It’s tempting, when you see a pretty and cheap dress pop up in your social media feed, to put it in your shopping basket. After all, it only takes a few taps on your phone, and it’s on its way to you. And if it’s a $25 dupe of a $150 dress you’ve been eyeing, all the better, right? At that price, the risk of trying it out seems low. If it doesn’t look like the picture (and let’s be honest, it often doesn’t) you’re only out 25 bucks.
But there is another huge risk you should consider before buying from an ultra-cheap gibberish brand you’ve never heard of before. That dress may be toxic.
The United States, among developed countries, has a very lax attitude toward toxic chemicals—especially if they’re on clothing and accessories. What little protection we do have falls away when we talk about these ultra-fast fashion brands with gibberish names eager to take your hard-earned cash. (Fun fact: Shein started out as a typical factory-direct company with the gibberish name SheInside.)
I’m talking about borderline fraudulent brands that don’t care about quality or their reputation because they don’t need or have a reputation to protect. All they need to do is steal a few cute images from another brand or influencer and put them up somewhere you will see them, whether in banner ads or on Amazon, Instagram, Facebook, Poshmark, or other shoppable technology platforms.
Your package could arrive dripping with pesticides long since banned in the United States.
Your package (or your daughter’s package) could arrive dripping with pesticides long since banned in the United States, and nobody would notice until it’s opened by you inside your home. You might not realize, either, except for a funky odor. And guess what? That is perfectly legal.
The European Union has banned over 30 carcinogenic, reproductive toxic, and mutagenic (DNA-damaging) chemicals specifically for use in textiles. But the U.S. federal government only bans three chemicals—lead, some phthalates, and cadmium—and only in children’s products.
And yet, ultra-fast fashion brands still can’t follow this very simple rule. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had 38pieces of children’s clothing tested from ultra-fast-fashion brands Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein, it found that one in five had elevated levels of toxic chemicals like lead and hormone-disrupting phthalates. A Shein toddler jacket and red purse contained almost twenty times and five times, respectively, the limit for lead in California and Canada.
Don’t we have a whole federal agency for keeping us safe from dangerous consumer products? Yep, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And it’s severely underfunded. In June 2021, a large group of surprising bedfellows—including the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the American Chemistry Council, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Consumer Reports, Earthjustice, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—sent a letter to Congress pointing out that the CPSC’s budget is “by far the smallest among federal health and safety regulatory agencies,” and it struggles to fulfill its mandate. That the American Chemistry Council and Earthjustice could agree on anything is shocking. It must be a very bad situation.
The CPSC does have a handy website called Safer‑Products.gov where you can peruse all the public reports of reactions. Going back only three years reveals that various consumers have complained about Shein jeans that caused sores that looked like ringworm; cheap jewelry that gave a woman hives all over her neck, ears, wrist, and fingers; moccasins that gave feet chemical burns; and black $3.99 tights bought at the grocery store that made a woman ill for days. But the CPSC rarely suggests recalls to brands.
Wait, isn’t there anyone checking these shipments at the border? Well, no. Since 2016, when Congress raised what is called the de minimis on shipments from $200 to $800, air shipments of small packages have exploded. Essentially, anything worth less than $800 doesn’t go through the same process of Customs scrutiny and is not charged import duties. It makes a quick stop overnight at overworked ports like Newark before getting passed straight along to you.
This has created a big loophole for ultra-fast-fashion brands to invade the US market, shipping five-dollar tops straight to customers. Imagine: you can fit 80 or more items from Shein into one box before it will undergo even the basic check that a shipping container filled with the same item would.
Wait, isn’t there anyone checking these shipments at the border? Well, no.
All this makes chemicals safety by fashion brands largely a voluntary affair.
Large brands such as Levi’s, Nike, and United Colors of Benetton do a lot to ensure that any clothing you purchase from them is free of hazardous contaminants. They pay millions per year to have products tested, work with certified factories that source certified-safe dyes and finishes, and have banned a long list of hazardous chemicals from being used on or around their products at all. But again, they choose to do this. They could stop tomorrow and most people wouldn’t notice. And they cover only a tiny portion of the huge volumes of fashion sold around the world.
The good news is that California’s Prop 65 legislation is picking up the slack in protecting all of us (even non-Californians) from toxic consumer products. It requires brands to put a warning label on any product containing toxic chemicals. It’s why some products on Shein’s website come with a pop-up warning label, while others might refuse to ship to California at all. Most brands, however, don’t want to forgo one of the largest economies in the world. So they fall in line.
These labels may seem like they’re everywhere, but fashion brands in particular hate putting this label on products, and in the past decade or so, many have worked hard to ensure their products are free of hazardous chemicals. Others have been dragged kicking and screaming into compliance. In spring 2022 alone, notices were filed against the retailers Five Below, Target, Ross Stores, Revolve, Nordstrom, Walmart, Burlington, T.J.Maxx, Jo‑Ann, Amazon, and Macy’s—some of them a half dozen times—for selling items like kids’ backpacks and umbrellas containing endocrine-disrupting phthalates. Steve Madden and Vera Bradley were also dinged for selling products with phthalates.
Prop 65 has a few notable loopholes, however. A company has to have at least 10 employees in California to be targeted. Now that factories can bypass retailers and ship straight to consumers, these sketchy brands know that they won’t be held legally or financially accountable for toxic products.
Marketplaces like Amazon are also a risk. In September of 2022, for example, a brand called Kolan—which had been registered just two years earlier—had to recall two styles of children’s footwear it had sold via Amazon because they contained dangerous levels of lead in the inner layer.
When Amazon was sued under Prop 65 for listing skin-lightening cream containing the heavy metal mercury from a third-party seller, it claimed that it was more like Facebook than Target—it couldn’t be held accountable for what other people were doing or saying or selling on its site. But in March 2022, an appeals court ruled that Amazon was in fact responsible for keeping consumers safe under California law.
These sketchy brands know that they won’t be held legally or financially accountable for toxic products.
So Amazon might be forced to clean up its selection of all products, not just face creams or fashion. But it won’t happen overnight. Have you seen its selection of clothing? It’s chaotic.
And keep in mind, Amazon is not only listing but shipping out product from third-party sellers. Its argument that it’s not responsible for toxic products may be spurious, but it’s unlikely that Instagram or TikTok will be sued under Prop 65 for what advertisers are selling on those platforms. Don’t even get me started on Alibaba or Temu.
So, you still want to cop that dupe you saw on Instagram?
Look, I know. It’s hard times for a lot of people right now. So if you’re on a tight budget, there are affordable brands that have a robust chemical management program. Choose products that are made with natural fibers like cotton or bamboo lyocell whenever possible – and buy them secondhand to save money. Avoid performance products like water-repellent and stain-repellant clothing. Wash your new clothes in unscented detergent – that’s just good hygiene.
And for the love of God, if it smells toxic, package it back up, and send it straight back.
Excerpted from Alden Wicker’s new book, To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back