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Deadly Undies: Why Cotton Is Bad & What To Choose Instead

Laura Finch on July 16, 2021
Laura is a yoga teacher who completed 200 hours of training.

Who doesn't like a pair of good old cotton panties? Or wardrobe staples – white tee and jeans?

I definitely do. And pretty much everyone I know.

Cotton seems like an amazing fabric. It's soft, absorbent, and great for people with sensitive skin.

Besides, it's durable – I still sometimes come across cotton tops in my grandma's closet that look like new (after twenty years or so).

As to the environmental impact, cotton is decomposable and can be easily recycled.

Oh, and how could I forget. Cotton is NATURAL and SAFE.

But… is it really?

I have doubts...

Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Ecological

Ask anyone if they think that cotton is safer and more environmentally friendly than polyester. They will probably say, "yes."

For many, it's like asking, "Which number is bigger: 1 or 2?"

After all, the choice between chemical and natural doesn't seem too hard to make.

It's true

If you also think that cotton is more eco-friendly than modern synthetics – you're not alone.

"For a long time, I used to jump on everything labeled 100% Cotton, thinking there was nothing better for me and for the planet," says Armelle Ferguson, Ethical Personal Stylist & Sustainability Coach.

"Cotton fabric is easy to care for and comfortable year-round. No matter the weather, hot, cold, humid, or whatever, cotton "breathes." Cotton is easy to clean - just throw it in the machine. It also withstands high water temperatures, which means it can be boiled and thus sterilized. But obviously, when it seems too good to be true, it often is..."

And Armelle is right. If you look closely enough, you might discover that often, cotton is no better than polyester. Both for people and the planet.

Here's why.

Why Cotton Is Bad For You And The Environment

Cotton Is Constantly Fed With Chemicals

Cotton fabric is made of the cotton plant (genus Gossypium), which is one of the beloved crops for pests and insects. In an attempt to protect the harvest, farmers start treating the crop with pest control substances since the very start.

Pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, petroleum-based fertilizers, you name it… It all gets sprayed onto what later becomes your undies, t-shirt, or bed sheets.

According to the PAN UK 2018 report, over a thousand different chemicals are used as pesticides to prevent harvest failure.

Cotton doesn't sound very natural now, does it?

Cotton doesn't sound very natural now, does it?

But the story doesn't end here.

When the cotton bolls are open, farmers treat it with defoliants. Defoliants are sprayed on plants to make their leaves fall off and ease the process of picking and harvest.

You don't have to google much to find that defoliants were also used in warfare. (Yes, you read it right).

For example, the notorious Agent Orange defoliant was used by the US army during the Vietnam war. Not only it ruined thousands of square miles of land, but it also caused a massive increase in birth defects and cancer in the area.

If this information still doesn't make you shudder, there's more.

When the cotton enters the factory, it undergoes the process of bleaching, dyeing, softening – all of which also require chemicals. Think formaldehyde, chlorine, lead, mercury…

So, where does it leave us? Let's sum up:

  • The chemicals used in cotton farming are toxic to humans. Farmers in developing countries suffer the most. According to the PAN UK report, nearly 1,000 people die from pesticide poisoning every day as well as suffer from cancers and leukemia, neurological diseases, and reproductive problems.
  • The chemicals contribute to water pollution, extreme soil depletion, and greenhouse emissions.
  • Pest control chemicals decrease biodiversity in the region since they don't only target pests, but every insect. Plus, spray emissions can affect bees, cattle, fish, and, obviously, humans.

What else?

  • Some chemicals still remain on the clothes you buy at the shop. We still have to do more research on whether they can get absorbed through the skin and cause health complications. But these chemicals certainly get into waterways during every washing (just like polyester fabric sheds microfiber plastic).

Cotton Is A Thirsty Plant

Cotton cultivation requires large amounts of water: from the very start to the end.

How large?

We need about 2700 liters of water to produce one T-shirt. To put things in perspective, one person can live on this water for two and a half years. Or take 25 baths.

The problem gets even worse since 57% of the world's cotton is grown in water-stressed areas.

Here's how cotton farming turned the Aral sea into a desert in just 25 years.

AralSea1989 2014.jpg

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right).

Chemical treatment and high water usage are just some of the problems with cotton. On top of those, cotton farming is still tightly connected with slavery, forced, and child labor – yes, even now in 2020.

I know that "this is life," and "bad things happen around us all the time." But one essential thing yoga has taught me is to care.

I'm a firm believer in universal interconnectedness. And while you can't have control over most matters in life, you have control over your own choices.

You can choose whom you give your money to when buying a new T-shirt.

You can raise awareness about the current environmental and health issues of the textile industry among your friends and family.

And eventually, you can make a difference.

The Alternative to Conventional Cotton Or 4 Ways You Can Make A Difference

If you think the picture is too bleak and there's nothing to be done – don't panic.

Every big impact is essentially made of small steps.

Here are four easy ways to start doing better without making sacrifices you're not ready for.


In simple words, don't buy it.

Do you really need 5 pairs of white T-shirts or 10 cotton bras? If you think closely enough – you probably don't.

If you do go shopping, make a list. It will minimize the chance of bad impulse purchases, save you money, and leave your closet with things you actually need and wear regularly.

Ask yourself: "Do I really need it?"

Before buying new clothes, ask yourself: "Do I really need it?"


Oh, the trend of ripped jeans was the golden period for everyone trying to live more sustainably.

Make no mistake, I don't encourage you to go around all patched-up or in ripped clothes. But some things are so easy to fix - broken flies, small holes or seam breaks. Go to a sewing master if you're not confident in your sewing skills.

