How far are we willing to go to get fit? Far enough to increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes? Far enough to lower your egg count, thereby diminishing our species’ fertility? Or dare I say, far enough to negatively impact a fetus’ genetic makeup for life

Not exactly the health benefits we are looking for while working out.

These are the types of questions we should be asking ourselves. Better yet, let’s ask the 11 popular athletic brands, including Nike, PINK, and Athleta, selling sports bras and tops with synthetic fabrics that—according to testing by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH)—contain toxic levels of Bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA). These clothes may expose the wearer to up to 22 times California’s safe limit of BPA. 

The Health Implications of BPA

 “BPA, a well-studied hormone-disrupting chemical, mimics estrogen and can disrupt the normal functioning of the body, including metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, and much more,” according to the lead researcher on the CEH study, Jimena Díaz Leiva, PhD.

“There are lasting effects of [BPA] exposure during pregnancy on the fetus,” says Hugh Taylor, MD, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Dr. Taylor’s team has investigated the impact of BPA on the developing female reproductive system, including harm to the growing fetus. “Exposure to the mother during pregnancy may result in permanent epigenetic alteration on the fetus.” That means that although BPA is only in the body temporarily, exposure to it during pregnancy can alter the fetus’ genetic makeup for life. 

“It may even affect disease response much later in life” Dr. Taylor warns, although he notes that further investigation is warranted. According to Dr. Taylor, BPA exposure in mice has correlated with decreased metabolism, fertility, and brain function, all the while increasing anxiety. (As if the world needs more of that!) 

Why is BPA in clothing?

BPA is a key ingredient used to manufacture plastic, particularly as a hardening agent. In the production of fabrics, it is used to improve their lifespan, give them moisture-wicking and anti-static properties, as well as help fix dyes to the fabric. 

Over 60% of the clothing produced worldwide is made from synthetic fibers — aka plastic — and workout clothing is predominantly made with polyester and spandex to give it the stretch it needs.

Our skin is our largest absorbing organ, so anything sitting against it can be taken into our body and impact its functions. “Moreover, given that sports bras and athletic shirts are worn during exercise and generally people sweat a lot in these clothing items, we were concerned about the potential for increased exposure as sweat tends to pull out chemicals from fabric,” said Dr. Díaz Leiva, making these findings in workout wear even more troubling. By working out in synthetic clothing, we are optimizing the environment for BPA to enter and disrupt our system. Plus, many researchers agree that there is no dose of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can be considered safe — even a tiny, minuscule amount can lead to health effects. 

National studies show that BPA is detectable in more than 90% of urine samples in the general population. How much is attributable to other plastics such as food packaging or the clothes we wear is unclear. But it’s fair to say you should include clothing in your strategy to reduce your BPA exposure. 

BPA-Free Alternatives

Maybe this scandal will lead to our clothing tags, not unlike our water bottles, advertising that they are “BPA-free.” But researchers such as Dr. Taylor warn that a brand could swap in a cousin that is less researched but potentially even more harmful, such as BPF and BPS. 

For now, the best way to avoid exposure to BPA is to swap out plastic-based clothing (including but not limited to polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and lycra) for bio- and plant-based items, especially for workouts. (Luckily, we have a guide to plastic-free workout clothing.)

Many workout pieces may still include a small percentage of the aforementioned synthetics, but the higher the percentage of all-natural fibers, the lower the likelihood of BPA exposure and the better off your health will be. 

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