Skip to main content

The problem of forever chemicals and waterproof clothing

Jane Turner looks at the indelible footprint left by 'forever chemicals' (PFAS) used to make clothing waterproof and investigates what companies and the government are doing about it, and what consumers can do.

Since PFAS were first produced in the 1950s, they have found their way into our homes, cars, offices, and onto our supermarket shelves. They give stain-resistant properties to carpets, furniture, and clothing, and add water repellency to outdoor clothing. They’re added to paints and varnishes, cleaning sprays, and personal care products. They’re even in our kitchens as non-stick coatings on pots and pans, like Teflon, and the paper, board, and compostable food packaging that’s replacing plastic.

Because of this widespread use, PFAS now contaminate water, air, wildlife, and human blood all across the world. More than 99% of people tested have PFAS in their blood, and studies now show babies are born with PFAS already in their bodies because of prenatal exposure. The recent State of Our Rivers 2024 report from The Rivers Trust found that PFAS contaminate almost every river in England.

What are PFAS?

PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, including PFCs) are a group of around 10,000 harmful industrial chemicals linked to a wide range of health and environmental impacts. In humans, the list includes high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, cancers, reproductive problems, and a reduced immune response to tetanus vaccinations. PFAS have also been associated with immunotoxicity. In wildlife, impacts range from changes in the immune system of otters to the brain function of polar bears.

These chemicals are often referred to as ‘Forever Chemicals’ because they are extremely persistent. Once in the environment, they can take thousands of years to break down. They have been labelled “the most persistent human-made chemicals known to date”.

The 2019 film Dark Waters dramatised the pollution in the USA around toxic PFAS dumps and revealed that their manufacturers – 3M and DuPont – knew about their toxicity from the start but kept it quiet. This is similar to the way the tobacco industry long knew about the negative health impacts of smoking, but carried on regardless.

The use of these persistent and highly toxic chemicals in outdoor clothing has gone under the radar for a long time. Greenpeace started campaigning against them in outdoor clothing and equipment in 2015. But most consumers are still unaware of the role they are playing in the perpetuation of ‘forever chemicals’. 

The outdoor gear industry tends to refer to these chemicals as PFCs (perfluorochemicals) but we are talking about the same thing. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to PFAS as PFCs here because that’s what you might see on labels in the shops or on company websites. They may also say ‘fluorocarbon free’.

What are PFCs used for in outdoor gear?

PFCs are mainly used for waterproofing jackets, walking boots and tents, in two ways:

1. The fabric is given a membrane that functions like a thin skin incorporated between fabric layers such as the ubiquitous Gore-Tex and eVent. They are mainly made from PTFE (which is also used as Teflon non-stick coatings) which requires toxic PFCs in its production and may degrade in the environment to these more toxic forms.

2. The other potential use of PFCs is DWR (Durable Water Repellency). Textiles are given a coating or finish which ensures that water and dirt bead up on the product’s exterior. The sprays and washes you can buy to re-waterproof your clothing or equipment yourself may also contain PFCs. 

But it turns out that PFCs can turn up in loads of other things other than membranes and fabric finishes. It had become common practice in the footwear industry, for example, to coat every little part of a shoe: the laces, the stitching, the heel counter, and even products that weren't meant to be waterproof, like sandals.

Zips is one of the places that companies have found it hardest to get rid of PFCs. Zip manufacturer YKK got rid of them in their zips but found that the paint on their zippers contained PTFE. 

For outdoor clothing, the manufacturing of waterproof clothes and footwear is where these chemicals mainly get into water, soils and sediments and then build up in the food chain, but they can also be released during the use and disposal of the products.

What are companies doing about PFCs?

We scrutinised what all the companies in the outdoor clothing guide were saying about their use of PFCs, but much of the time we had to read between the lines.

Some of them are saying that they are now PFC-free, but companies don’t always include PTFE membranes (e.g. Gore-Tex) in their definition of PFCs. So they may claim to be PFC-free when they are not. Or companies say they are using PFC-free DWRs but don’t mention the membranes. 

They may also say that all their ‘apparel’ (clothing) is PFC-free without mentioning their walking boots or tents, the lion’s share of which are still using Gore-Tex or PFC waterproof finishes.

Either way, very few of the companies were completely clear about their use of PFCs apart from the five companies with full marks in our PFAS column: Paramo, Finisterre, Fjällräven, Lowe Alpine rucksacks, and PrAna.