Another master tip: ripped jeans can make great jeans shorts, and the old dress - a top and a skirt.

Repair rule applies to household items, too!


You can thrift anything if you try long enough. In fact, until I was 19, 90% of my wardrobe consisted of second-hand clothes and accessories.

No, I wasn't thinking about living sustainably. I just found it weird to buy new threads if I could buy almost new and unique pieces for a fraction of the price.

Plus, vintage is all the rage now.

You'll be amazed at what you can find at a thrift shop.

You'll be amazed at what you can find at a thrift shop.

Pick Eco-Friendlier Fabrics

There are some things I just can't thrift. Undies, for example. In fact, I tried to shop for a second-hand bra but would probably spend my life looking for perfect size and fit.

In such cases, I buy new but sustainably made goods that will last me as long as possible.

For example, here are four fabrics that are better and eco-friendlier than conventional cotton.

Recycled/upcycled fabrics – recycled cotton, recycled wool, recycled polyester, and the like. It not only keeps old clothes from the landfill but requires far fewer resources to produce.

Organic Hemp – hemp doesn't require much water or fertilizers to get a good yield. Plus, it can grow everywhere.

Tencel/Lyocell – this is a relatively new fabric created from sustainably sourced wood pulp. Tencel requires far less energy and water to produce compared to conventional cotton. It performs much better, too.

GOTS/OCS certified organic cotton – a better alternative for those who can't live without cotton.

"Clothing made from organic cottons feel like linen - and who doesn't love the feel of linen?" says Armelle.

"Since natural cottons are not chemically stripped of its natural wax, most weaves have a characteristic smoothness and weight which makes the fabric particularly flattering in its drape and in the mellow way it reflects and absorbs light."

To be clear, switching from cotton to a more eco-friendly fabric is not as cut and dried.

Organic cotton, for example, still need large amounts of water and energy resources. But compared to conventional cotton, it often relies on rainfall rather than irrigation.

It also uses fertilizes and pest control, just naturally derived ones.

And yes, some products labeled as organic cotton still undergo the process of toxic dyeing. That's why it's your responsibility to shop in companies with strict sustainable policies in place and transparency about their practices.

5 Eco-Conscious Brands For Ethical And Sustainable Clothing & Yoga Gear

Many brands are trying to turn more eco-friendly nowadays.

Even at H&M, you can now find organic cotton and Tencel items as well as bring your old pieces for upcycling/recycling.

Here are just some of YogaKali favorite eco-conscious clothing and yoga gear brands that adhere to ethical production practices and try to make the fashion world a better place.

Organic Basics

Best for: undies, basic tees, activewear, and yoga wear for men and women

Materials: certified organic cotton, recycled fabrics, Tencel/Lyocell, Silvertech, Polygiene.

At Organic Basics, sustainability is at the heart of everything: from choosing raw suppliers and partnering with factories that share the company's values to reducing their carbon footprint to an absolute zero. And on top of that, the OB pieces are stylish, comfy, and highly functional. Check out the full review of organic cotton underwear from OB here.

Get 10% off your first purchase with the code YOGAKALIOBC5.

Carolina Morning Designs

Best for: eco yoga and meditation props, organic bedding, and sustainable organic furniture

Materials: buckwheat hulls, kapok, sustainably harvested wood, certified organic cotton, eco wool

Carolina Morning Designs are the pioneers of sustainable and organic yoga props and furniture. They are a small team of ingenious people who not only meticulously choose and source local materials, but actively take part in the production of each and every item: from sewing Carolina Morning's trademark cushions to doing stuffing and packaging.

Made Trade

Best for: ethical clothing, shoes, accessories for men and women; home essentials & decor

Materials: anything you can imagine 🙂

Made Trade is a woman-owned, family-run company. Their mission is to unite a whole bunch of small ethical brands and social enterprises to make the fashion industry (along with your shopping experience) sustainable and people-friendly.

The brands featured on the website adhere to at least one or more of the values:

• Fair Trade
• Heritage – curated handcrafted products from around the world
• Made in the USA
• People of Color Owned
• Sustainable
• Vegan
• Women Owned

Made Trade features such eco-conscious brands as GRAMMAR, No Nasties, Mother Erth... and a lot-lot more!


Best for: sustainable activewear for women

Materials: certified organic cotton, recycled polyester

Satva is a women-owned business dedicated to creating fashionable activewear that is good for the planet and people who produce it. Apart from making your yoga class comfy and chick, the company doesn't forget to give back to local communities and agricultural programs.

Soul Flower

Best for: ethical boho clothing for the whole family; yoga wear; hippie accessories

Materials: certified organic cotton, recycled plastic, upcycled goods

Soul Flower carefully curates ethically and sustainably made clothing from around the world. The brand also creates its own line of clothing with unique designs using eco-friendly fabrics and green practices. Soul Flower is regularly giving back to earth-friendly organizations and to earth by making its shipping carbon-neutral.

What are your favorite eco-conscious brands? Share in the comments!

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2 comments on “Deadly Undies: Why Cotton Is Bad & What To Choose Instead”

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I'm asking myself this question all the time! Hemp is simply the fabric of the future: it lasts forever, breathes, doesn't fade, and can even block UV rays. Plus, it's pretty easy to grow (especially compared to cotton).
      I suppose it could be that there's still a strong stigma of hemp being associated with weed. Plus, I'm sure there must be plenty of laws in some countries throwing up roadblocks for hemp farmers. It's also not uncommon to hear people saying that hemp is for hippies and thinking that all hemp clothes look like potato sacks.
      Still, I believe hemp all the chances to go mainstream and there are already some niche new brands popping up every year. So, fingers crossed 🙂

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