What You Need to Know About Microfibers & Why Companies Don’t Want You to Know It

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Warning: when I start talking about microfibers, I get really passionate. I can’t help it. Because I feel betrayed by so many multi-million or even billion dollar companies that are exploiting our big hearts as a consumer and betraying our trust.

Have you ever heard the saying, “Like a canary in a coal mine?”

The saying means something small can carry a warning of larger danger.

In case you haven’t heard where the saying came from, here’s the back story: those brightly yellow colored birds were used to detect unhealthy air in mines for decades before better testing was developed.

Canaries’ anatomy requires more oxygen and makes them more sensitive to toxic gases such as methane and carbon monoxide that could build up in the mines, both which have no color, odor, or taste. Miners would carry caged canaries with them at work and if toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or methane began to build, it would make the birds faint or kill them.

Signs of distress from the bird indicated to the miners that conditions were becoming unsafe…and reflected this idea that something small can warn of a larger problem.  

That’s how I feel about microfibers. They are so small, practically invisible to the naked eye. Yet, how they are impacting nature is a warning of a larger building problem: our use of plastic and synthetic materials.

More on that in a minute.

First, if you haven’t heard of a microfiber, you’re not alone. Most of us haven’t. But microfibers have been called "the biggest environmental problem you've never heard of."

Microfibers break off from synthetic clothes while the clothes are in use and while the clothes are washed.

Synthetic clothes versus natural clothes are very similar to organic versus non-organic food choices. One is easy on your body and the planet (natural) and the other one (synthetic) can come with a lot of unwanted chemicals and additives.

The most common types of microfibers are made from acrylic, polyesters, or polyamides such as nylon – all synthetic clothes. Clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, hemp, or silk create microfibers too, but those microfibers biodegrade and break down in the water.

That’s the danger of plastic – even when it is as small as a microfiber, it doesn’t break down.

The microfibers get swept out of the washing machine into our water supply and they can’t be removed from the water by water treatment plants because they are simply too small. Consider that billions of people are washing billions of synthetic garments and suddenly you have a massive problem!

Studies show up to 85% of the human-made material found shorelines around the world are … microfibers. That makes microfibers the most ubiquitous source of human waste of the planet.

I first learned about microfibers when I was bitten by a spider that had Lyme and several co-infections. My body was so overwhelmed by the massive level of infection and immune burden that it started reacting to everything – including the clothes I was wearing.

I became allergic to polyester and in my research to find clothes that my body didn’t react to I stumbled on the issue of microfibers.

The presence of any chemical takes a toll of your body, but when you’re a canary built a certain way so that burden shows up faster, or like me, burdened by an extra load on your immune system, it’s a reminder to everyone that chemicals really aren’t good.

Chemicals place a burden on your body and the planet.

And small reactions point to a larger problem.

I had never thought about whether my clothes were made from chemicals until my body started screaming at me with painful rashes that made it impossible to even sleep when they flared up. I changed all my food. In fact, I lost 15 pounds and became dangerously thin because I couldn’t figure out what was safe to eat. But it wasn’t just the food… it was also my clothes.

So if you have rashes and allergies you can’t figure out, this is an area you could explore.

Polyester is ranked by some scientists as the worst possible fabric you could put on your skin. Wrinkle-resistant fabrics are a close second.

They both have an incredible chemical load put on the planet during production and on your skin when you wear it.

Your skin - the largest organ in your body - absorbs what you put on it.

Some say up to 64%.

That’s a lot of chemicals from your clothes.

Ask yourself the question:

Do my clothes have chemicals in them that are affecting my skin and my health?

If the answer is yes, start working on switching them out one at a time. Starting with the clothes that irritate you the most. Here are some companies I love that sell natural fiber clothing.

MICROFIBERS ARE 100% CHEMICALS

Because our clothes are chemicals, microfibers are 100% chemicals, which is why they are proving to be so toxic in the ocean.

Not only are they synthetic materials, but they actually bind to dyes, chemicals, and even fire retardants that are put into the clothes, making them even more toxic. They are like little chemical sponges.

Aquatic organisms eat the microfibers and now research shows this results in gastrointestinal problems – even starvation – as the plastic binds up their systems, which can’t break it down. My guess is the plastic makes them feel full. Beyond that, the chemicals in the plastic and that bind to the plastic (like the harsh dyes and firs retardants) cause reproductive issues, compromise immune function, and even cause death.

When larger organisms eat them, the microplastic and chemicals get passed up the food chain - and we’re at the top of the food chain, so while it’s taking awhile to get to us, it will happen unless we take action.

The research is too new to say how microfibers are affecting larger organisms and even humans – but all you have to do is look at what’s happening to the smallest organisms to know it isn’t good – and as forgettable as plankton and small aquatic organisms are, they are part of the ocean’s ecosystem and that creates a dangerous domino effect.

The food chain collapses when you remove an entire rung. And without the ocean, the planet collapses.

MICROFIBERS ARE A PANDORA’S BOX

Here’s why I’m concerned. It’s like we’ve opened a Pandora’s box we can’t shut. While we can all refuse to use single plastic and even see something like a plastic water bottle on the beach to pick it up – we can’t see the microfibers and we can’t even fathom how many of them we are all creating one load of clothes as time!

We are all finally focusing on single use plastic - but that’s the easiest ones to see and clean up.

A research study from The University of California in Santa Barbara showed that a city the size of Berlin releases a wash-related volume of microfibers equivalent to 500,000 PLASTIC BAGS – EVERY SINGLE DAY.

How do you clean up that many microfibers you can’t see?

And microfibers aren’t just in the water. Water treatment plants take the “sludge” that settles to the bottom of the system and spread it out on fields and the ground.

