Is polyester toxic? Is polyester safe for babies? Benefits and drawbacks of polyester in baby gear, and how to handle it as a parent.
We all want to do what’s best for our kids. For me, that means giving them a safe, loving, and enriching home and family life, as well as ensuring the products they use are as safe and healthy as possible for their vulnerable, developing bodies, and for the planet we all call home.
While we can try our best to offer our babes baby products made from all organic and all natural materials, in this day and age, it’s not entirely practical.
Polyester is ubiquitous, found in products made for adults, kids and the tiniest babies.
Which is why as a parent it’s certainly fair to ask: Is polyester safe for babies?
In this post, I go over what polyester fabric is, where you’ll find it when it comes to baby stuff, and how – as a parent – you might want to handle polyester in the numerous baby products you’ll come across, considering everything from baby clothes to crib sheets to travel cribs, play gyms, play mats, jackets, and more.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is one of the world’s most widely used synthetic fibers for textiles, and a type of plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) and a polymer material.
A polyester is a polymer (a chain of repeating units) where the individual units are held together by ester linkages (source)
Typically derived from petroleum based raw materials, alternatives to raw-petroleum-based polyester include plant-based polyester and recycled polyester (made from recycled plastic, including plastic bottles).
Polyester fabrics are common, and can be used on their own (100% polyester). More commonly, they’re used in polyester blends (cotton polyester blends, or blended with other natural fibers).
Benefits of Polyester
Polyester and poly blends are cheaper to produce than all natural fibers, making cost a large reason why it’s so common.
However, polyester also has other benefits worth considering in the context of baby gear, in particular.
Cotton polyester blends have reduced shrinkage than pure cotton, making them quite practical in things that need to be washed a lot (aka: most baby stuff).
Compared to 100% cotton, poly blends are a fairly durable fabric, less prone to wrinkling, and have good stain resistance for water-based stains.
Polyester is also durable in the outdoors, making it a reasonable choice for gear you’re likely to use outside, such as strollers, baby carriers, etc.
Additionally, polyester “has often been considered more sustainable from a consumer care standpoint – polyester garments last a really long time and require less water, energy and heat for washing.”
Downsides of Polyester
Petroleum based products are inherently non-renewable and non biodegradable, which is one reason polyster fabric has become less fashionable over recent years (and recycled polyester has become more popular).
Beyond being petroleum based, there is growing concern over the role polyester fabrics play in our microplastics problem, which are getting into our water supply and blood streams, leading us to wonder whether there are serious health risks associated with our reliance on polyester products.
Additionally, there are reasonable concerns about whether polyester has harmful chemicals embedded within the fibers.
A 2013 Greenpeace analysis of clothing for sale across 25 different countries found antimony, a chemical known to be harmful to the eyes, skin, heart, lungs, and stomach, within 36 pieces of polyester-containing clothing (82 garments were analyzed in total, meaning traces of antimony were found in a full 44% of all pieces analyzed). Antimony is used as a catalyst during polyester manufacturing.
Finally, the way polyester is made can be quite problematic in terms of the environment.
How is Polyester Made?
One of the big problems with polyester fabric is how it’s made – and the eco harmful chemicals involved in the process.
“Polyester generally has significant negative environmental impact during production, use, and disposal.“
The biggest issue is the use of petroleum derived chemicals in the manufacture of polyester.
Polyester fibers form through a chemical reaction in which dimethyl terephthalate reacts with ethylene glycol, along with a catalyst.
Both ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate have petrochemical roots:
“Ethylene glycol is made from ethylene oxide, which in turn is made by the “catalytic cracking” of petroleum. The precursor of terephthalic acid is para-xylene which is distilled from petroleum. Both processes require the input of energy that comes from burning fossil fuels.”
Is there Such a Thing as Responsible Polyester Fabric?
First, the good news: it’s certainly possible to purchase more responsible polyester.
In fact, Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certified polyester is about as good as it gets in terms of responsible polyester fiber.
“The GRS is an international, voluntary, full product and supply chain standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of recycled input, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions.”
Choosing products with GRS certified polyester means:
- It’s been verified to be recycled polyester as opposed to virgin polyester, making it more sustainable off the bat.
