likely to try to eat organically grown food and are taking steps to eliminate toxins in your home. So it probably seems like a no-brainer to insist on organic cotton clothing for your kids. But organic clothing is harder to find than the regular stuff (although becoming more and more available), and it’s significantly pricier. And what happens when your baby shower gifts are all really cute, non-organic onesies? My private clients ask me all the time: How important is it for my kid to wear organic clothing?
Under the Nile is a small family business that offers some of the best certified organic baby clothes on the market. I like that they don’t have slogans, logos, or cheesy prints on anything, and that they are super soft and simple.
What is “Organic” Cotton?
Crops that are grown using organic methods means a lot to the environment, as well as to all the hands that actually work with and among the plants. Cotton that is not grown organically is treated with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Harvesting organic cotton is much safer for the workers who pick it, and those living near cotton crops won’t have pesticides in their water sources. Plus, the producers can’t use GMO crops.
But in terms of the person wearing the clothing? The toxins used to farm the fiber are almost certainly washed out in the processing of the fiber, so you’re unlikely to get much pesticide exposure by wearing those clothes. I still tell my clients to wash everything before their kids wear it, because young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides, and we know that exposure has been linked to the development of ADHD. (There are many other good reasons to wash your clothes before wearing them, which I will get to in a minute.)
Bottom Line: You’re not exposing your kid to a lot of pesticides by putting him in a regular cotton T-shirt, but the chemicals washed out of the cotton that made his T-shirt ends up back in our environment. And you are exposing him to a lot of other gross chemicals in that conventional T-shirt, as you’ll read below.
Other Toxins Used in Fabric Treatment
Most clothing is produced with synthetic dyes and is treated with toxic chemicals to provide wrinkle resistance, stain resistance, fade resistance, static cling resistance, etc. In fact, that “new” smell in clothing usually indicates chemicals–and if the smell lingers after a washing, the chemicals haven’t been banished. Here’s some of the bad stuff found in some conventional fabrics:
- Benzidine-based “azo dyes” are synthetic colorants, some of which may release carcinogenic amines (ammonia derivatives). Certain azo dyes have been recognized as human bladder carcinogens and are also detrimental to the environment. In particular, o-dianisidine is a classified as potentially cancer causing in humans.
- Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (although unregulated in this country), and is used in clothing to prevent wrinkling. Many popular brands of baby clothing have been shown to contain formaldehyde in concentrations as high as 18,000 ppm (parts per million). Supposedly, up to 20 ppm for babies is safe, but I’d prefer zero, thanks. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde in fabrics can lead to a condition called contact allergic dermatitis, which is just a bad rash, but still no fun. In 2013, Minnesota became the first state to ban formaldehyde in certain baby products (lotions, soaps, and shampoos)–let’s hope more states follow.
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a group of chemicals that work to repel water and stains, in particular grease. According to EWG, PCFs break down into a toxic blood contaminant called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), and they are ubiquitous (over 90% of Americans are shown to have PFOA in their bloodstream). PCFs are found in cosmetics, household cleaners, packaged food containers, microwave popcorn, furniture, paper plates, and nonstick pans, amongst other places. In clothing, PFCs are usually lurking in wrinkle-, water-, and stain-resistant clothing, including those with Scotchgard and Gore-Tex tags.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are cheap surfactants sometimes used in the textile industry. They are also yucky hormone disruptors that wind up in our water supply when we launder clothing that contains them.
- Phthalates–yup, they are even in our clothing! Children are at a significantly higher risk than adults when it comes to phthalate exposure, and phthalates are often found in clothing dyes and in plastisol prints.
Can organic clothing contain these chemicals?
Up until recently, yes. A manufacturer could take organically grown cotton and dye it with toxic colorants and then treat it with formaldehyde to prevent wrinkling. In 2011, the USDA ruled that textiles (including mattresses) labeled as “organic” have a third-party certification, ideally GOTS, which ensures that the entire production process is gentle on the environment and on the person wearing the garment.
Organic standards for clothing are still not as clear-cut as they are for food. That said, buying organic cotton garments greatly reduces the likelihood that you are exposing your baby to endocrine disruptors and carcinogens when you lovingly wrap her in a brand new swaddle blanket.
You should continue to wash all clothing and blankets (using non-toxic laundry detergent) before use, preferably multiple times (but really, does anyone actually have time for that?!).
