Shein, the Chinese-based fast fashion retailer, has come under intense scrutiny recently over claims that its clothing contains toxic chemicals linked to cancer. With its rock-bottom prices and huge selection of trendy styles, Shein has become wildly popular among Gen Z shoppers. However, the brand has also been accused of cutting corners when it comes to safety.
In a number of viral TikTok videos and online articles, some have alleged that tests on Shein garments detected high levels of dangerous substances like lead, AZO dyes, and phthalates. They warn these chemicals could cause major health issues with prolonged exposure. Shein has firmly denied these accusations of their products containing carcinogens or toxic materials.
So what’s the real story here? In this article, we’ll dig into the facts around Shein’s use of potentially harmful chemicals, the evidence behind cancer claims, and what this reveals about the fast fashion industry as a whole. Keep reading to unravel the Shein cancer controversy and separate fact from fiction.
Fast Fashion and Toxic Chemicals
The rise of ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein is based on selling huge volumes of clothing at basement prices. To achieve these low price points, fast fashion manufacturers cut corners in their production methods and materials. This includes using cheaper synthetic fabrics and more toxic chemicals in processing.
Cheap clothing is often made from petroleum-based fibers like polyester instead of natural materials like cotton or wool. The manufacturing of synthetic textiles involves a complex chemical process including the use of carcinogenic substances like benzene.
Textile facilities also apply chemical finishes and dyes to fabrics to achieve certain properties and colors. Some of the most harmful chemicals found in fast fashion garments include:
- Formaldehyde – a known carcinogen used in finishing to prevent wrinkling. Chronic exposure can cause cancer.
- AZO dyes – synthetic dyes that can breakdown into cancer-causing aromatic amines. Long-term exposure is toxic.
- Lead – used in some dye pigments and as a stabilizer. Lead is linked to neurological damage.
- Phthalates – a plasticizer used to make plastics more flexible. It’s an endocrine disruptor and reproductive toxicant.
While regulations exist around toxic chemicals in clothing, enforcement is challenging with complex global supply chains. Clothing brands rely on suppliers across the world to comply with safety standards. There are also gaps around testing for long-term exposure risks.
Claims Against Shein
In 2018, an investigation by Dutch consumer rights group Consumentenbond made headlines with its findings on AZO dyes in Shein products. Of the 47 Shein items tested, around 10% had high levels of these potentially carcinogenic dyes. Shein responded that all their clothing meets EU REACH safety standards.
Another batch of accusations against Shein emerged in 2022, sparked by a series of TikTok videos. Several users claimed tests on the brand’s clothes detected lead, nickel, and other toxic metals. They suggested prolonged contact could have serious health effects.
Alternative fashion brand Remake conducted its own tests on Shein garments in an effort to validate the allegations. They did detect elevated levels of lead in buttons on some coats and jackets above the 100 ppm limit in California’s Prop 65 regulations. However, Remake noted this did not necessarily mean Shein’s products overall were hazardous.
Shein has strongly denied all allegations of its products containing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals or violating safety standards. It states its clothing is “totally compliant” with regulations where it operates. Shein says it reserves the right to take legal action against “false accusations.”
While select items may have concerning chemical levels, there is currently no definitive proof that Shein’s catalog as whole exposes consumers to cancer risks or acute poisoning. More systemic, independent testing is needed to substantively back up claims of Shein clothing containing carcinogens.
The Bigger Picture on Fast Fashion
Beyond the uncertainty around Shein specifically, the brand’s meteoric rise has amplified broader concerns about the fast fashion industry. Clothing production has sped up from four seasons a year to new styles every week. This constant churn has major consequences:
Waste: As more clothes are quickly disposed of, textile waste has reached catastrophic levels. Fast fashion is estimated to generate over 92 million tons of waste per year.
Working Conditions: In the rush to produce low-cost apparel, garment workers often endure unsafe factories and poverty wages.
Environmental Impact: Fossil fuels used in synthetic textile manufacturing contribute greatly to climate change. Microplastics from washing clothes pollute waterways.
While Shein is the leading fast fashion retailer today, the issues plaguing the industry are far more systemic. Experts emphasize that real change has to address the deeper problems inherent to fast fashion’s business model if public health and the environment are priorities.
Some positive steps would be companies reducing and slowing down production, using more eco-friendly materials, ensuring supplier transparency, and investing in recycling technology. Consumers can also drive change by avoiding overconsumption, buying secondhand, and demanding brands improve standards.
The controversy around Shein using toxic chemicals reveals genuine concerns about fast fashion’s impacts on health and the environment. However, the current evidence does not substantiate claims of Shein clothing alone exposing consumers to cancer or acute poisoning risks. More rigorous, impartial testing would be required to make that determination.
In the bigger picture, Shein symbolizes systemic issues in the fast fashion industry, including chemical processing, massive waste, and poor labor conditions. The brand’s meteoric rise has brought overdue attention to these problems. While Shein cannot shoulder full blame, the scrutiny presents an opportunity to rethink fast fashion’s sustainability and ethics. Through collective efforts on all sides, from both companies and consumers, the industry can start moving in a cleaner, more responsible direction.