Forget sweatpants; clothes that promise a layer of protection against viruses and germs are proving to be the pandemic’s biggest fashion trend. Since last March, miraculous-sounding antiviral and antimicrobial wearables—from dress shirts, skinny jeans, workout gear, and $1,000 coats to gobs and gobs of face masks—have hit the market, and even with the vaccine on the horizon, their popularity seems only to be growing. Products that offer “hygiene” and “immunity” have been singled out as one of the biggest consumer trends of 2021 and sales of antimicrobial textiles are expected to nearly double in the next five years to a whopping $20 billion, driven by the perception that these purchases keep people safe.
The companies offering germ-killing clothes and masks range from mall brands, obscure online mask makers to luxury giants. Under Armour has a line of antiviral face masks that sold out in an hour. A textile maker to designer legends like Armani, Kering, and Prada has developed an antiviral dress shirt fabric. Premium denim line DL1961 has rolled out antiviral skinny jeans, jean jackets, and rompers. Diesel has an antiviral collection in the works for later this year. This barrage of protective clothing has left some in the fashion press to wonder if antiviral apparel is the future of fashion.
But there’s just one problem about all of this: What is being marketed to the public as a just-in-time innovation and an added layer of protection has no proven health benefits and holds hidden harms to both humans and the environment. Doctors were quick to dispel companies’ claims that clothing treated in virus-killing chemicals could protect against the coronavirus (hand washing, wearing a mask to block your own particles, and social distancing remain the core advice). But what’s rarely mentioned is that many antimicrobial chemicals are highly toxic to the environment, some are toxic to humans, and their profligate use could upend microbial communities on our skin, in our bodies, and even lead to superbugs, which are strains of bacteria that are resistant to medical treatment.
“We sort of have the perfect storm brewing here for introduction of a lot of really problematic substances into ourselves and the environment,” says Jay Bolus, a senior advisor to MBDC, a sustainability design firm that audits consumer products against strict standards of environmental and human safety. Bolus says the idea that antimicrobial textiles “won’t hurt”—as a recent Real Simple article put it—is a contradiction in terms. “Antimicrobial products are meant to kill things, right? That’s their purpose. Will they have impacts for humans and the environment? Absolutely.”
He’s not alone in his concern. Antimicrobial chemicals have vocal critics: A number of environmental NGOs, consumer safety groups, and some doctors say these substances are overused and potentially dangerous—and warn that the pandemic’s most lasting fashion trend has likely caused far more harm than good.
If you continuously expose bacteria to these types of stresses, you kill off the susceptible bacteria and then you leave behind the guys that have managed to cope with it.
Products that promise to fight our invisible enemies were with us long before the coronavirus. For the last two decades, chemicals that kill bacteria, mold, viruses, and fungi have been added to a staggering and ever-increasing array of consumer goods—from carpet, toys, furniture, and cutting boards to house paint. Before the pandemic, these substances—known broadly as “antimicrobials”—were mostly used by apparel companies in anti-odor workout clothes, socks, and garments that promise added freshness and hygiene. In fact, 2019 saw a boost in brands using antimicrobials in clothes they claimed could be washed less.
Though antimicrobial chemicals exist on a range of “persistence and toxicity,” says Bolus, the ones used during the pandemic mostly rely on silver and copper—heavy metals with natural and powerful antimicrobial powers that work to kill microbes by releasing charged metal ions that attract and kill oppositely charged cells. “They either puncture the outer wall of the bacteria or the virus, or they get taken up in the cell and gunk up the DNA replication process,” explains Scott Echols, the Technical Director of ZDHC, an NGO that works with apparel brands to reduce toxic chemicals in their supply chains.
At first blush, a world coated in a sheen of germ-killing chemicals sounds like a very good thing. Coronavirus has killed millions and wiping out other bacteria and germs sounds like a win for anxious consumers. And yet, incredibly, antimicrobial consumer products—whether it’s carpet, paint, hand soaps, or COVID-19-killing jeans or face masks—have zero proven health benefits, says Erica Hartmann, a microbiologist at Northwestern University who studies how antimicrobial chemicals impact bacterial communities. “No one has shown that using antimicrobial products keeps you healthy,” she says. Instead, these products are marketed to people without being fully tested and often expose us to harmful substances without our knowledge.
Hartmann notes that routes of transmission for infectious diseases are complicated and consumer products like a shirt or a toy or a wall are rarely a significant vector. While it could be that an antiviral mask adds some added protection from COVID-19, she explains that simply proving that a textile kills the virus in a lab doesn’t mean it has an “appreciable impact on infectious disease.”
