Why should we declare war on polyester clothing

Despite the fact that its market represents 50% of total fibres, this fabric does not let the skin breathe and is not always pleasant to the touch. Like all plastics, it is not biodegradable and has a high environmental impact.

You only need to enter the word “polyester” in the search engine of any low-cost brand to find hundreds (even thousands) of garments made with this material in their catalogue. It is not for nothing that it is the most widely used fibre in the textile industry and its consumption is increasing by around 5% every year. Give it a try: look in your closet and inspect the labels, you are sure to find a few blouses, dresses and trousers made of polyester. This is the norm. Her wardrobe is just a small-scale reflection of the global trend: “Worldwide, the polyester fiber market represents about 50% of the total fiber market (natural and artificial),” says Gema Gomez, founder of Slow Fashion Next, a platform for Fashion, Sustainability and Business Training.

So why should we declare war on the king of fabrics?

This oil derivative may allow us to change our outfits at the speed of light without the pocket being too hard on us, but it is also to blame for the fact that our skin perspires less or that we give out shocks left and right because of the static electricity it accumulates. Have you ever been grimaced by the touch of certain items of clothing in the fast food stores, or have you had your teeth scraped against the lining of that new skirt? Look at its composition, it’s probably the polyester’s fault too.

Not everything is going to be miserable, if half of the garments manufactured in the world are made of this material for a reason it will be. The main advantage is the price: it is cheaper than other fibres and has managed to take the market away from other affordable fabrics such as cotton after its price dropped to historic lows.

That is why it is more than likely that those “bargains” that are easy to come across in low-cost chains are made of synthetic fibres such as polyester. Although there are different qualities and it is increasingly common to find pieces of this fabric at unaffordable prices.

But in addition, “clothes made with this material are easy to wash and dry, they do not shrink – that is why they are used so much in the linings – and we can even take them on trips in the suitcase without them wrinkling”, explains Mª Carmen López Soler, Textile Advisor and author of Manual de Tejidos – Las muestras.

Even though more and more clothes are made of 100% polyester, it is very frequent to find it mixed with other fabrics. What are the advantages of this? Is it better to buy clothes that combine polyester with other fibres? “The aim of these hybrids is to combine in a single fabric the characteristics that each material presents separately. 

That is, a garment made of 50% cotton / 50% polyester will be 50% breathable, whereas if it had been only cotton it would be 100%. The problem with blends is that they cannot be recycled since the technology necessary to separate materials at the end of their useful life has not yet been implemented industrially. The result is an ‘eternal waste'”, explains Gómez.

Why should we stop buying polyester clothes?

Lack of breathability and feel are two of the factors that, a priori, may push consumers away. If they have noticed they sweat more or smell worse when wearing that blouse they bought for four bucks, it is not a product of their imagination. “Synthetic fibres do not absorb moisture well. Polyester does not sweat, so it causes the sauna effect: if you burn yourself it does not burn but melts,” points out López Soler. In addition, these fabrics are charged with static electricity when rubbed together or against the skin, causing the garment to stick to the body or produce small electrical discharges.

It is also not a material that gets along well with the most delicate skins. “Having an allergy to clothing is not too common but many people can experience what we would call mechanical intolerance. People with atopic or dry skin may feel itching, irritation or develop eczema when they come into contact with certain tissues. Those with respiratory allergies (e.g. to pollen) are also more likely to suffer from it. It’s true that polyester, as a synthetic product, has more roles than other fabrics in causing this mechanical intolerance,” explains Dermatologist Patricia Ortiz Garcia.

But it also has many environmental disadvantages. “The most widely used plastic in polyester is polyethylene terephthalate (better known as PET). Like all plastics, it is not biodegradable and comes mainly from oil, which is a non-renewable resource,” says Gema Gómez. And she adds: “Another big problem that is still quite unknown due to lack of research is the issue of microplastics. 
When we wash synthetic garments, these microplastics become detached from them and end up in rivers and seas, affecting the fish that are then ingested by humans. This is an environmental pollution that is practically unnoticed and very important for the health of the planet and our own, because we are invading the environment with a toxic product that is not biocompatible”. If you need more disturbing data, it should be added that to produce polyester, approximately twice as much energy is needed as in the case of conventional cotton, and four times more than in the case of organic cotton.

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