Baby, asleep in a crib. Text overlay - Avoiding harmful chemicals - Is polyester safe for babies?
BABIES & TODDLERS

Is Polyester Safe for Babies?

Are polyester clothes safe for babies? Is polyester fiberfill safe in baby toys? Is polyester crib bedding safe? If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, you are far from alone! Polyester is a popular fabric of choice in the manufacture of baby gear, baby clothing, crib bedding, and also baby toys. As the use of polyester continues to grow, so do concerns about its safety – and maybe rightly so.

Below is a list of the topics included in this article. Go ahead and click on any of the following links, and you’ll be taken to that specific section.

This website uses referral links. Please read our disclosure policy for more information.

What is polyester? 

Polyester is a manufactured synthetic fiber. Unlike cotton which is made from the fibers that naturally form in the ripening seed pods of the cotton plant.

Polyester comes in many types. Among them, the most commercially significant are PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PTT (polytrimethylene terephthalate), PEN (polyethylene naphthalate), and PBT (polybutylene terephthalate).

Wonder what plastic PET bottles have to do with polyester fabric? A lot, actually! Both materials are made from the same substance – polyester polymer. When PET is used to make plastic bottles it’s referred to as “PET resin” or simply as “PET” (or sometimes “PETE”), whereas the textile form of PET is known as “polyester.”

The varying types of polyester fibers are made in a similar way and generally with the same constituents – acids and alcohols derived from petroleum. Specifically, the creation involves reacting terephthalic acid or its derivatives with ethylene glycol (alternatively, 1,4-butanediol or 1,3-propanediolin) in a vacuum at very high temperatures, in a process known as condensation polymerization.

Curious just how exactly one makes fibers out of liquid chemicals?

Once the process of polymerization (acid-alcohol based reaction) takes place, the polymer is either processed right away in its liquid form or left to cool down and harden, and cut into small chips to be used later.

The hot liquid polymer (newly made or from re-melted polymer chips) is then forced through metal containers with very small holes of varying sizes and shapes – called spinnerets. The spinneret design depends on the desired finished form of the fiber.

Next, the polymer is sent to a cooling station where it solidifies, before being spun and stretched and further processed into a stable fibrous compound. Depending on pre-determined fiber qualities, the fibers are cut in distinct ways and may be reacted with various chemicals to achieve the specific end result for which they are made, and may be subjected to post-production chemicals processes.

Polyester is most typically made from petroleum, but a bio-based alternative exists. It’s made in much the same way as standard polyester except that the core materials are derived fully, or partially, from a natural source such as sugarcane. At the early stages of production plant-based polyester was found to be less durable, but with always-evolving technologies that no longer seems to be the case. At this point, plant-based polyester is still a rather rare find though, simply because it costs more to produce.

Raw polyester fibers are highly combustible, so they are chemically processed to resist ignition.

Generally, polyester is considered an “inherently flame-retardant textile” which in itself means that the fibers themselves are made to be flame-resistant when they are manufactured – rather than treated with flame retardant chemicals post-production. In this method, chemical flame-retardant agents are inserted into the polyester compound on a molecular level during the melt phase in the polymerization stage which makes the chemicals more stable overall as the molecules become part of the fiber and are permanently entrapped within.

This method is presented as the industry standard, but it’s not the only way polyester fibers can be made flame-retardant.

Another disclosed form of making polyester fibers is adding flame retardants after the fibers are initially produced, either during the fiber spinning stage, or even as a post-production enhancement process. This application would make the chemical finishes less stable and more likely to leach from the fabric.

Unfortunately, details such as this are often highly guarded as part of trade secrets.

The safety of flame retardant chemicals is an ongoing issue. History shows that the chemicals widely used by the industry for years and sometimes decades are continuously proving problematic and replaced with other compounds – that often turn out to be just as harmful and also phased out.

SUMMARY:

Most polyester fibers are petroleum-based. Overall, a great number of harmful chemicals are used in various stages of polyester fiber production. Besides the highly toxic monomers and catalysts used during the polymerization stage, many more chemicals are routinely applied throughout the process of polyester fiber manufacturing such as dispersing agents, stabilizers, antioxidants, lubricants, UV absorbers, fillers, flame retardants, and others.

Are polyester clothes safe for babies?

Although polyester fibers are made with a variety of hazardous and carcinogenic chemical compounds, polyester in its final and finished form is considered safe and non-toxic, based on the notion that chemical treatments are utilized in a way that makes the chemicals part of the fiber’s molecular structure (which isn’t always necessarily the case!).

Still, there are several reasons to keep polyester out of baby clothes:

  • Polyester is a form of plastic.

Who knows what the scale of health implications from wearing plastics might be that we don’t yet realize. Despite continued advancements in understanding the health impacts of individual chemical compounds used in plastic manufacturing, very little is still understood about all the ways in which plastics might be affecting our health.