  • Of the 27 companies listed in the guide only 5 (18%) had stopped using PFCs.
  • Nearly half of the 27 had no phase-out date for their use of PFCs.
  • 82% of companies were still using PFCs.
  • Five companies were not even acknowledging the issue.
Infographic of a mountain with scores of outdoor clothing brands for PFAS use. The information is in the text of article.
Image by Moonloft for ECRA.

Which outdoor clothing brands do best for PFCs?

We rated companies in our outdoor clothing guide out of 100 for their use (or not) of PFCs. Here is how they scored:

Scored 100/100: all products PFC-free now

Scored 90/100: vast majority of products PFC free with target date for rest

  • Alpkit (all PFC -free now except tents by end of 2024)
  • Jack Wolfskin (all PFC-free now except footwear only 75% of which is PFC-free)
  • Mammut (most products will be PFC-free by Autumn 2025 but only 90% of footwear)
  • Patagonia (92% PFC-free now, the rest by 2025)
  • Rab (80% PFC-free now, rest by Winter 2024)
  • Vaude (all PFC -free now except 12% of tents, rest by 2025)

Scored 80/100: only sells secondhand gear

Scored 40/100: still using but target date for phasing out all PFCs

Scored 30/100: reducing use but no target date for phase out

Scored 10/100: no target date and only vague discussion of PFCs

Scored 0/100: no, or virtually no, discussion of PFCs

Changes since we last rated companies on PFAS in 2022

Our new rating is much more nuanced than our old rating which was best, middle or worst. Now we can have 10 gradations of ranking between 0 and 100 in increments of 10.

Companies whose rating has gone down

  • Berghaus may not be using PFAS for DWR waterproofing for its clothing but it has no target for phasing out all PFAS eg in boots and rucksacks.
  • The North Face itself said virtually nothing about PFAS. Its parent company, VF Corp which also owns Timberland and Vans, said it was phasing out PFAS by 2025 but did not mention PTFE, a type of PFAS used in membranes.
  • Mountain Warehouse said in 2022 “We are working towards 100% PFC free product ranges by 2025” but we could not find this commitment reiterated today.

Companies whose rating has gone up

  • Montane had no target date for PFAS phase out in 2022 but now has a target date of 2026.
  • Columbia and Mountain Hardwear had no target date in 2022 but has privately committed to phasing them out by 2024 after a petition was launched in the US by The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental NGO. The NRDC is still campaigning for them to make the company’s progress toward eliminating the chemicals in 2024 known publicly.
  • PrAna is also owned by Columbia but stopped using PFAS in 2023.

Do we really need PFCs?

According to Vaude: “We have thoroughly examined the issue of whether outdoor products really need this feature and decided that for VAUDE, they do not – for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it.”

Fjallraven said: “We asked ourselves, ‘Does a jacket really need to be oil repellent if it is better for the environment [for us to give up on that]?’ We felt it was a low price to pay. It’s easy to add functionality because it’s nice to have, but every function has a side-effect. Often an environmental one in the form of chemical release or production issues. We need to evaluate every function to determine if it is worth the environmental impact”.

KEEN walking boots said: “These safe alternatives aren’t as “strong” as PFAS-based chemistries. And that’s OK. PFCs are effective at resisting stains, grease, and motor oil. But we just needed something that was effective at repelling water and dirt. In essence, a DWR with PFCs is over-engineered for hiking shoes.  ... We were using a formula that was doing things we didn’t need. The new, PFC/PFAS-free solutions we found meet our standards around water and dirt. Not spaghetti sauce.”

What are governments doing about toxic forever chemicals?

New laws in the US about levels of toxic PFAS in drinking water have highlighted the need for much tighter regulation in the UK. Drinking water is the main way that we are exposed to these toxic chemicals.

The US has taken an unprecedented move to ban six of the most studied and toxic PFAS in drinking water above a certain level. Before, levels in drinking water were only advisory guidelines and unenforceable. The new legal limits of 4 ng/l (nanograms per litre) are still higher than is generally considered safe, and well above the US advisory health limits (0.02 ng/l and 0.004 ng/l for PFOA and PFOS). US public health advocates say the discrepancy is in part due to industry pressure.

But in the UK, our advisory levels are 25 times higher than even the compromised US legal limits, at 100 ng/l. Pressure is now building on the UK government to urgently tighten regulations.

