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By Alexandra Zissu, Editorial Director

Playing dress up is a time-honored childhood tradition. But clothing and other things that may look beautiful on the outside are not always pretty on the inside where it counts. Common dress up items can contain a variety of toxic hazards. This is especially true with outfits sold specifically as dress up clothing. Oh, the irony.

Some of the newfangled fabrics and styles found in today’s closets and playroom trunks may be clothing our kids in chemical contamination. Tests conducted by Greenpeace found hazardous chemicals residue in over 92% of 82 samples of children’s clothing and shoes sold by major brands including Disney, Gap, American Apparel, Nike, Adidas, and Burberry. This included hormone-disrupting nonylphenol ethoxylates and phthalates, reproductive and immune toxins in the perfluorochemicals family, antimony, a metalloid similar to arsenic, and organotins, which can damage immune and nervous systems.

A separate report from Hong Kong revealed high levels of chemical threats in children’s plastic and rubber shoes. Tests on 28 pairs of casual footwear found carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in 25%—some at levels far higher than many nations’ regulations allow. Phthalates were found in 15 pairs, 12 of which contained amounts higher than permitted in California.

These findings strongly suggest that parents scrutinize both dress-up clothes and everyday wear for signs of possible danger. Here’s what to send packing, and how to put on healthy appearances.

  1. Clothing promising stain-resistant, waterproof, or odor-fighting performance, technologies which utilize potentially unsafe perfluorochemicals and nanomaterials.
  2. Sandals, shoes, boots, “princess” shoes, or raingear made entirely or predominantly from rubber- or plastic-like materials.
  3. Anything screen-printed with plastisol, the thick rubbery material used to create slightly raised designs and logos.
  4. Clothing made from polyester, which frequently contains traces of the antimony used in their manufacture.
  5. Inspect any princess dresses, outfits meant to look like specific characters in specific movies, and ninja masks for places where unsafe chemicals are most likely to lurk—like padding and soft, flexible plastic. Hand-me-down costumes can also be of concern.
  6. Costume jewelry can contain lead, a potent neurotoxin. In 2004, the Consumer Safety Product Commission recalled 150 million pieces of metal toy jewelry sold widely in vending machines. They suggest parents search their children’s toys and stuff for metal jewelry and throw it away. For tips on safer jewelry, check out our latest free e-book Easy Steps to Safer Toys and Gear.
  7. Leave faces bare.  Tests conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics discovered that many face paints marketed for dress-up contain heavy metals like lead and chromium. Some lipsticks also contain lead. VOC-filled nail polishes and fragranced products made with hormone-disrupting phthalates should also be avoided.

Dress-up might be best sticking to what you already have made of natural materials—cotton and wool (preferably organic!). Use a little imagination and a lot of scarves. Clothing manufactured in the U.S. and Europe, where regulations are generally stricter, is a solid option. Vintage clothing is a good bet, too, especially if it dates to an era before synthetic materials and chemical clothing treatments were commonplace. And remember to wash your dress up items—in plant based detergent—from time to time.


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