Stain Resistant School Uniforms

Are they leaving a lasting mark on the environment? Guest blog from Fidra

It’s  ‘Back-to-School’ season and parents across the country will be scouring the supermarkets for uniforms. Convenience is high on the agenda so it is no wonder that uniforms advertised as “stain resistant” are popular with parents looking to make their lives easier. 

But are ‘stain resistant’uniforms really bringing benefits to customers, and at what cost to the environment?

Stain resistance is included as a perk on a huge range of uniforms –  it seems all major retailers and high street shops sell at least some of their school wear range with fabric protectors included. Their labels promise to “fight off dry soil and nasty, unpredictable spills and splashes”.

Manufacturers claim they are environmentally friendly too, suggesting these stain resistant coatings can “reduce the need for laundering” and “increase the fabric’s usable life”. Stain resistance promises less scrubbing, less washing and less shopping to buy new uniforms. Could it be too good to be true?  

Our research at environmental charity Fidra has found that stain resistant uniforms may not bring all of these promised benefits and could be contributing to a growing toxic legacy of pollution in our environment.

The dirt on PFAS-based stain resistance

If a uniform is marketed as stain resistant, it means that chemicals have been applied to make the fabric repel water and oil. Many stain resistant finishes are still created using Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (or PFASs), a group of man-made chemicals that have found uses in a host of consumer products, including food packaging, cosmetics and as water- or oil-repellent coatings on textiles.

However, there are growing concerns for the environment as more and more of these synthetic substances leak out during production, use and disposal of these products. They are found in ecosystems; in our air and water worldwide, in wildlife and humans, including in remote arctic regions.

PFAS break down extremely slowly in the environment; they can build up in the tissue or blood of animals where they can cause harm, and some PFAS chemicals have already been restricted due to concerns for the environment and human health.

Image: PFAs

Following calls from the scientific community and international campaigns by charities, many major supermarkets have been taking a precautionary approach and phasing out the use of any PFAS from their products, including school uniforms. However, analysis of the UK school uniforms market by Fidra reveals that many department stores, high street shops and independent retailers continue to sell school uniforms with PFAS stain resistance.

Fidra have joined the Swedish research consortia POPFREE, in an effort to find environmentally friendly alternatives to PFASs in consumer products. 

Dr Christina Jönsson, POPFREE, coordinator explains ‘We know some PFASs are toxic but there have not been enough studies done on all the different chemicals being used, so we don’t know exactly how hazardous many of them are. But we know that once PFASs get into the environment they will spread, and stay around for hundreds of years, which is enough to warrant action as a precaution. 

We also need make sure that any PFAS replacement chemicals aren’t just as damaging.’  But before we all switch from PFAS to a new replacement, we need to know if stain resistance on uniforms is working in the real world. Perhaps stain resistance isn’t needed at all?

How useful is stain resistance?

Our survey examined the shopping and laundry habits of over 600 parents of primary-age children across the UK. Results revealed that stain resistance does not seem to reduce the frequency of washing or increase the life of a garment. 

In fact, Fidra found that the parents who considered stain-resistant finishes important when buying uniforms washed trousers and skirts significantly more often (average 4.5 days between washes) than those who did not value stain resistance (average 5.4 days between washes). Similarly, Fidra found uniforms were being bought just as often whether stain resistance was valued by shoppers or not. 

This may be partly due to the fact stain resistance doesn’t last. Often stain resistant finishes on uniforms are only guaranteed for around 20 washes. The stain-resistant coating, meanwhile, washes down the drain and into our environment.

Coatings often require specific care, such as tumble drying and no fabric softener to work effectively. Customers are unlikely to be treating their stain resisting items any differently from the rest of their laundry, so benefits from stain resistance will be lost. 

There is no doubt that these PFAS-based coatings do have oil and water repelling abilities when first applied to the fabric  – in fact, they are likely if anything to be overdesigned, providing protection at a level that some agree goes above and beyond the level required for school uniforms.

Supermarkets that have already made a change away from PFAS have been finding that non-PFAS stain resistant coatings, despite not repelling water and oil to the same degree a PFAS, are still satisfying customer needs just as well as their previous PFAS coatings

We argue that instead of providing environmental benefits, these coatings are increasing the chemical burden on our environment, which will harm our ecosystems and could lead to consequences for our own human health. 

What can shoppers do?

You can find uniforms without PFAS-based stain resistance. Many supermarkets have already switched to PFAS free stain resistance,. Non-coated items are also often available, just check the labels of items before you buy. Of course, the most environmentally friendly option is still to use second hand clothing 

Our new website, includes all the information you need to make your own decision about what to buy. The table below shows what labels you might find, and what they mean.  

 Technical finish   PFAs based?   Where do you find them?   Description   How long does it last? 

TeflonTM

  • Shield 
    Pro+
  • Clean
  • Clean & Dry
  • Shield & Clean+
Yes

Sainsbury's, John Lewis, Debenhams,
Matalan, Morrisons (Nutmeg - phasing out), Next

TeflonTM is a brand-name, rather than a specific chemical.
Other than their “Eco”-branded product
(see below), all other products are fluorinated. The ‘Clean’ range also include a stain release agent.

10-20 washes

(except ‘+’ range: 30 washes)

Bionic Finish®

Yes

Sainsbury’s

Bionic Finish® uses a combination of PFAS and branched star-like polymers to create a water and oil-repellent finish.

20 washes

Bionic Finish Eco®

No

Aldi, Lidl, H&M

Described as a ‘[water-resistant], fluorine-free recipe… Made using hyperbranched, hydrophobic polymers.”

20 washes

TeflonTM

  • EcoEliteTM

No

Aldi, Asda (George), Morrisons (Nutmeg), Sainsbury’s, Tesco, John Lewis

Teflon EcoEliteTM is described as a water-repellent, non-fluorinated fabric treatment. Uses Zelan™ R3 chemistry (N-[3- (Dimethylamino)propyl]stearamide monoacetate)

30 washes

NO COATING

No

Most retailers have non-coated options. These tend to be cheaper, use the least chemicals and pose the least environmental risk.

   
Fidra’s guide to stain-resistance. These are the most common branded finishes you may come across on clothing. Check out PFAs free for more information about Who Sells What, including a database of independent retailers.

Get involved

We’re keen to hear you views, do you find stain resistance on uniforms work for you? How do you keep the stain resistance working? Is it easy is to find alternatives to PFAS stain resistance or non-coated uniforms? Keep in touch on twitter @fidratweets and visit www.pfasfree.org.uk

This was a guest blog written by FIDRA. Fidra is a Scottish registered charity and SCIO no SC043895.  It seeks to engage local concerns over current and emerging environmental issues and use this to contribute to a wider dialogue at national and international levels. PFAS Free Uniforms is Fidra’s latest project and aims to stop unnecessary use of chemicals of environmental concern. Visit www.pfasfree.org.uk for further information.

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