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Cotton

COTTON  is a natural cellulose fiber, taken from the fluffy fibers that develop around the seed pod of the cotton plant.

After it is picked, the pod is placedin a cotton gin, which separates the seed, the the long-fiber “lint,” and the short-fiber “linters.”

The lint is then spun into yarn, and the shorter linters are used for cotton batting, in making rayon, and in the produc­tion of paper.

The seed is used for food and in the manufacture of consumer goods, Cottonseed is fed to cattle and crushed to make oil. Cottonseed oil is used for cooking and in products like soap, margarine, emulsifiers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber, and plastics.

HOW PRODUCTS ARE MADE: Cotton

When considering a product made from cotton, look first at the chemicals used in the growing of the cotton and the residues that may be left in the product from growing, and then look at the chemicals added to the cotton in the making of the product.

If a label says only “cotton,” it was grown and processed with conventional industrial methods using toxic chemicals described below. Look instead for cotton products that are certified to be made without toxic chemicals.

Growing Cotton

The first thing to look at about cotton is how it is grown.

Conventional Industrial Cotton

Conventional cotton farming begins with genetically modified (GMO) seeds. These seeds are modified to make the cotton more resistant to insects, but when the insects become stronger, more and more pesticides are required. Chemical herbicides are used to kill weeds in the fields.

RODALE INSTITUTE: Chemical Cotton

Processing of conventional cotton uses a large number of chemicals, including heavy metals, chlorine, and chemicals dyes. Even after washing the finished products, the residue of these chemicals can remain and can cause serious skin conditions.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is characterized by the absence of pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful chemicals commonly used in the growing of cotton.

If cotton is described as “organic” it should be certified by the USDA Organic Standard.

In addition to growing the plants without chemical inputs, organic cotton is completely handpicked, preserving the purity of every fiber and ensuring that no fiber is damaged in the process. Organic cotton products are softer than regular cotton because of the longer fibers. Being handpicked ensures these fibers don’t get weakened or broken, resulting in softer and more durable products.

Organic cotton is made from natural seeds, and there is no use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Bugs are controlled with insects that kill the pests. As a result, organic cotton products are safer for the skin.

Naturally Colored Cotton

Cotton is also grown in its natural colors. That cotton grew in colors other than white was discovered in 1982. While trying to breed insect resistance into cotton plants, a researcher noticed that occasionally a cotton plant produced a green or brown cot­ton, just as occasionally a flock of white sheep has a few black lambs. The colors deepen with age rather than fade, as dyed fab­rics do. I’ve never seen any of this naturally colored cotton that wasn’t organically grown, but check to be sure.

Though white cotton has been used for mass production for centuries, cotton does naturally grow in shades of green and brown. It is not used in industrial production because the naturally-occuring length of the fiber is too short for mechanical looms. In 1982, the first long-fiber naturally colored cotton was developed and is in use today.

When this cotton first became available I bought a beautiful handwoven, handmade jacket of the brown cotton that had blue lapels that had been colored with plant dyes. It was very soft and got softer and softer as I washed it. I also still have a big bulky knitted sweater of a white and brown tweed.

Apparently naturally colored cotton has sun protection properties that white cotton does not have. So it could be used to make sun protection garments without industrial chemicals.

Sally Fox and the World of Naturally Colored Fiber

Sally Fox’s Farm and shop with raw cotton and yarns

Properties of the Naturally Colored Cotton and it’s Application in the Ecological Textiles

Naturally Colored Cotton Could Regain Popularity as Companies Seek More Sustainable Solution

COTTON SOURCE: Naturally Colored Cotton

ZERO TOXICS IS LIKE A PUZZLE

In this Knowledge Base, i'm gathering together bits and pieces of information about materials used to make products, and bringing some order to them so we can all better understand what's in our products. So many pages will be incomplete as I go through this process. When I feel I've put together a fairly complete picture of the material, I'll take down this notice from this page.

Cotton  Batting & Fill

Cotton batting and fill are made from the shorter linters of cotton.

It is used to fill comforters and clothing and to stuff mattresses, chairs, sofas, and other filled items.

Organic Cotton Batting & Fill

Now, this is where it makes a difference to spend the extra money to buy organic.

Batting and fill is simply raw cotton that hasn’t been washed or processed in any way, except for the removal of plant debris

So any pesticides, herbicides, and any other chemicals that may have been applied will still be present on the cotton.

When you choose organic, the batting or fill will not have any toxic chemicals on it because none have been applied.