That antimicrobial products are a bit useless isn’t debated. The Environmental Protection Agency forbids companies from saying antimicrobial products keep people safe (many companies make the claims anyway). Peer-reviewed research fails to show that antimicrobial products reduce bacteria in a significant way. And in what should have been the nail in the coffin for antimicrobial clothing, a 2015 study by the Swedish Chemicals Agency, a government-backed research group, found that even anti-odor claims are flimsy at best; that the functionality quickly washes out and that soap and water likely work just as well.
So, antimicrobial products aren’t actually protecting us—or at least we have no proof that they are. But what if they are instead unleashing a scourge much worse than the coronavirus itself? As we add antimicrobial chemicals to more and more products, some bacteria are likely to mutate and form resistance to these chemical attacks. “If you continuously expose bacteria to these types of stresses, you kill off the susceptible bacteria and then you leave behind the guys that have managed to cope with it,” says Lori Burrows, a microbiologist and the Associate Director at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research in Toronto.
Textiles treated with germ-killing technology can cause bacteria to develop what’s known as adaptive resistance, explains Burrows, where they develop the ability to flush out the invading substances. At first, they might just pump out silver or copper, making antimicrobial substances ineffective. But over time, there is evidence they can learn to pump out anything—including a life-saving antibiotic medication. “If we keep exposing bacteria to disinfectants and the stuff that leeches from antimicrobial textiles, those pumps can get turned on permanently,” says Burrows.
Germ-killing textiles are thought to be a miniscule contributor to superbugs right now (the main driver is the overuse of antibiotic medications themselves and hand sanitizers), but emerging research shows that this will change as antiviral and antimicrobial clothing and consumer products become the norm. “We do worry a bit about the silver craze,” says Burrows. This is deeply concerning considering that antibiotic-resistant infections are a pandemic of their own, on track to kill ten million people a year by 2050 from illnesses that are currently easily treatable.
Humans have been at war with germs, viruses, and microbes for thousands of years— from the pre-modern era when infectious diseases were the most common cause of death. But before the pandemic set us back into that ancient fear, humans were learning more about the essential role that microbes, including bacteria and viruses, play in our health and our ecosystems. In his 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin, physician and science journalist James Hamblin details how the trillions of microbes on our skin and in our gut, called the microbiome, regulate our immune system and protect us from allergies, skin conditions, and even disease. In other words, all microbes aren’t out to get us; they’re what’s keeping us safe. Hamblin warns that our obsession with annihilating all “germs” with soaps and antimicrobial chemicals is short-sighted and is likely throwing these hidden ecosystems out of balance. “There can be longer-term cumulative effects whenever we apply antimicrobials to our skin… and every crevice of our environments,” he writes.
Just how exactly we are disrupting our own microbiomes, especially by wearing antimicrobial chemicals on our faces and bodies, will become clear as this emerging field of science progresses. But in fragile ecosystems, these disruptions can have catastrophic impacts that are well established. Even in normal times, antimicrobial substances can escape into soils or waterways through factory effluents or the laundry (the finish on silver-treated products only lasts 30 to 50 washes, for example, and can rub off via friction), where they can disrupt the bacteria used in sewage treatment and ultimately end up back in the soil or even in fertilizer. They also leach out of fabrics in landfills, where much of the pandemic’s germ-fighting fashion is likely to end up, says MBDC’s Jay Bolus. “Antimicrobial clothes are almost like a fast-fashion item, where there’s going to be so much changeover and no system to deal with it.” A big pandemic trend has been to weave copper thread into face masks and clothing (one antiviral copper jacket features seven miles of copper thread), almost assuredly rendering these textiles impossible to recycle. A recent Vogue Business article found that the chemicals in antimicrobial garments could pass to new wearers even if they are successfully recycled and will also escape into the environment as they’re separated out.
The metals the fashion industry is relying on to kill microbes are, as it turns out, extremely harmful to aquatic environments. “These chemicals wash out in the laundry and then they’re highly, highly toxic to aquatic organisms,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, whose organization has sued the Environmental Protection Agency for tighter regulation of antimicrobial agents in consumer goods. Both copper and silver are toxic to fish as well as the organisms they feed on, like zooplankton and algae. Metals also persist and build up in marine environments and accumulate in the bodies of marine animals, says Sass. “They just last forever.” While many antimicrobial products now claim to be sustainably produced, experts say that any product that effectively kills microbes is bound to be harmful to the environment and to end up there eventually. “If you can kill bacteria on a garment, you can certainly kill fish in a waterway or microbes that the fish are eating in the waterway with those metals,” says ZDHC’s Scott Echols.
But the big debate is whether antimicrobial chemicals are harmful to humans beyond disrupting our optimal skin and gut health. More reputable brands and chemical companies are quick to point out that the antimicrobial agents they use like silver and copper are everyday household materials that have been used safely for eons. They argue that their products are thoroughly tested, highly regulated, widely used, and the chemicals are applied in very small concentrations.