- It doesn’t use “chemicals with the potential for harm.” This means no toxic chemicals embedded during processing or through fabric treatments or finishes (fire retardants, PFAS containing water proofing or stain resistant treatments).
I’ve seen GRS described as “GRS is to synthetics as GOTS is to natural fibers”
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across a single baby gear company that specifies whether the polyester fabric they use is GRS certified or not.
Many tout using recycled polyester fibers instead of all new materials, but I’ve yet to see GRS certified, at least in marketing materials and on product labels I’ve inspected.
Is Polyester Safe for Babies?
Polyester is generally considered safe for babies, with a few caveats.
Polyester is most suited to use in baby gear and outerwear, where the fabric doesn’t come into direct contact with your baby’s skin (or mouth).
In other words? It’s better used as a pack and play or stroller fabric than it is as a pillow case or crib sheet. In products made entirely of fabric, it’s a reasonable choice as a filler (i.e. polyester fiberfill used as stuffing in a baby play may) or liner, with a more natural fabric on the top/outer layer that’s actually touching your little one’s skin.
Add to that, polyester fabrics are less breathable than natural fabrics. Because babies struggle with their body heat regulation and can overheat quite easily, it’s better to dress babies in natural fabrics that breathe, like cotton, especially during sleep, as well as use tight fitting cotton crib sheets (ideally, organic).
Additionally, polyester can cause skin irritation in infants, babies, and older children with sensitive skin.
Finally, polyester is not particularly flammable, meaning it may or may not be treated with flame retardant chemicals, which are bad news for babies, kids, and pretty much everyone. If you purchase polyester baby clothing or gear, look into whether it’s treated with flame retardants.
If not, the company should be able to let you know how they meet flammability safety standards without chemicals (it’s often by using a natural fire barrier from wool, or something similar, but it’s worth looking into).
The TLDR of it is this: while generally safe, it’s worth looking at the final product in which the polyester is used to make sure you’re happy to use it with your little ones.
A Note About Infants and Babies with Sensitive Skin
Polyester is considered safe for babies, kids, and adults. However, it’s worth noting it may cause skin irritation in very young infants, who tend to have sensitive skin, and even older babies and kids who continue to have sensitive skin.
This is likely related to the chemicals used during the manufacturing process.
This is why I am generally happy to use polyester fabrics in baby gear where the polyester isn’t going to touch my baby’s skin (for example, the inner part of a play mat, where the outer cover is soft organic cotton), and use natural materials such as organic cotton when the product is going to have direct contact with my child’s skin, such as base layers of clothing and crib sheets, bed sheets, and bedding in general.
Is Polyester Toxic? How I Approach This as a Parent
As a synthetic material, polyester definitely isn’t a natural fabric choice.
And since many parents tend to prefer natural vs synthetic materials for their babies, it’s certainly worth considering what role – if any – polyester fabric has to play when it comes to baby clothing and gear, and consider whether polyester is safe for babies.
Personally, I think polyester is reasonable for some baby items.
Most of the non-toxic play mats I reviewed, for example, contain some amount of polyester (particularly as fiber fill, with cotton outer layers for many).
Many pack and plays and travel cribs likewise use polyester for the fabric portion.
This seems reasonable to me, although I certainly understand choosing to keep the youngest of babies away from polyester, and older babies who want to mouth everything. I think it’s particularly reasonable to ensure your little one isn’t putting polyester in their mouth, especially given the Greenpeace findings that it can contain trace amounts of antimony.
- Try to purchase less polyester where possible, recognizing it’s impossible to get rid of it completely.
- Consider whether the polyester products I do buy are made of regular polyester / new polyester, or whether it uses recycled polyester or certified polyester (i.e. Oeko-Tex).
- Purchase polyester items that won’t be in direct contact with my little one’s skin. Therefore polyester bedding is out, and I instead choose non toxic sheets made from conventional or organic cotton. Likewise, polyester clothing is out, although I make an exception for polyester outerwear such as jackets.
- Try to balance making reasonable, fairly easy choices with the knowledge that I can’t eliminate all risks and all polyester fabrics. My daughter’s dance costume and gymnastics leotard, for example, are polyester.