BPA in Athletic Clothes: Should You Be Concerned?

Tons of people have sent me news articles this week about athletic clothes containing BPA. This comes after the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sending legal notices to 15 athletic clothes brands after testing showed that many clothing items contained high levels of BPA (Bisphenol A). Naturally, people are concerned, because BPA exposure is associated with cancers of the breast, ovary, and prostate, and has gotten a lot of bad press in the past.

I know that many of us remember throwing away our Nalgene bottles in the early 2000s because of the risk of BPA exposure. But before you go throwing away all your workout clothes, let’s talk. Is BPA in clothes safe? Is BPA in athletic clothes something you need to be concerned about? I’ll answer some of the questions I’ve received this week to (hopefully) clear things up a bit.

What is BPA?

BPA, or Bisphenol A, is a chemical that’s used to make plastics. It’s been around since 1957, and is used in bottles, cans, and even fabrics made with plastic (like polyester, spandex, nylon, etc.) When BPA is heated or washed, it can be leached out of the plastic.

BPA: PubChem

There is concern about BPA because it can interfere with hormone signaling at even low doses. It is very similar in structure to a synthetic estrogen, and therefore can activate estrogen receptors. (Note- BPA is NOT the same as “synthetic estrogen” that is in birth control pills and is safe. If you want to learn about synthetic estrogen, read this article).

BPA has been associated with a whole host of health problems, but is primarily a concern in the development of cancers like breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. It can also disrupt fetal development in rats and may reduce the effectiveness of tumor suppressors. Most of this research has occurred in rats or in-vitro (cells) because it can be challenging to separate out the exact “causes” of cancer in humans. It’s also been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

However, much of this evidence has been conflicting. Whereas some studies support the hypothesis that BPA can cause or influence the development of these problems, others show that extremely high doses of BPA would need to enter the human body in order for it cause health problems.

How was BPA Found in Athletic Clothes?

The clothing items tested for BPA were sports bras and athletic shirts from 15 brands including Athleta, PINK, The North Face, All in Motion, Nike, and FILA. I definitely have some of these clothes in my closet, so I understand why people might be freaked out!

The company doing the testing, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has been testing clothing for years. This recent batch of testing occurred on athletic clothes, but CEH has led over 90 companies to remove bisphenols from their products.

The CEH submitted notices to these companies, alleging that the companies violated the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act by not putting a Prop 65 warning on the products. If you live in California, the Prop 65 warning is the warning that’s on, well, basically everything, telling you that you can get cancer. BPA is on the list of chemicals that require a Prop 65 warning.

It’s worth noting that the Center for Environmental Health is not a government agency, but a non-profit. While many environmental health non-profits do amazing work, they often have funding sources and motives that aren’t necessarily evident from their name or their press releases. A good example of this is the Environmental Working Group, the creators of the “Dirty Dozen” produce list. For years, I avoided many of these produce items, but learned last year that their methodology essentially just counts the number of pesticides used on certain crops, and doesn’t look into the amount of pesticides that’s actually detectable. They also receive a lot of funding from large companies in the organic food industry.

The CEH has given companies 60 days to work with them in order to remedy these violations before a formal notice is filed with the state. The remedy will probably involve some kind of settlement (but most of this stuff is subject to non-disclosure agreements and I have no idea what it looks like). It will likely involve a good amount of money and CEH’s attorneys’ fees being paid.

The companies in question will generally need to comply with this notice. If the CEH does file a formal complaint and the companies are found to have violated Prop 65 by having BPA in their clothing without warning, they could owe up to $2500 per violation (that means per product!) to the state. And since the CEH brought this to the state’s attention, they can receive up to 25% of the fines that these companies will pay out and in many cases, will also have their attorney’s fees paid by these companies.

Does this mean that the CEH isn’t doing this for our benefit? Not necessarily (there are very legitimate reasons to be concerned about some chemical exposures!), but it’s worth noting that many other non-profits have filed similar complaints and made millions of dollars off them. They’re not not profiting from filing these types of complaints.

Is BPA in Athletic Clothes Safe?

As far as determining how much BPA is actually in the clothing that was tested, I can’t find the CEH’s methodology on the website. I have no way of knowing what the exposure level is. (This is part of a bigger complaint I have about Prop 65- the amount of exposure or dosage is SO important. Also a bigger complaint about the proposition system in California, but this is all for another blog.)

However, to answer whether BPA in clothes is safe, we can look generally to other studies and guidance from other countries.

A 2019 study showed that in clothes soaked entirely with sweat, clothes could expose 1.56-9.90 ng/kg bw/d in adults. (For oral exposure, the maximum acceptable dose from the US EPA/Health Canada is 25 ng/kg bw/d.) The EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety created a report in 2020 to examine this study, amoung others, and found that the exposure to BPA through clothing is still at least 25 times lower than the exposure levels through plastics people eat/drink from.

Through the 43 page report that analyzed multiple other studies, the Committee ultimately determined that there was no BPA exposure risk for “systemic health effects” due to the use of clothing. So, despite the potential risk posed by BPA more broadly, BPA in athletic clothes is likely safe.

How to Avoid BPA in Athletic Clothes

This is a hard one, y’all. I LOVE natural fabrics, and tend to avoid synthetic fabrics as much as possible. I like 100% cotton jeans, silk shirts, allllll of that. It’s probably the reason I love thrifting so much—I look at tags to see what the fabric composition is and I pick based on that. But for workout clothes, you want to have some polyester or spandex. Leggings wouldn’t be possible without it!

The “easiest” solution to avoid BPA in athletic clothes is to stop wearing anything stretchy, but this might not really make much of a difference in terms of your total exposure. Unfortunately, BPA is kind of everywhere. It’s on the lining of water pipes, on sports equipment, dental sealants, and even thermal paper for receipts. BPA is detectable in the urine of nearly 90% of the US population.

The clothing studied by the EU was sourced from all over the world, and had similar concentrations of BPA in it regardless of where it was made. There also wasn’t a large difference between new and used clothes, so, if like me, you hoped to avoid BPA in athletic clothes by buying used or avoiding companies that are clearly dropshipping cheap clothing, this doesn’t help. (Although it is better for the planet overall). If you want to avoid BPA in athletic clothes, the best advice from the EU is to not eat your clothes, as oral exposure seems to increase risk.

On that same note, contact with dry clothes is preferable to contact with wet clothes. Sweat facilitates the transfer of BPA from the fabric to your skin, so sitting around in sweaty athletic clothes might increase the amount of time you’re exposed to BPA in your clothing. (It’s also bad for your skin in general, so change out and shower!)

TL;DR- Is BPA in clothes safe? Probably…

is bpa in athletic clothes safe? this is a picture of me doing yoga in stretchy clothing
I LOVE stretchy clothes y’all! I can’t go without them.

BPA in clothes is probably about as safe as everything else in this world. I know this is perhaps a bit nihilistic, but I have resigned myself to understanding that many of the things I love will probably expose me to some kind of carcinogen (including wine, breathing outdoor air, etc.) This warning should NOT cause you to throw out your leggings (as they can end up in a landfill, then leach BPA into the ground, etc. etc.) Instead, wear clothes for as long as you can, find ways to reuse them, reduce the amount of things you buy, and shower after working out.

The best way to reduce the amount of BPA produced, and therefore, the amount that we are all exposed to, is to reduce our plastic consumption.

bpa in athletic clothes