  • Polyester does not breathe well.

Polyester fabric isn’t breathable and does a lousy job at regulating body temperature. Using polyester sleepwear (like those cute fuzzy fleece sleepers) increases your baby’s risk of overheating in their sleep and not catching enough zzzs.

That being said, it’s OK to use polyester sleepwear if your baby takes the fabric well and your indoor temp is on the cooler side, but do factor that in if you are adding any more layers, and check on your baby often.

  • Polyester can cause skin irritation.

Aside from an increased risk of making your baby uncomfortable during sleep, allergic skin reactions to polyester are quite common. Some babies dressed in polyester for even a brief period of time may end up with redness, itching, rashes, or even eczema. That can be the inevitable outcome of low breathability of polyester, a reaction to chemical coatings of the fibers, or a combination of both.

Some babies tolerate polyester clothing well. On the other hand, if your baby already has sensitive skin, it’s best to reduce polyester outfits to a minimum if they are to come in direct contact with the skin.

  • Polyester is prone to static build-up.

Need I say more?

  • Chemical fire retardants.

A wide variety of chemical compounds are currently being used to reduce the flammability of thermoplastics such as polyester, and new types are constantly being developed. Without knowing the groups of fire retardant chemicals used and the method of application (embedded in the fibers vs. surface-coated), you’re left in the dark about any potential health effects.

A growing body of evidence shows a connection between flame-retardant chemicals and health effects such as:

– endocrine disruption
– organ damage
– reproductive issues
– higher risk of cancer
– impaired neurodevelopment

Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chemicals they are exposed to. Their nervous systems and organs are still developing, and hand-to-mouth behavior leads to ingestion of greater amounts of dispersed chemicals. An immature developing system can only handle so much until it becomes a problem.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Safe & Natural Baby Products

SAFER CHOICES:

It’s OK for babies to wear polyester if they are not reacting to it. Don’t feel bad if several baby garments you own are made from polyester. Still, it’s much more comfortable for your baby to wear natural breathable materials like cotton when it comes to clothing articles that sit right next to the skin. Overall, cotton remains the safest choice in baby clothing.

Organic cotton is an even better choice, and GOTS-certified cotton (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the ultimate winner if you can get your hands on some. Organic cotton is grown with significantly fewer chemicals than conventional cotton crops require (which is a surprisingly lot – cotton is the most chemically intensive crop in the world!), but even organic cotton fibers can be processed with harmful chemicals post-harvest. GOTS takes it up a notch by guaranteeing that no harmful chemicals have been used from the crops to harvest and all the way through processing.

Another certification to look for is OEKO-TEX Standard 100 which screens for around 100 harmful substances within all components of finished textiles. Just know that OEKO-TEX certification can apply to both organic and conventionally grown textiles (whereas GOTS certification applies exclusively to organic fibers).

All new baby clothes should be washed before use. This will help remove some residues from the fabric either from chemical applications from the factory or contaminants from previous use in the case of a second-hand item.

SUMMARY:

Polyester is considered to be safe, but it’s not the most appropriate material for baby clothes. It doesn’t let the skin breathe and may overheat your baby. It has a synthetic feel and often irritates sensitive skin. The best fabric choice for baby clothing is a soft breathable fabric without static charge like cotton.

Is polyester safe for baby to sleep on?

Ideally, polyester should not be used in crib bedding, even more so if your baby has sensitive skin. Polyester isn’t breathable, doesn’t regulate temperature well, can cause skin irritation, and doesn’t have a good feel next to the skin. Static cling tendencies of polyester is yet another reason to steer clear of polyester crib sheets.

Crib sheets are best made from cotton, ideally GOTS-certified (organic) if that is feasible for you which eliminates harmful chemicals often used in cotton processing. Organic cotton tends to be softer than conventional and will have been grown with fewer chemicals than conventional cotton.

Various harsh chemicals can be used in the processing of both conventional and organic cotton, so I wouldn’t necessarily reach for “organic” crib sheets without any certification or further disclosure. It may be the same or similar quality as any other cotton, who knows. I’m not saying that all cotton fiber producers and/or individual companies purposefully butcher organic cotton or cheat otherwise in hopes of making big bucks, but if no additional disclosure is provided, you really have no guarantees. Conventional cotton is perfectly fine to use, don’t get me wrong, my point is, you shouldn’t be paying extra for luxuries that may be a sham.

Are polyester toys + polyester fiberfill safe for babies?

Just as with any textile products, toys made with polyester fabrics or other fabric components other than GOTS-certified can pose certain risks of exposure to harmful chemicals. But keep in mind that you don’t need to worry just about polyester – cotton fabrics can be processed with harsh chemicals just as likely, even cotton with an organic label attached. But wait, don’t freak out. Keep reading.

