When sports are toxic.

Vanessa Koch — — 8 minutes

Due to the pandemic, the micro-gym has found its way into the homes of many of us. Yoga mats, sportswear, elastic bands, weights and much more ensure that we can bridge the time until the next sport outside or in the studio and continue to stay fit and healthy.

Wenn Sport toxisch ist.
Some sports products are unfortunately contaminated with chemicals. (Photo: Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

But did you know that many sports articles and clothing are made of plastics and contain many chemicals that are not healthy at all? It's kind of mean when you want to do something for your health and then absorb unhealthy chemicals through your sweat or the air in your room.

It is often not easy to recognise whether the materials contain chemicals that are hazardous to health. An unpleasant smell that creeps into your nose can be an indication that the plastic is not entirely safe.

What is in sports articles

Softeners (phthalates) are found in many sports articles. They ensure the elasticity of the materials and are found in many small sports equipment: yoga mats, fitness bands, but also in swimming and diving articles, gloves and balls. Plastics with plasticisers are often recognised when they become brittle and porous over time because the plasticising additives in the plastic volatilise. 

But unhealthy substances such as PFCs (per- and polyfluorinated chemicals) are also contained in water- and wind-repellent outdoor clothing.

During sport, pollutants are dissolved by sweat and absorbed through the skin. (Photo: Karolina Grabowska by Pexels.)

The most commonly used chemicals in sporting goods include dyes, bleaches, solvents, softeners and waterproofing agents. Some of these chemicals are harmful to human health and the environment. Many of these dangerous chemicals interfere with our hormonal system and can thus lead to all kinds of health problems, such as infertility, immune deficiency or diabetes. They also accumulate in the environment in other organisms and lead to harmful changes there as well. Since it is only the quantities that matter, the negative effects are only visible after a few years, when it is almost too late. It is therefore better to avoid products containing these chemicals. Since it is only the quantities that matter, the negative effects are only visible after a few years, when it is almost too late. It is therefore better to avoid products containing these chemicals.

Sometimes, however, this is not so easy. This is because the companies are not obliged to name these chemicals or do not know about them themselves if they have their products produced by third parties. However, ignorance does not protect, because the test laboratories will find out about the harmful additives at the latest. Other chemicals are still approved because there are no clear studies on them, they are still relatively new or they have not yet been intended for the textile sector.

Bacteria-inhibiting biocides, for example, are still quite new in use in the textile industry. The use of textiles impregnated with them has only been a growing trend for a few years. Their side effects are therefore not yet known. However, the first negative effects are already becoming apparent through long-term use. But it will certainly be a few years before they are banned. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid such textiles.

How can you be sure about sports articles?

If you buy sports goods directly in a shop, it is sometimes enough to look at the textile label. For textiles, there is the Öko-Text Standard 100. Products with this label are free of harmful substances that are prohibited and regulated by law, such as: Azo dyes, formaldehyde, pentachlorophenol, cadmium and nickel. Harmful chemicals for which there is no explicit legal regulation, such as pesticides, may also not be found in the textiles with the label. In addition, a skin-friendly pH value and colour fastness are tested. 

A look at the manufacturer's website also reveals whether the product may contain harmful substances. This is because companies that sell articles that have been tested free of harmful substances also like to advertise them as such.

The TÜV Süd seal also indicates that products can be free of harmful substances and, above all, that they are safe to use. And for outdoor clothing, the "Fluorocarbon Free DWR" label makes it clear that outdoor textiles are PFC-free. Nevertheless, other harmful substances can also be used in impregnation, which have not yet been banned as such because studies are still underway or no effects are known. This is because the process until a chemical is banned for an area usually takes a very long time. It is therefore better to buy products from tested manufacturers and to avoid synthetic products as far as possible.

However, we as consumers have the right to receive information about harmful substances in products from the manufacturer. This is why the EU created REACH. It stands for "Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals". 

To make things easier for us, some non-governmental organisations have developed apps to simplify the information process.

Apps that help to identify pollutants

For example, there is the Codecheck app or the ToxFox app developed by BUND. The barcodes on the packaging of the product can simply be scanned in. If information about the product is already available, we immediately get the information whether the product is free of harmful substances or not. You can also search for products in these apps. This makes online shopping easier if the product can be held in the hand or if the barcode is missing. If the product is not yet registered in the Europe-wide database, it is possible to write directly to the manufacturer within the app. This process is regulated by REACH. They must therefore reply within 45 days. The more consumers use this demand, the more pressure the manufacturer is under.

Apps quickly help track down the pollutants in sports products. (Photo: Cottonbro from Pexels.)

Criticism of REACH: 

The idea of REACH is already a good step in the right direction. Information must be provided on all substances that are on the official list of substances of very high concern of the European Chemicals Agency. This list is updated every six months. However, manufacturers do not have to answer if the chemicals make up less than 0.1 percent by weight of the product. And these are the two criticisms we have. Firstly, the manufacturer is free to use pollutants that are not yet on the list, and secondly, for us consumers, it does matter how high the quantity is if we want to do without them. Because in combination, the quantity is important. If several products with 0.1 percent by weight of pollutants are used, or if the products are significantly larger, the quantity is therefore also more and can cause harm. It would therefore be better to have a complete obligation to provide information. No matter how high the quantity is and whether the chemical is on the list.

Are there alternatives to toxic sports articles?

Yes, fortunately there are:

  • Fitness bands are already available made of natural rubber or medical-grade silicones.
  • Do without sportswear with additional bacteria- and odour-inhibiting substances (biocides).
  • Instead of leggings and bra made of 100% polyester and colour patterns, there are also leggings made of organic cotton with little spandex.
  • You can get yoga mats made of natural materials such as cork. However, pay attention to the country of manufacture and ask the manufacturer, because pressed cork mats can also be treated with adhesives that are not entirely healthy.
  • Many pieces of sports equipment are made of wood or metal. Advantage: they last longer.
  • A TÜV seal is always important. If you don't have one, don't use it.
  • And as an alternative to wind- and water-repellent synthetic clothing, there are waxed and tightly woven cotton or other natural fabrics that can withstand a rain shower and provide a healthy climate during activity.


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