When buying organic cotton clothing, make sure the company has a third-party certification to back up their claim. In the US, solid organic certifications include:
- The USDA National Organic Program
- The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
- The Organic Trade Association (OTA)
If a company claims to use “natural” dyes, make sure they are certified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, which is the strictest out there.
The Good Stuff
Under the Nile offers a widely available, relatively affordable selection of GOTS-certified organic baby clothes, blankets, and toys. I love that Under the Nile is a family business that is genuinely committed to ethical production, including making sure their employees receive a living wage, education, and health care. The Under the Nile basics are perfect for stocking a non-toxic, organic nursery before your baby is born.
Cost: A basic long-sleeved onesie is around $20. We sell them in two-packs.
CastleWare is one of the most transparent organic clothing companies out there. This family-owned business, based in Eureka, CA, produces all garments in the USA, and uses 100% organic cotton (certified by the GOTS) and low-impact dyes (certified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100)–this means no harmful chemicals or residues. You can purchase their organic baby clothes online, or in select retail locations (a few of which are in New York City for those of us who live here). CastleWare offers a range of clothing items and the design of the clothing is simple and understated.
Cost: The pajama sets here go for $44-$53.
Zebi (now MilkBarn)
I often struggle to find clothing for my kids that is organic but also cute but not cutesie. I was psyched to discover Zebi, which was founded by Stacy Phillips, a Stanford University graduate and a mom who wanted to design stylish, organic baby clothes. Zebi uses 100% organic cotton and has three certifications (GOTS, Intertek Eco, and Oeko-Tex 100 Standard) to back it up. Zebi recently changed their name to Milkbarn.
Cost: cotton gown and hat set are $38.
We were surprised to learn that Hanna Andersson uses organic cotton and Oeko-Tex standards for the production of their long johns, baby sleepers, “unders,” turtlenecks, and boxy tees. However, since “almost 60%” of their clothing is certified, you have to dig into each product to learn whether it is truly organic. You can buy Hanna Andersson’s organic baby clothes on their website or through Amazon.
Cost: The organic sleeper pictured here sells for around $35.
Kate Quinn Organics offers a range of incredibly soft and super cute clothes for sizes newborn through age 8. Their GOTS-certified pieces are colored using low-impact dyes. You can now buy this line on Amazon
Cost: A jumpsuit like the the one pictured here sells for $22.
I love when this happens! Formerly listed as Sneaky Stuff, we can now move Burt’s Bees line of baby clothing to Good Stuff, as they have GOTS certification. Thanks to several readers who did their own sleuthing to find this out!
Cost: You can get a 5-pack Burt’s Bees bodysuits for$25 on Amazon. They even sell packs of two for around $14.95.
The Bad Stuff
Gap was one of the companies investigated in Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads report, and 78% of the items tested were found to contain hormone-disrupting NPEs (see above for more on these). Baby Gap has an “organic” line, yet presents zero information on the products, so I cannot say whether or not it is legit. Gimme the Good Stuff contacted Gap with a long list of questions, but have not heard back from them for any confirmation on the production of their organic clothing.
Carter’s (which makes a few brands of baby clothing, including OshKosh B’gosh) has a page of FAQ’s on their website that almost addresses the actual chemicals used in their production process; none of Carter’s garments is made with organic cotton, and there is no mention of dyes. Until I hear otherwise from them, I’ll assume the worst.
The Sneaky Stuff
In 2010, independent testing revealed that nearly one-third of the organic cotton used by H&M contained genetically modified material (which is not allowed in organic farming).
Want to Know More?
- To learn more about azo and other dyes, check out this study and this report.
- The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides more information on formaldehyde and its impact on our indoor air quality here.
- Ed Branigan, International Coatings’ Print Applications Manager reminds consumers of a very important aspect of labeling products: “ink doesn’t need to be free of phthalates in order to comply with CSPIA restrictions…some manufacturers may list their compliant products as “non-phthalate” when in reality the product still does contain phthalates, just not the six restricted ones.”
- Be sure to check out this resource from Green America on organic clothing and the textile industry.
- To learn more about children and pesticides, click here.
- In 2011, Greenpeace published a report on Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch Up. This is a great tool for those interested in learning about the toxic chemicals, dyes, and worldwide cycles of bioaccumulation that occur thanks to the manufacturing of clothing.