Any batting or fills that says it is organic must be certified organic, it should have the USDA Organic logo, and the certification certificate should be readily available. A correct label on batting or fill would say something like “USDA certified organic cotton.”

GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton Batting & Fill

Some organic cotton batting and fill is also certified to meet standards for processing and production as defined by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

The GOTS certification is both an organic certification for the cotton agricultural product and a nontoxic certification for the “accessory” materials needed to make the agricultural material into a consumer product.

A GOTS certification for cotton batting and fill would be a certification for the processing of organic cotton from fiber to batting. In this case there is not much processing to transform raw cotton into batting, but organic batting would be certified by GOTS to be used as a material in a product made up of GOTS-certified materials. It may also be sold separately as a GOTS-certified product.

Cotton Fabric

Some of the most toxic chemicals you will be exposed to from cotton products are added to cotton fabrics. It’s pretty quick and simple to reduce toxic exposure by changing your shirt or the sheets on your bed to eliminate exposures from fabric finishes.

Cotton fabric alone accounts for fully half of the fiber worn in the world, so this toxic exposure is very common.

COTTON BLEND FABRICS

Cotton blend fabrics are desirable when a combination of characteristics are needed in a single fabric. The addition of spandex to cotton, for example, allows the cotton to have more stretch. Many of these blends are synthetic fibers that then require special finishes. Viritually all polyester/cotton fabrics have permanent press finishes that emit formaldehyde.

That said, cotton is also blended with natural fibers as well, so achieve the benefits of both. Look for blends of cotton and linen, cotton and silk, cotton and bamboo, hemp and cotton, and linsey-woolsey, which was made in Colonial America with a cotton warp and a wool weft.

Conventional Industrial Cotton Fabric

A variety of finishes are used on fabrics for various purposes. Some are temporary—such as sizing used to keep the shape of a garment on a hangar, and others are more permanent and toxic.

PERMANENT-PRESS FINISHES

Cotton is a wonderful fabric, but many cotton fabrics wrinkle after washing. Someone got the bright idea to put a finish on cotton clothing and bed linens so housewives wouldn’t have to iron. Brilliant! Except for the fact that this finish is made from a resin that releases formaldehyde into the air continuously for a very long time.

Many cotton fabrics are treated with permanent-press or no-iron finishes that release formaldehyde. Even if not stated on the label, all polyester/cotton-blend fabrics have formaldehyde finishes. Polyester/cotton bedsheets have a partic­ularly heavy finish because of their continuous use and frequent laundering. Some 100% cotton fabrics also have been treated with formaldehyde finishes for easy care.

The finishing process combines formaldehyde resin directly with the fiber, making the formaldehyde irremovable. At the end of processing, new textile products often contain free-formaldehyde levels of 800 parts per million (ppm) to 1,000 ppm. Simple wash­ing can lower these levels to 100 ppm, but formaldehyde continues to be released as the resin breaks down during washing, ironing, and wear.

SANFORIZED & MERCERIZED

Two terms that you will find frequently on labels of cotton items are sanforized and mercerized. Neither of these present any toxic exposure.

Sanforized fabrics have been precompressed to the size to which they would shrink after washing by way of a mechanical process that controls shrinkage, involves no chemicals, and is considered harmless.

Mercerized fibers have undergone a nontoxic process by which they have been immersed under tension in a strong solution of lye, which is then washed off. This permanently improves the strength, ab­sorbency, and appearance of the fabric, and provides excellent colorfastness.

Green Cotton Fabric

A safer cotton is “green cotton.” Though not organi­cally grown, it has no dyes, bleaches, or formaldehyde finishes.

These green cottons can be trusted to be free from these chemicals, as these fabrics are diverted from the manufacturing process before dyes or finishes are applied.

BUYER BEWARE: This term is not regulated or certified, so when you see the term “green cotton” just double check to be sure what the seller intends it to mean. I’ve seen this term misused.

Organic Cotton Fabric

Fabric made from organic cotton may be marketed as organic, but this means only that the raw cotton is organically grown, and toxic chemicals may still be used in the making of cotton into fabric.

Any fabric that says it is organic must be certified organic, it should have the USDA Organic logo, and the certification certificate should be readily available. A correct label would say something like “t-shirt made with USDA certified organic cotton.”

Generally, the label will not say anything about the chemicals used in processing.

GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton Fabric

Your best choice for cotton fabrics is those certified to meet standards for processing and production as defined by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

The GOTS certification is both an organic certification for the cotton agricultural product and a nontoxic certification for the “accessory” materials needed to make the agricultural material into a consumer product.