It’s true that some antimicrobial substances, like peppermint oil or seaweed, are entirely harmless for humans. And the apparel industry is rarely using the most toxic antimicrobial substances. But many companies are nevertheless relying on powerful substances, like Dupont’s Silvadur 930 and HeiQs silver-based technologies, that are registered as pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency and come complete with warnings to “not inhale” and descriptions of how they’re toxic to fish and aquatic organisms. Some experts argue that it’s naive to believe that these substances have no impact on the human body, especially now that we might be ingesting them via a face mask.
Dr. Warren Porter, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin, warns that antimicrobial products that use metal ions (which appears to be the bulk of what was sold during the pandemic) could be causing long-term cellular damage to our endocrine and immune systems in ways that we don’t fully understand. “Anytime you get a molecule in your body that is not native, a metal ion especially, you’re going to change your body’s fundamental processes,” he says. He admits the data is nascent on metal ions, and the EPA has thus far sided with chemical companies on the safety of these substances, but are these questionable products really worth it if there’s no added protection? “We’re experimenting on people,” says Porter.
Unfortunately, for most consumers, it’s often impossible to tell which antimicrobial products are a threat and we often find out after the harm has been done. It took 42 years to prove that triclosan (a common antimicrobial used in thousands of products) was linked to hormone disruption and antimicrobial resistance. It was finally banned from hand soaps in 2016, but it’s still used in many other products. Likewise, nanoparticles (made by shrinking germ-killing metals down to a size smaller than a nanometer) were introduced into countless products, including socks and workout gear, before scientists discovered, in 2007, that they can damage cellular DNA, potentially cause cancer, and easily slip through the skin. “Nanosilver can aggregate in your brain and your blood systems. That’s the real threat to humans,” says Gang Sun, a textile chemist and professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis and author of the textbook Antimicrobial Textiles. While nanosilver is now regulated as a pesticide by the EPA, it’s not banned outright in textiles. In fact, there has been a flood of nanosilver-laced face masks sold to the public during the pandemic, often with no mention of their associated health risks.
Challenge brands to tell you what chemicals they’re using and to stop falsely advertising that these antimicrobial substances protect you or keep you clean.
If antimicrobial substances have even a whiff of risk—and, worse, could someday create bacteria so strong it’ll set medicine back to the Dark Ages—why are they in so many things we buy? The simplest explanation is that consumer fear and confusion is colliding with the power of the chemical industry and companies’ desire to market something new and seemingly innovative. The apparel industry was one of the most impacted by the pandemic, and popping an antiviral coating on a mask is a way to differentiate products and boost sales in a deeply uncertain time. A company called Polygiene, used by brands like Patagonia, promises a 13.3% increase in sales from using its antimicrobial finishes.
What’s more, until recently, health and environmental risks had to majorly outweigh financial reward for regulators to step in. But that approach is starting to change. In Europe, chemicals are more likely to be regulated based on what’s known as the precautionary principle, meaning that products need to prove that they’re safe before they’re sold to consumers. In Sweden, for example, the government-backed Swedish Chemistry Institute (Kemi) is encouraging companies to phase antimicrobials out of consumer products—and only use them when they’re absolutely necessary. And in 2015, Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest integrated health care providers in the U.S., banned the use of antimicrobial chemicals from their furniture and textiles citing CDC guidelines that these “pollutants” are not proven to “make patients healthier or prevent disease.”
And in the United States, environmental watchdogs like the National Resources Defense Council and consumer safety groups like Green Science Policy Institute, Center 4 Food Safety, and Beyond Pesticides have for over a decade worked to reign in the indiscriminate use of antimicrobial substances in consumer products—and their advocacy has helped push tighter regulation of the most harmful antimicrobials, like nanosilver in textiles (although there is some indication the pandemic set back the fight, as the EPA recently registered a new nanosilver).
It may be too late to undo some of the damage from billions of semi-disposable products coated in germ-killing chemicals that were sold during the pandemic, but it’s not too late to stop antiviral fashion from becoming a part of our everyday lives. For citizens, avoid metal-based and nanosilver antiviral or antimicrobial clothing or face masks (natural substances like peppermint oil are fine). They don’t protect against COVID-19, soap and water eliminates bacteria just as well, and the potential harm to your microbiome and the planet is too great to ignore. Challenge brands to tell you what chemicals they’re using and to stop falsely advertising that these antimicrobial substances protect you or keep you clean. Keep demanding that the government proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that all antimicrobial chemicals are, in fact, safe for us and for our planet. And let’s rethink our ideas of safety. Coronavirus is a lethal threat, but wiping out all microbes is an overreaction that carries more risks than rewards.