A Closer Look: Acrylic
Designing clothing has been a joy since I was a young girl. The first garment I ever designed? A dress, of course! I simply took a towel and wrapped it around myself, pretending it was a ball gown! Tell me I am not the only one! I have a toddler, and she does the same thing! She loves to grab one of my scarves and wrap it around herself. She walks around the house beaming with joy. As I admire her, I wonder how she is doing the same thing I did as a child when I have not even taught her how to do it! Is it genetics? Are girls really born this way? With a love for clothing and a desire to look elegant and sparkly?
Sparkles and glitter aside, clothing is essential. It is one of many ways we can express who we are. More importantly, clothing protects the body from external threats like ultraviolet radiation, snow, rain, or wind. Without clothing, survival would be limited to specific regions of the world during specific seasons. This is fascinating to me. Wool must have been a necessity. For some of us, this beloved natural fiber still comprises our go-to fabric in the cooler months. But for so many, it is a sweater made of polyester, acrylic, or both.
Getting educated is the first step in making an informed decision.
I don’t know much, so let’s learn together! Learning is fun! The first question I am asking is, “What is acrylic?” Luckily, there is google. Even better, copy and paste!
Copied and pasted for you below, straight from handy dandy google, is the definition of “acrylic” with an in-context use!
1. (of synthetic resins and textile fibers) made from polymers of acrylic acid or acrylates.
"a red acrylic sweater"
This definition inspired two new questions. The first is, “What is acrylic acid? Because that sounds like a compound I don’t want involved making my sweaters!” The second is, “Where can I find an acrylic sweater?”
First things first. What the heck is acrylic acid? Well, let me tell you, if you are trying to kick toxins out of your life AND you happen to be wearing an acrylic sweater, you are not going to like the answer!
PubChem Open Chemistry Database, provided by the National Institute of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports the following:
“Acrylic acid is used in the manufacture of plastics, paint formulations, and other products. Exposure occurs primarily in the workplace. It is a strong irritant to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes in humans. No information is available on the reproductive, developmental, or carcinogenic effects of acrylic acid in humans. Animal cancer studies have reported both positive and negative results. EPA has not classified acrylic acid for carcinogenicity.
Corrosive to metals and tissue. Prolonged exposure to fire or heat can cause polymerization. If polymerization takes place in a closed container, violent rupture may occur. ”
So, let me get this straight. Because, if I am being honest, it feels super weird to read it on a government website, right there on the world-wide web. Acrylic acid is a strong irritant to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes in humans.
Furthermore, animal studies looking for correlations between carcinogenic effects and acrylic acid have shown some positive results. Not only that, acrylic acid is also corrosive to metals and tissue. Still, acrylic acid is used to make “acrylic” fibers, which are then used to make clothing? That we wear? On our skin?
I am having a little trouble with these facts. They are a little too... infuriating.
Acrylic acid is a strong irritant to the skin, used to synthesize acrylic fibers, which are used to make clothing.
People, including myself, wear this clothing to protect themselves from the elements, but the fiber itself is made from polymers, which is just another name for plastics. People are wearing plastic.
Maybe you’re thinking, “So what. That doesn’t matter to me. I am not the one making the clothing, thus I am not the one being exposed to acrylic acid. I am wearing acrylic, not acrylic acid.”
To that I would say, “You’re right. You may not be making your clothes. You may not be the one using acrylic acid to make acrylic fibers, but someone is. Who? How does the manufacturing of acrylic fiber impact our environment? How does the manufacturing of clothing made with acrylic fibers impact the health of those involved in the process over time? What kind of microscopic effects does acrylic clothing have on my own health?” I don't know the answers to any of these questions. For me, that is a problem.
Now for my second question, which I nearly forgot about entirely. "Where can I find an acrylic sweater?" Forever 21 has a lot of trendy clothing. It's cheap. It was the perfect place for me to shop in my past life, back when I bought several new outfits per week. I was young, naive, and unaware of the true cost of the fast-fashion industry.
- 100% acrylic
- Hand wash cold
- Made in Vietnam
According to the International Trade Administration, “In general, textile and apparel products sold in the United States must be labeled with the following information: the fiber content, the country of origin, the manufacturer or dealer identity, and the care instructions.”
Any time I am shopping, I make a point to look at the label inside of the garment I am interested in. I want to know what the clothing is made of, where it was made, and how to take care of it. I ask myself, "Was this made ethically? Were the artisans who hand-made this garment paid appropriately for their labor?" I think, “Do I really want to spend nine to 12 hours in this fabric? Do I want to sweat in it? What kind of microscopic interactions will this fiber have with my skin?"
I wonder, "What is involved in making this fiber? Do I want to support the manufacturing of clothing made using harmful chemicals or compounds?" Sometimes, by the time I have answered these questions, if they can even be answered, I may decide not to try on the garment!
Getting acquainted with the global fashion industry, learning what synthetic fibers are and how they impact our environment, and questioning the impacts of the health of each person involved in the process of their production and/or consumption is just the tip of the fast fashion iceberg. What is fast fashion? Is there a better way? What are the alternatives to synthetic fibers?
My closet is far from perfect. I have a few garments made of synthetic fibers. I know exactly which ones they are, because I itch every time I wear them! Please join me as I continue to explore the fashion industry. I will continue to explore synthetic fibers, natural fibers, and how we can make a positive difference by changing our shopping habits.
If you have a favorite fair-trade label that you would like to share, do it in the comments below! Questions? Go ahead and put those in the comments, too! I would love to hear your thoughts on this post!
Thanks for stopping by!