A GOTS certification for cotton fabric, for example, would be a certification for the processing of organic cotton from fiber to fabric. Then the GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton Fabric might be made into a shirt or curtains or a mattress.

A label should say “t-shirt made from GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton,” not “GOTS-Certified Organic T-shirt/”

Finished Goods Made From Cotton

When you are looking at a product made with cotton, cotton is only one material used. There is usually other materials used as well, and some of them may be toxic.

This is why it is important to have full disclosure of all the materials used to make a product. Then you can tell if a product made from cottton is made with other materials that are equally toxic-free.

Organic Cotton Finished Goods

Finished products made from organic cotton—such as clothing, towels, mattresses and other products—may be marketed as “organic t-shirt,” “organic mattress,” organic sheets” and the like, but this is not quite accurate.

I’ve found in most cases that only one main material is organic and the other materials are not.

“Organic” refers to an agricultural method. Only agricultural materials can be called “organic.” T-shirts don’t grow on plants. Only the cotton is agricultural.

And it today’s world, any material or product that says it is organic must be certified organic, it should have the USDA Organic logo, and the certification certificate should be readily available. A correct label would say something like “t-shirt made with USDA certified organic cotton”

GOTS-Certified Organic Cotton Finished Goods

More and more products are coming on the market now where the product itself is “GOTS-Certified Organic.” This means that each material used to make the product is  certified to meet standards for processing and production as defined by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

In addition to each material being in compliance with the GOTS standards, a GOTS product certification means that all these certified materials were put together as a product in a GOTS-certified facility.

The GOTS certification is both an organic certification for the agricultural material and a nontoxic certification for the “accessory” materials needed to make the agricultural material into a consumer product.

A GOTS certification for a product, for example, would be a certification for the making of a mattress from GOTS-certified materials in a GOTS-certified facility. This would then correctly be called a “GOTS-certified” mattress.

More About Cotton

Conventional vs organic cotton clothing

I’ve been asked why I recommend the wearing of conventional cotton clothing vs organic cotton or hemp.

Despite the use of pesticides and other chemicals in the growing and processing, by the time cotton gets to be a fabric, it really isn’t a toxic material for most end users (unless you are really sensitive to pesticides). When I first started looking for nontoxic products in 1978, the only choices were synthetic fibers or conventional cotton, and it was a big deal for the market to move to more conventional cotton. Really my only natural fiber clothing choices in 1978 were jeans and t-shirts and flannel shirts.

Today we have organic cotton and GOTS-certified cotton clothing, but not enough for everyone, and not affordable for everyone, and not available in every size for everyone.

The first step is simply to eliminate wearing synthetic fibers and any clothing with permanent press finish. Then, as the premium natural fiber fabrics become more available and afforadable, we can all move in the direction of organic cotton and other natural fibers that have more eco benefits.

My objective is to identify materials that are not toxic to the end user. It’s a first step. And if a cotton fabric doesn’t have a permanent press finish, it’s difficult to make a case that it’s toxic.

I’m just curious about why you promote conventional cotton over organic cotton and hemp. My thought is maybe the info that I read about conventional cotton is overblown or incorrect…or maybe there’s another side to the story that I’ve not heard.

I don’t promote coventional cotton over organic cotton. I promote products that are as close to natural state as we can get. This would be organically grown natural fibers. Most of the links for textile products on Debra’s List are for organic natural fibers, with some conventional natural fibers, particularly for products that are hard or impossible to get organic at this time.

If I could just wave my magic wand and change the whole world well, I’m trying, but it sometimes takes time for results! everyone would wear organic natural fibers all the time. But that isn’t possible right at this moment, for a variety of reasons. And so I need to give “second best” alternatives as well.

There are many steps to sustainability. It’s a gradient scale. Best would be completely organic. Worst would be completely synthetic.

Right now organic natural fiber clothing is in limited supply, expensive, and in my case, not available in my size.

The main benefit of organic is environmental. Of course, those poisons affect our own health too, but this is an indirect exposure. It’s not harmful to health to my knowledge to wear conventionally grown cotton, although I may change my mind about that soon based on new things I am learning about the subtle effects of synthetics.

ZERO TOXICS is rooted in my forty years of research and experience living toxic-free. I'm gathering and organizing the data I have to make this knowledge available to everyone. Feel free to ask questions, share data, and join in the discussion in the comments section below.
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Debra Lynn Dadd, Founder, Zero Toxics | Contact } Consulting | About