In the UK only three PFAS are regulated. But the EU is pushing to get all PFAS banned as a class by 2025, a move opposed by the industry body, the Fluoropolymer Product Group, which represents the big chemical companies manufacturing PFAS, like 3M, Bayer, and BASF. It says PFAS have different risks so shouldn’t be banned as one.

A recent testing of eleven high-level European politicians found up to seven PFAS in all eleven people, with five politicians exceeding existing levels of concern. The testing was undertaken to raise awareness and urge them to support the PFAS ban.

Impact of outdoor clothing

How to look after your PFC-free clothing and equipment

Fabrics with PFC-free DWR waterproof coatings (like Nikwax), will need washing and reproofing more often than their toxic PFC equivalents. That’s because they are not as strong as PFCs which have a very strong chemical bond which is difficult to break – hence them being persistent in the environment and being nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’. The 'durable' element of PFC-free DWR is no longer as durable and the waterproofing benefits don't last as long but it seems to be a small price to pay for the sake of the environment and human health.

A word about Gore-Tex

Gore-Tex has become synonymous with waterproof and breathable fabrics. Gore-Tex fabrics usually contain a thin membrane made from PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon).

Gore-Tex has committed to eliminate what it calls ‘PFCs of Environmental Concern’ (PFC EC) by the end of 2025, but it doesn’t think that PFTE is of environmental concern so it will continue using it.

However, Gore-Tex has been developing a PFC-free membrane called ePE (based on polyethylene) and a PFC-free DWR. Now 50% of its fabrics are PFC-free in both membrane and DWR.

It’s likely it will continue to use PFTE in its Gore Pro products but will use ePE in the bulk of its range.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how you can tell which products that bear the Gore-Tex label are PFC-free and which are not. 

What can consumers do about PFCs?

  • Only buy outdoor clothing and footwear that is PFC-free.
  • Only buy your outdoor gear from companies that are totally PFC free now: Paramo, Finisterre, Fjallraven, prAna.
  • Buy PFC-free clothing and footwear from companies who are nearly PFC-free: Alpkit, Lowe Alpine, Rab, Patagonia, Vaude, Mammut, Jack Wolfskin.
  • Buy secondhand.
  • Be aware that anything labelled as Gore-Tex or eVent may contain PFCs.
  • Look for Sympatex membranes (polyethylene – PE) or membranes made of polyurethane.
  • Look for Nikwax DWR fabrics and coatings which are used on Nikwax’s sister company, Paramo.
  • Re-waterproof your gear using PFC-free proofers like Nikwax.

How one footwear company removed PFAS from their products

Person wearing red trainer outdoor shoe stepping into puddle

Keen Footwear: ‘Forever chemical’ free since 2018

Back in 2014 Keen Footwear began to take action to give PFAS the boot. 

They first conducted a full audit of every spec sheet of every shoe, and discovered that PFCs/PFAS were showing up in over 100 different components. It had become common practice in the footwear industry to coat every little part of a shoe: the laces, the stitching, the heel counter, and on and on.

Chris Enlow, ex-senior director of KEEN Effect said

"we realized we could stop using it on our non-waterproof styles, like our sandals. ... We eliminated nearly 70 percent of our use of this class of chemistry without making any other changes. Just by stopping using it where we don’t need it.”

For the remaining 30 percent, they used Greenpeace guidelines to look for an alternative that was safe, effective, and affordable. 

Things became very complicated because they had to work with many different suppliers and they in turn needed to work in their supply chain to source the chemistries that Keen wanted. Also, it turns out many factories were using it as a coating on their molding machinery — so even parts of the shoe that wouldn’t normally have a treatment specified had traces of PFAS in them. It was even in the packaging.

Keen estimate that they've collectively spent about 10,000 hours getting to where they are today, and saved over 150 tons of fluorinated chemicals from being introduced into the environment.

Additional information: Keen’s Green Paper — a step-by-step guide to going PFAS free, aimed at other companies

This is a reduced summary of the blog on Keen Footwear website reproduced with permission.

Find out more about PFAS 

Via the #BanPFAS coalition, 128 European NGOs, including Ethical Consumer, are demanding a ban on all ‘forever chemicals’ in consumer products by 2025 and a complete ban on their manufacture and use in the EU by 2030. 

Find out more about the BanPFAS coalition and manifesto