Men riding racing bikes in biking gear

Did you know that most of the clothing you wear when exercising is made from petroleum? Popular synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, polyamide, and spandex that give athletic wear its stretch contain plastic.

The plastic materials found in synthetic clothing are damaging to the environment as the manufacturing process emits greenhouse gases. They pollute our waterways and air with microplastics that they shed when we launder them. And now, there are concerns about these fabrics impacting our health as harmful chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) seep through our skin.

Recent research from the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found high levels of BPA in fitness clothing. The levels were up to 40 times the safe limit based on the strictest standards in California, specifically Proposition 65.

Yes, the same toxic chemical eliminated from plastic water and baby bottles 15 years ago is still around. It’s in leggings, shorts, shirts, socks, and sports bras from major brands like Athleta, Champion, Kohl’s, Nike, and Adidas. It’s ironic considering you were trying to stay healthy by exercising, right?

Health Impacts of BPA

BPA is a synthetic chemical produced by petrochemical companies to make some types of plastics. Concern over BPA has grown in recent years as studies found how widespread human exposure is to the chemical. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of urine samples tested. In addition, some animal studies indicated effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.

BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical, which means it can mimic hormones like estrogen, according to Kaya Marie Allan Sugerman, director of Illegal Toxic Threats at CEH. “Hormones send signals to the fetus or baby and direct how the cells grow and develop. BPA can disrupt this signaling and can alter how cells develop and reprogram body systems.” Some negative health outcomes associated with BPA exposure include developmental harm, delayed onset of puberty, anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. BPA exposure is also associated with the development of breast cancer and prostate cancer.

The main source of BPA exposure is through diet. But studies show that BPA can also be absorbed through skin. It can end up in the bloodstream after handling receipt paper for only a few seconds.

Working out on treadmills in gym
How long do you normally work out in your synthetic athletic wear? Your skin can quickly absorb harmful BPAs.

Why Many Fitness Brands Contain Plastic

Sustainable athletic wear that is 100% plastic free is very difficult to find. Fabrics containing plastic have long been the go-to choice for companies and consumers since they add stretch and handle sweat well. “Unfortunately, the age of cheap, fast fashion has made it challenging to avoid athletic wear made of toxic plastic fibers that pollute the Earth and our bodies,” acknowledged Erica Cirino, communications manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition.

While there are several small, online brands using safe and innovative fabrics that contain little to no plastic, sustainability has not yet caught on in the fashion industry as a whole for a multitude of reasons.

According to Aileen Lee, founder of the online sustainable fashion marketplace Infinite Goods, “The fashion industry is complex due to the multiple steps involved in the supply chain. There are a lot of places where it could be broken as far as sustainability goes. Maximizing profit is not in line with sustainability, and it’s hard for companies to justify initial costs to make changes.”

Another barrier is the cost and lack of predictability of plastic alternatives like bio-based materials made from substances derived from living (or once-living) organisms. Mallory Ottariano, creative director and founder of Youer, an athletic clothing brand that focuses on sustainable fabrics and supply chain, explained that when companies use recycled or bio-based content, the raw material varies a lot. “Colors, textures, and wearability can be inconsistent. This is a hurdle for big brands that they don’t want to tackle.”

Finally, consumers are either unaware of the concerns with plastic in their clothing or are still hesitant to trade in their spandex for safer alternatives. According to Ottariano, “There is such a huge lack of understanding that these materials are plastic.”

Who Is Taking Action?

CEH has been pushing more than 100 sock companies — Adidas, Hanes, Columbia, and others — to remove all bisphenols, including BPA, from their socks. The organization has already reached legally binding agreements with some companies that require them to either reformulate their products or provide a clear warning to consumers about the risks of BPA. View the list of companies on board so far.

Socks is a good start, but we need progress in all clothing that contains BPAs.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do to protect yourself from the harmful plastic in athletic wear?

By Sandi Schwartz

Sandi Schwartz is an award-winning environmental author and journalist with over 20 years of experience in the areas of sustainability, green living, home and garden, nature, and wellness. She has worked for organizations and publications including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Academies, District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation (DDOT),, mindbodygreen, One Green Planet, Green Child Magazine, and more. Read more of her work including her book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer.