Bathing Beauties: Organic Bath Linens

Keep bath time beneficial with organic linens made from renewable resources.

| September/October 2009

  • Pottery Barn's organic cotton towels are processed in certified environmentally friendly facilities.
    Photo Courtesy Pottery Barn
  • VivaTerra's bamboo towel sets are available in ivory, flax, blue, sage and turquise.
    Photo Courtesy VivaTerra

What you wrap yourself in after bathing can be just as important as the organic products you use while soaking or showering. Choosing bath linens made of organically grown fibers and processed without chemicals minimizes exposure to toxins and helps reduce pesticide and chemical use. When shopping for bath linens, avoid synthetic dyes, which  contain heavy metals and other chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions, and chlorine-bleached materials, which release dioxin into the atmosphere. Look for phrases such as “organic dyes,” “made without bleaches or dyes” or “made without heavy-metal dyes.”

“Natural dyes aren’t the only eco-friendly option,” says Carter Oosterhouse, green home expert and host of HGTV’s Carter Can and Red Hot & Green. “Low-impact fiber-reactive dyes, clay/dirt dyes and ‘color-grown’ dyes also do the trick and are eco-friendly.”

Bath linens

Wrapping yourself in a cloud of cotton may seem like the perfect end to your shower or bath, but conventional cotton production is far from clean. “Conventional cotton is one of the most polluting crops in the world because of the amount of pesticides needed to grow it,” says Kim Carlson, author of Green Your Work: Boost Your Bottom Line While Reducing Your Carbon Footprint (Adams Media, 2008). “The toxic pesticides and herbicides used in growing cotton accumulate and persist in the environment and in the actual fiber, potentially releasing over the life of the towel.”

Even linens marketed as “eco-friendly” can have hidden environmental issues, Oosterhouse says. Wood-pulp textiles might originate in unsustainable forests, and bamboo could be processed with toxic chemicals.

Read labels carefully, says Lisa Beres, a certified green building professional and co-owner of the online store Green Nest. “The terms ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘nontoxic’ are not regulated by any government entity and can be abused by marketers,” she says. “The only way for consumers to have assurance by third-party verifications is to look for certifications that actually stand for something.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates organic certification of crops, including cotton. However, the USDA only certifies organic cotton, not finished linens, so it’s important to check how products are processed. The U.S. supply of organic cotton is not large enough to keep up with demand, Beres says, and products made overseas may display other certifications. Look for certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Control Union Certification (formerly Skal International), Oeko-Tex, EKO Sustainable Textile, Organic Exchange, ECOCERT, and International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

Floor mats

A wet floor is not only a safety hazard but also could increase dampness (and potential mold problems) in the bathroom. However, Carlson says, conventional bath mats have environmental concerns.

“Water-resistant bath mats often have a synthetic rubber coating on the back so water doesn’t transfer through the fibers to the floor,” she says. “Synthetic rubber is made from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource and leaches toxic fumes throughout the life of the product. It will also stay in a landfill without breaking down for decades or worse.”

Choose mats made from sustainably harvested cork (which has natural antifungal properties) or teak, provided it comes from a plantation rather than a rain forest. Or try a mat made with sustainably harvested vetiver. These mats release their natural, earthy fragrance each time they get damp—a major improvement over the mildew smell found in many bathrooms.
Shower curtains

Vinyl shower curtains can also contaminate your bathroom. Deirdre Imus, president of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, says vinyl contains “a cocktail of hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals.” Vinyl curtains also leach phthalates, which studies link to hormone disruption and neurodevelopmental problems, she says.

That “new shower curtain smell” indicates the curtain is releasing chemicals common to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which may lead to serious health effects including respiratory irritation; central nervous system, liver and kidney damage; nausea; headaches; and loss of coordination, says Mike Schade, PVC campaign coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ).

In a CHEJ study of PVC shower curtains, researchers measured 40 different VOCs in the air after one week, and 108 different VOCs after 28 days—more than 16 times greater than the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council. “Our testing did not replicate temperature and humidity conditions typically found in a shower, which would likely increase the concentrations of volatile pollutants released from a PVC curtain into the air of a bathroom. Concentrations of these chemicals are likely to be even greater during and after a shower than those reported in our study,” Schade says. “All five curtains tested contained the phthalates DEHP and DINP, chemicals banned in children’s toys in the U.S. and Canada.”

Choose shower curtains made with organic cotton (free of pesticides or toxic chemicals); hemp (more resistant to mold and bacteria than cotton); or PEVA (a nonchlorinated, biodegradable plastic that doesn’t outgas).

Some natural fiber shower curtains absorb moisture and are susceptible to mildew. Always extend curtains after use for even drying. You can also use a washable, polyester liner—preferable to vinyl but still a petroleum product. Ask manufacturers or retailers for suggestions to keep curtains from developing mildew.

Future fabrics

As interest in eco-friendly textiles surges, manufacturers are developing new fabrics as well as new uses for familiar materials. Soy Silk (made from liquefied proteins extracted during the tofu-making process) and EcoSpun (a polyester fiber made entirely from recycled plastic bottles) are just some of the materials that have interesting applications for bath linens, says Dan Siegel, founder and CEO of EVO, an online marketplace that screens 10 million products for healthy, safe and green qualities.

Other options include sustainably harvested wood pulp, or Tencel, which has a high moisture-absorbing capability, and hemp, a quickly renewable plant that blends well with other fibers such as organic cotton to make it softer and more absorbent.

“I also believe that green chemistry will soon provide a breakthrough in less expensive, nontoxic dyes for the textile industry (just as it did in the paint industry with no-VOC paints), which will catapult green clothing, linens and housewares to new eco-friendly heights of accessibility,” says Kim Carlson, author of Green Your Work: Boost Your Bottom Line While Reducing Your Carbon Footprint (Adams Media, 2008). “The bottom line is that consumers want beautiful color without dangerous chemical processes.”

Bathe in style

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