Early research shows microfiber are getting in our soil and negatively impacting the soil microorganisms.

And when you dry your clothes or wear them, the microfibers go airborne and you breath them in – forcing your lungs to try to figure out how to get them out while your body also has to deal with the chemicals they bring.

Initial studies show that inhaling the microfibers cause inflammation of the lungs – textile workers struggle with this.

Cheap companies won’t put money into air filtration systems that suck the microfibers out of the air, the textile workers suffer. It’s an example of how sustainable, healthy, ethical (SHE) OVERLAP. When you’re buy clothes made ethically, having clean air for workers is one of the requirements to be ethical or fair trade. So when you’re supporting companies that take care of their workers (ethical) you’re also ensuring there are filters to cut down on microfibers in the air (sustainable). 

There’s microfibers in our air, our water, and our soil.

Testing shows microfibers in our beer (from the water used to make the beer), our sea salt (because the oceans are now teeming with microfibers), the fish we eat (from eating smaller organisms that have eaten the microfibers), and more that we haven’t discovered yet because this problem is so new.

COMPANIES KNOW ABOUT IT

And most of the companies making the fabric and the clothes smothering the planet in plastic know about it. But they don’t want you to know.

The man who discovered the microfiber problem, ecologist Mark Anthony Browne, quickly brought his research to the top clothing companies: Nike, Polartec, Adidas, and even Patagonia. He wanted to alert them to the potential ecological nightmare and see if they would help research better ways to create the fabric or treat it so it wouldn’t shed. What did they do?

Nothing.

They all did nothing expect for Elieen Fisher, which did contribute money to research. No other company did. Patagonia has released a “report” on microfibers – but it’s soft and not proactive. The company that founded itself on protecting the environment and telling us all to #optoutside will still take your money for it’s microfiber-creating fleeces and recycled clothes without warning you about the damage you’re unknowingly creating.

I love Pategonia and it’s full body of work championing the environment, but its response to the microfiber issue is not proactive or honest. It breaks my heart.

They could put warnings on their fleeces and suggest better washing solutions or even include a Guppyfriend washing bag for the people buying fleeces who don’t have one. There are so many ways to tackle the problem head on, but there’s been no change. Because they can’t alert us to a problem that might make us stop buying their recycled clothes.

Money always wins with big companies.

So if you’re reeling right now reading this about how you’re going to change your washing habits to produce microfibers – or if you’re feeling guilty about that new microfleece you just bought, take a step back and realize that most companies taking your money know about the problem.

They deserve to feel to the pressure to create a solution. They need to take ownership of the problem. And they need to start funding research to tackle the problem head on and education to help us all wash our exciting clothes differently.

In the meantime, I like to be proactive. I have gathered 14 things you can do to reduce the microfibers you create (and I’ll keep adding to this as I find more), but first and foremost, the first thing you can start to do as a consumer is stop buying synthetic clothes – especially clothes that are made from recycled plastic water bottles.

Stop buying synthetic clothes – especially clothes that are made from recycled plastic water bottles.

These recycled fibers are fragile (which makes sense, they’ve been recycled) and break off even faster creating MORE MICROFIBERS.

I love and respect the heart behind creating recycled plastic water bottle clothing, but seriously, it’s creating an environmental problem 10x greater than the one it’s trying to fix!

If there’s a company selling recycled clothing, you could write and ask them how they are tackling the problem.

They need to know we know.

And we need to be willing to admit when we’re wrong. Again, the solution came from a really genuine place and no one had any idea it would create a bigger environmentally problem.

But when you know, you know.

Unfortunately recycled “eco-fibers” are trendy – those labels talking about all the recycled bottles used making the clothes make us think we are doing something positive for the environment. Your friends are buying these clothes are showing them off. Companies know that more and more consumers are buying on values and they are scrambling to add recycled lines.

Everlane, a ethical company that I love!, recently committed to using no virgin plastic in its supply chain starting in 2021 (hurray!) but then announced a clothing line called Renew made from ….recycled plastic water bottles. They are taking your money for a feel-good product, while creating an even bigger problem than the plastic water bottles. I’ve written to ask them if they know about the microfiber problem. I’ll let you know if they write back. I really hope they do.

It feels GOOD to think your recycled clothing purchase is part of the solution, but I promise you, based on the research we do have that purchase is fueling a massive problem. Not to mention we’re covering our bodies in plastic all day long and wondering why we’re run down and tired with unexplained symptoms.

But companies will keep selling those recycled goods until they are forced to stop because we refuse to buy them.

Instead, look for the natural fibers that create biodegradable microfibers.

And don’t panic about the clothes you already own. Obviously, you can’t get rid of all your clothes.

However, I do suggest you keep a clothes diary for a few week and notice if any specific fibers or clothes really are triggering health problems.

I would then get rid of any that are irritating you and replace with natural alternatives immediately. It takes a burden off your body.

From there here are 14 simple ways you can reduce your microfiber production for the clothes you already own and plan to keep.

Read them and find one that feels the easiest to you and resonates with you – start there and let your choices grow from there.

We are learning more and more about microfibers every day. What we do know points to a large problem that could be difficult or impossible to undo – so I’m choosing not to be a part of the problem whenever possible by buying natural fiber clothes when I buy new clothes and washing my synthetic clothes in a Guppyfriend and spreading the word so my friends and family can make small changes as well.

And I’m only supporting companies that are choosing to be honest about the problem and working to be a part of the solution.

It’s a good place to start, and I hope you’ll join me.

Most of us wear synthetic fabrics like polyester every day. Our dress shirts, yoga pants, fleeces, and even underwear are all increasingly made of synthetic materials -- plastic, in fact.