Microfiber is a synthetic fabric that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
It’s made up of tiny fibers, which makes it lightweight and durable. Ideal for multiple uses, including:
However, there’s growing concern about the potential toxicity of microfiber products.
In this article, I’ll explore the evidence surrounding this controversy and answer the question: Is microfiber toxic?
Read on to hear from the experts and discover the truth about microfiber!
Microfibers are made of plastic, so technically, they are microplastics. It’s a human-made material that can be up to ten times thinner than human hair and invisible to the naked eye.
However, the term ’microfiber’ is usually used to describe the shed fibers from polyester, nylon, and acrylic fabric.
On the other hand, microplastics can be any type of plastic that has been degraded into small pieces (usually less than five millimeters in diameter). This could include anything from bottle caps and Styrofoam to car tires.
So while all microfibers are microplastics, not all microplastics are microfibers.
Microfiber pollution is a growing problem worldwide.
A report published in the Guardian found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the globe.
What’s more, another study estimates that between 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the seas, lakes, and rivers every year.
These numbers are alarming, considering the potential health risks of microfiber exposure (more on that later).
It’s not just our shorelines that are being affected. Microfibers have also been found in:
In other words, there’s no escaping microfiber pollution!
Fast fashion clothing companies are cagey about the impact of microfiber, and other synthetic materials, on the planet and humans.
However, there have been some independent studies that don’t make great reading.
This study found that people sleeping on microfiber sheets had elevated levels of phthalates in their urine compared to those sleeping on cotton or woolen sheets.
This study found that the toxic chemicals released by microfiber items increase when dried in an electric clothes dryer.
This study found that 90% of all salt tested contained microplastics.
This study found that when microfibers build up in coastal areas, they’re ingested by seafood (in this case, mussels).
These levels of microfiber prevent the mussel from clearing enough plankton, which can lead to pollution or eutrophication.
The microfibers also stay in the mussels for a significant period and will pass up the food chain to any human that consumes the mussel.
Similar studies have found the same with prawns and many types of fish.
According to a study from The University of California in Santa Barbara:
A city the size of Berlin, Germany, releases microfibers equivalent to 500,000 plastic bags from washing machines daily.
This study shines a light on the sheer volume of microplastics we consume daily, just from our drinking water.
The findings state that:
The potential for microplastic inhalation and how the source of drinking water may affect microplastic consumption were also explored. Our analysis used 402 data points from 26 studies, which represents over 3600 processed samples. Evaluating approximately 15% of Americans’ caloric intake, we estimate that annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39000 to 52000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase to 74000 and 121000 when inhalation is considered. Additionally, individuals who meet their recommended water intake through only bottled sources may be ingesting an additional 90000 microplastics annually, compared to 4000 microplastics for those who consume only tap water.
When you add in the plastic-contaminated food we eat and the plastic dust particles we breathe, it’s now believed that we likely consume 5g of plastic each week (the same as a credit card!).
We’ve established that microfibers are polluting our environment and that we’re consuming them, but what does this mean for our health?
The thought of consuming thousands of tiny pieces of plastic is a sobering one, However, surely we’ll poop or pee most of it out, and then there’s no issue. Right?
Well, unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that!
You see, the ultrafine synthetic yarns we consume act like chemical sponges containing all sorts of toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, such as:
These chemicals can leach into our bodies as they break down and pass through our system.
These chemicals can be extremely harmful, and some of them are even classed as “endocrine disruptors”.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of our hormones. This can lead to a whole host of health problems, including:
The list goes on, and it’s not a pretty picture. Some scientists believe the increase in these conditions is directly linked to the rise in chemicals in our environment.
It’s a scary thought and one that should make us all sit up and take notice.
The full extent of the microfiber issue was discovered in 2011 by ecologist Mark Browne.
However, when he first took his findings to large companies potentially responsible for the issue, they were less than welcoming.
According to the same Guardian article I mentioned earlier, “he contacted leaders in the outdoor apparel industry - big purveyors of synthetic fabrics - including Patagonia, Nike, and Polartec. But none of these companies agreed to lend support”.
Fortunately, times have changed, and some manufacturers are taking action and moving away from plastic-based materials.
Whether it’s because they feel it’s the right thing to do or they’re simply trying to keep eco-conscious consumers like you happy doesn’t matter. It’s just good to see action finally being taken.
It might be too late to reverse all the environmental damage caused by microfiber, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
So, what can you do if you’re worried about the potential toxicity of microfiber? Here are a few tips:
I could find no serious research stating that microfiber is more toxic to children than it is for adults.
However, as they’re developing and potentially not as robust as adults, I feel it’s probably best to avoid using it for kids’ clothing and bedding.
The same also applies to the elderly.
Microfiber bedding is popular because it’s cheaper than eco-friendly bedding options. It feels like cotton, washes well, and doesn’t need ironing.
However, you need to weigh up the cost saving against the potential level of toxins you’re bringing into your bedroom.
There are pros and cons to both fabrics. Microfiber is cheaper, but it’s also less breathable than cotton and other natural fibers.
However, in my experience, microfiber cleaning cloths are much better at cleaning cars and windows than cotton cleaning cloths.
In terms of harmful chemicals and environmental impact, cotton is a clear winner against microfiber. However, traditional cotton is also considered a dirty crop, so always buy organic cotton if you can afford it.
The majority of hotels use a mix of both fabrics in their bedding. The bottom sheet is usually microfiber because it’s cheaper and easier to care for.
The top sheet and pillowcases are generally cotton because they need to be softer and more comfortable against your skin.
Yes, microfiber is a synthetic fabric that will burn (unless treated with flame-retardant chemicals). However, it’s not as flammable as other synthetic fabrics like polyester.
To hand wash microfiber, you should use mild dish soap and cool water.
If the care label says your microfiber item can be washed in a washing machine, I’d recommend the cool setting and non-toxic washing machine detergent. Always avoid using fabric softener and air dry whenever possible.
Pilling is when fabric balls up into little lint-like balls. It’s a common problem with all materials, but it seems to happen less with microfiber than with other budget fabrics.
The best way to avoid pilling is to wash your sheets according to the care label instructions and use a gentle cycle.
To remove light stains from microfiber, you can use a mix of one part vinegar to three parts water. For tougher stains, you can make a paste of equal parts baking soda and water.
Apply the paste to the stain, let it sit for 30 minutes, then wash according to the care label instructions.
For more stain removal tips, check out my How To Make White Sheets White Again (The Eco-Friendly Way) article.
So, is microfiber safe or toxic? The short answer is: we don’t really know!
However, some potential dangers associated with microfiber warrant further investigation.
One of the biggest concerns is that microfiber releases tiny particles of plastic into the environment, which can end up in our food chain and water supply.
Another worry is that microfiber fabric rubbing against our skin could release harmful chemicals.
The studies I’ve mentioned in this article all appear to point to the fact that microfiber is potentially harmful to humans, wildlife, sea life, and the environment.
The scary part of it all is that microfiber (and microplastic in general) are so small and now so widespread that they’re almost impossible to avoid.
While more research is needed to confirm these findings, they suggest that there may be reasons for serious concern.
I’m certainly going to be avoiding microfiber as much as I possibly can in the future.
Do you avoid synthetic fibers like microfiber? Or are synthetic materials not a concern to you?
Are you fully organic with your fabric choices? Or do you prefer a more middle ground option, such as recycled polyester? Drop me a line and let me know.