Lead in Shein Clothing is a Case Study in Toxic Fashion

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Lead in Shein Clothing: It’s Worse Than You Think

Many consumers interested in cutting edge fashion at bargain prices are familiar with fast fashion company Shein. In 2021, the Shein app overtook Amazon as the most downloaded app in the US. Recently, social media has been abuzz with horror over news that lead was found in Shein products, including children’s clothing.

But it’s not just lead. Shein has been exposed for selling clothing and accessories containing high levels of several toxic chemicals, including PFAS and phthalates.

In 2021, Marketplace, an award-winning Canadian investigative and consumer watchdog, tested clothing from various fast fashion brands for toxic substances common in mass-produced clothing. Out of 38 samples of children’s, adult’s, and maternity clothing, 1 in 5 had elevated levels of chemicals that experts found concerning. 

A children’s jacket sold by Shein, for example, contained about 20 times the amount of lead Canadian health authorities consider safe for children. 

Shein has since reiterated its commitment to safety in its clothing and supply chain and taken the jacket and other products found to have high levels of toxic chemicals off the market. Consumers ought still be troubled, however, considering that the only products Shein removed just happened to be the ones selected for testing by Marketplace.

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Dangers of Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products

Lead in Clothing and Accessories

Lead is widely known by the average consumer to be toxic.

It can cause harmful effects to the brain, kidneys, reproductive system, and heart. Pregnant people and children are most at risk. Lead is found in some clothing because it is used in certain dyes, even though safer alternatives exist. 

PFAS in Clothing and Accessories

The story does not end with Shein and lead, however. The same Marketplace study found high levels of PFAS in other fast fashion brands. PFAS stands for per-and polyfluoroalyk substances. They are often called “forever chemicals” because many of them don’t break down and build up in the human body over time.

PFAS are used in the manufacture of water- and stain-resistant clothing and textiles. According to testing done by health activist blog Mamavation, yoga pants and gym leggings sold by Lululemon and Old Navy contain PFAS. Fashion FWD, a non-profit monitoring toxic chemicals in clothes, gave a D or F rating to outdoor apparel brands REI, L.L. Bean, and Columbia for containing PFAS.

The effects of PFAS in clothing and the environment, including in our food and water, build up over time, leading to health problems such as liver damage, asthma, and chronic kidney disease. Unlike lead, PFAS are not naturally occurring. They are human-made for manufacturing purposes.

One of the major ways PFAS get into the environment through pollution that occurs as a result of manufacturing processes, including the manufacture of clothing and accessories. PFAS even contaminate our bodies before we are born. A study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in umbilical cord blood and breastmilk.

PFAS can also be absorbed through the skin when they are in the clothes we wear. Experts believe PFAS can affect the health of the people wearing clothes containing them, especially over time, but the workers involved in manufacturing these garments are even more severely affected.

PFAS Are Likely a Bigger Problem Than Lead

There are currently no laws in the United States requiring manufacturers to warn consumers about whether products were made with PFAS. California is leading the charge on PFAS regulation. On August 30, the California state legislature passed bill AB 1817, which would phase out the use of PFAS used to manufacture clothes sold in the state. 

Generally, you would be better off assuming an article of clothing does contain PFAS unless you have knowledge that the chemicals were not used. This is especially true if clothing is advertised as waterproof, stain-repellant, or dirt-repellant.

Some companies have taken action in response to calls by consumers and activist organizations. For instance, American Eagle and L.L. Bean have removed PFAS from their merchandise. And some other brands, like Ralph Lauren and Patagonia, have set a timeframe for the discontinuation of the use of PFAS.

News that Shein clothing contained high amounts of lead was shocking and headline-grabbing, but that story is just the tip of the iceberg. Other toxic substances, such as PFAS, are found in all sorts of clothing, especially from fast fashion brands. 

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How to Protect Against Toxic Chemicals in Clothing

Though it’s great that some brands have already removed toxic PFAS from their collections, there is more to be done. There are ways we as consumers can better protect ourselves from PFAS and lead.

1 | We can support government legislation against the use of toxic chemicals, like lead and PFAS, in clothing.

2 | We can call on clothing companies to remove toxic chemicals from their clothing and accessories. Research brands that have committed to not using chemicals like PFAS and commit to patronizing those companies.

3 | We can prioritize brands that use nontoxic dyes, have more transparent supply chains, and are certified with GOTS, bluesign, or OEKO-TEX certifications. These certifications audit for harmful chemicals in the production and dye process.

4 | We can avoid certain finishes and treatments, such as those that water-proof or provide stain-resistance.

5 | We can shop secondhand. While not all toxic chemicals disappear from clothing with time, airing out clothing and washing them can help with off-gassing high concentrations of toxic chemicals.

6 | We can resist fast fashion. Even though Shein and other companies have vowed to clean up their act, the breakneck pace of fast fashion means that items are bound to slip through the cracks. There’s no time to research the safety of individual garments when Shein products are brought to market in only a few days.

See ethical, sustainable alternatives to Shein

pinterest graphic: upper half is pink with text overlay that reads "There's lead in Shein clothing." Bottom half shows young person holding phone with handful of clothing at store.

Daniel Wise

Daniel Wise is an independent researcher, primarily in the field of Religious Studies. He received a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. Daniel writes on hauntings, enchantment, and Halloween culture on his blog, Haunted Nation.

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  1. If you wash the clothing before wearing, does that mean they are safe to wear? Do the chemicals wash out?

    1. With heavy metals like lead, a simple wash is not going to completely eliminate the issue, and may end up contaminating other clothing washed with the contaminated item. But washing and airing out clothing does reduce the concentration of toxic chemicals in clothing, and is particularly useful for things that aren’t so toxic, but could cause allergic reactions (like many dyes).

  2. Hello Dr wise,
    I purchased a few items from shein. They arrive last week Wednesday.I tried 2 of the items that evening,after I had such a nagging headache from my neck up. Spent the whole night unable to sleep. My friend told me a few weeks ago about your article. To make sure I wash the clothes before wearing them. I didn’t know about the airdrying before wearing until reading the article myself today. I wish I listened to her. I ordered from them before and never had this issue. Almost a week after I’m still feeling the headaches. I pray whatever it is clears out of my system soon.make no mistake I will wash everything I buy now especially from shein. Thank u for this info. Will share..

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