Let’s do a little challenge. Grab your workout clothes, read the material labels, and answer this question - how many of them have at least as one of their ingredients polyester, nylon, or polyamide?

Chances are that almost all, if not all of your activewear is made out of polyester or other synthetics.

“So what” you might ask yourself, what’s the issue with that?

Well, first off, it’s something that most of us wear next to our skin almost every single day - and when we’re working out, we’re even sweating into it. And don’t we want to know what our skin touches and absorbs for thousands of hours over our lifetime?

Second, these materials are a type of plastic. As we are facing an enormous global plastic crisis that threatens our planet, this is another reason why we should take a closer look.

Synthetics are the activewear industry’s darling

Synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon have been around for a long time and date back as far as to the 19030s when a chemist at DuPont invented the nylon fiber, followed by many other synthetic fibers such as polyester and acrylic. As they are extremely cheap to make they are often referred to as the “engine” and advent of the fast fashion industry.

Synthetics have been especially popular for athletic wear as they are cheap, light weight, and easy to care for.
So what are the issues then?

Synthetics are part of the global (plastic) environmental crisis

Almost 70% of all clothes worldwide and nearly all of the existing activewear is made from synthetics like polyester.

Polyester is a synthetic fiber usually derived from non-renewable crude oil and is the world’s most commonly used fiber. In 2015, more than 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles – the equivalent of more than 21,000 Olympic swimming pools.

The energy required to produce synthetics and the greenhouse gas emitted make it a high impact process. In 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kg of CO 2 – nearly three times more than for cotton.
Synthetics are non-renewable fibers. As an oil-based plastic, they do not biodegrade like natural fibres. Instead, they stay for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.

So what happens when we wash them, which we tend to do a lot with synthetic activewear? They release small particles of nano- and microplastics that enter our waterways and oceans. Fish and other aquatic creatures ingest the microplastics, which accumulate toxins up the food chain.

Ultimately, they enter our human food chains and the wider environment. Recently, researchers have detected microplastics even in human blood and human breast milk that can have devastating health effects.

Synthetic clothing as a cause for skin and health issues

Microplastics can enter our bodies through the food chain or we inhale them through the air we breathe. What makes this even more hazardous is that microplastics have the potential to absorb toxins from the surrounding environment - so not only will living beings ingest the microplastics upon exposure, but they will also be exposed to additional harmful pollutants that are docked to the microplastics.

There are also issues related to wearing synthetics next to skin as we do with activewear.

To begin with, nearly 70% of women and 60% of men have sensitive skin. Combine that with the fact that many people develop rashes or itchiness when working out in synthetic sportswear, it shows that something seems to be upsetting our skin when it is wrapped in plastic.

Studies have shown that synthetic materials often contain toxic substances such as quinoline and benzotriazole, including those which can penetrate our skin and enter our bodies. These can cause allergic reactions, skin irritations, or even mutagenic effects including endocrine disruptors.

Recycled synthetics are NOT solving the microplastic and health issues

We see more and more recycled synthetics such as recycled polyester from PET bottles entering the activewear market. And while the idea of recycling itself is good, we need to take a closer look at the specific products these recycled synthetics are used for.

When it comes to using recycled synthetics for activewear and something that is next to skin, it is far from being the panacea for solving the environmental and health issues mentioned before.

Recycled synthetics still release microplastics into our environment and still contain harmful substances that can harm our skin, bodies and future lives.

Besides, each time plastic is reheated for recycling it degrades, so as of today it cannot be recycled indefinitely and oftentimes new virgin polyester is added to achieve a good quality. Lots of polyester is blended with other fibres making it much harder to recycle.

Innovative nature-based materials are the future of planet- and health-friendly activewear

While this information might sound daunting and discouraging at first, the good news is that there are new innovative nature-based textiles entering the market which are high performing and at the same time gentle to our health and the environment.

Such a material is Tencel lyocell. It is a wood fiber derived from sustainable wood sources and made in a circular toxin-free process where all resources are re-used again and again. The fabric is naturally antibacterial and odor-resistant and needs to be washed much less than synthetic fabrics. It’s also highly comfortable, durable and hypoallergenic and the fibers are biodegradable, meaning they can revert back to nature.

And that's what Tripulse makes - alternative solutions to synthetic based activewear using high performing nature-based fabric Tencel lyocell and making sure that the future of activewear is both planet- and health-friendly.

If you want learn more about the most commonly used sportswear fabrics and how they rank, check out this blog post

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January 16, 2023 — Franziska Mesche

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