Just handling toys made with *any* chemically processed fabrics (polyester, cotton, etc.) is less of a risk compared with mouthing toys and sucking on soft fabric toys. I wouldn’t encourage the habit of mouthing any fabric toys that aren’t GOTS-certified regularly and for extended periods of time, based on the multitude of chemical treatments the fibers may have gone through and the likelihood of your baby ingesting those chemicals. Once in a while, or for regular play, on the other hand, I don’t see much of an issue.

I would treat polyester fiberfill in the same way.

Polyester fiberfill (AKA polyfill) is the most common filling of stuffed animals and other soft toys sold today – it’s hard to get away from when you have kids! Polyester fiberfill is made in a similar way as standard polyester fibers (if you missed it, read further up) but instead of spinning the fibers they are machine-combed to form a fluffy lightweight batting. Different processes are used to give the fibers specific qualities. For example, some fiberfill is coated with silicone for a softer feel.

So far I haven’t come across a study that would evaluate chemical leaching on contact with the mouth, such as chewing and sucking, the behavior expected from babies in the teething stage. I would be hesitant letting a teething baby frequently soothe irritated gums on toys stuffed with polyester fiberfill.

Teething babies will benefit from having access to natural teethers and teethers made with GOTS-certified fabric components because at that stage the majority of objects are destined to end up in the mouth. For obvious reasons the less chemicals your baby ingests, the better. If you’re looking for ideas on safe baby toys and teethers, take a look at this safe baby toys guide I’ve made just for you.

Virgin vs. Recycled polyester

Both types are common on the market today. How are they different?

  • Virgin polyester is a newly manufactured material using raw petroleum constituents. There is no additional label when a product is made from virgin polyester.
  • Recycled polyester fibers are made by reusing already existing plastic materials, typically single-use clear plastic bottles. Products made with recycled polyester are usually sold as eco-friendly or green.

The beginning of their transformation may be different, but at the melt stage before the actual fibers are produced, both polymer sources have identical chemical composition.

I’m not aware that one would be “safer” than the other. The most notable difference between the two is that recycled polyester requires significantly less energy to produce, and creates less environmental pollution in the end.

Is polyester safe for babies?

Polyester is considered safe. However, polyester fiber production is highly variable and very little disclosure is available, so use your best judgment.

While some babies never seem to react to polyester, if your baby has sensitive skin, you are better off using cotton as much as you can, especially in bedding and as the first layer of clothing. That being said, all babies will benefit from wearing more cotton and less polyester. Cotton is more breathable and feels better against the skin.

Remember that no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to protect your baby from all the chemicals out there, so don’t beat yourself up over having more polyester baby items in your home than you would like. Unless your baby is downright sensitive to polyester in which case it’s obviously best to limit its use significantly.

With a simple inclusion of more natural materials in everyday baby items, you ARE doing enough and you are making a difference in keeping your baby safer!


References:

Polyesters: Polymer Database; https://polymerdatabase.com/polymer%20classes/Polyester%20type.html

Polyester; Chemistry LibreText; https://chem.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Organic_Chemistry/Supplemental_Modules_(Organic_Chemistry)/Esters/Reactivity_of_Esters/Polyesters

What is Polyester Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where; Sewport; https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/polyester-fabric

Polyester Properties, Production, Price, Market and Uses; Plastics Insight; https://www.plasticsinsight.com/resin-intelligence/resin-prices/polyester/

Exposure Assessment: Potential for the Presence of Phthalates and Other Specified Elements in Undyed Manufactured Fibers and their Colorants; CPSC; https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/TERA%20Task17%20Report%20Phthalates%20and%20ASTM%20Elements%20in%20Manufactured%20Fibers.pdf

Flame Retardants; NIH; https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/flame_retardants/index.cfm

Appendix BFlame-Retardant Composition in Fabrics: Their Durability and Permanence; NCBI; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK225652/

Flame-Retardant Unsaturated Polyester Resins: An Overview of Past and Recent Developments; IntechOpen; https://www.intechopen.com/books/polyester-production-characterization-and-innovative-applications/flame-retardant-unsaturated-polyester-resins-an-overview-of-past-and-recent-developments

Flame Retardancy; Sew What? Inc.; https://sewwhatinc.com/resources/flame-retardancy/fabric-flammability/

Sustainable Flame-Retardant Finishing of Textiles Advancement in Technology; RHO; https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.1201/b18428-5

Some Flame Retardants of Concern; Green Science Policy Institute; https://greensciencepolicy.org/harmful-chemicals/flame-retardants/fr-list/

STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification; https://www.oeko-tex.com/en/apply-here/standard-100-by-oeko-tex

GOTS certification; https://www.global-standard.org/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.