(Bloomberg) -- There’s a chance that some of the clothes hanging in your closet were made using toxic chemicals. There’s also a chance that this fact isn’t communicated clearly, or perhaps at all, on your clothing labels. Welcome to PFAS limbo. 

For decades, apparel companies have turned to per- or polyfluorinated chemicals — also called PFAS, fluorochemicals, PFC chemicals or forever chemicals — to make raincoats, boots, backpacks and other items resistant to water and stains. But a growing body of research suggests that this entire class of thousands of chemicals are harmful to human health and the environment. Companies are now racing to get them out of clothes ahead of state-level bans in California, Maine and New York that will take effect in the coming years. This week, the American Apparel & Footwear Association put PFAS on its restricted substance list. 

The great transition off of PFAS in clothing is officially underway, but the earliest of the state bans takes effect in 2025. Until then, consumers are left to puzzle out on their own whether the items they already have or want to buy have PFAS.

“I regularly get calls from friends and family wondering exactly this — how to navigate this landscape,” says Danielle Melgar, an activist with the nonprofit Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG). “There aren’t labeling requirements and so it’s kind of just up to companies to say whatever they want and in many cases the labels are intentionally misleading.”

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Melgar says there are words consumers can look for in clothing descriptions to suss out whether PFAS might be present. “The typical functions of PFAS are things like waterproofing, stain proofing and stain resistance,” she says. “Looking for those buzzwords can be helpful but that’s obviously not going to be helpful when you are looking for a rain jacket because any rain jacket would be waterproof.”

Some PFAS labels do exist. But as Melgar and other advocates from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Fashion FWD warn in their 2022 “Going Out of Fashion” report, those labels can be incomplete or misleading. For example, beware of labels that specify clothing made without a specific PFAS chemical, such as clothing that is PFOA-free or PFOS-free, warns NRDC scientist and senior project manager Yiliqi, who goes by one name. “That’s really a red alert,” she says. “It means they may be using other kinds of PFAS, right?”

Even the label “PFC-free” could be misleading if companies are using PFC to refer to only a subset of PFAS chemicals rather than all of them, according to the report. Regardless of the label, activists recommend that consumers ask the manufacturer if a product contains any PFAs, including what’s called PFAS polymers. “If it does, avoid buying,” advises the report.

The ideal is to avoid PFAS clothing, but it is generally okay to continue wearing clothing you already own while being mindful of the potential risks, according to Yiliqi. “It is possible for people to inhale or ingest PFAS shedded from PFAS-containing clothes,” she says. “This is especially important to note for small children, as they may be chewing their clothes or putting their hands in their mouths after touching PFAS containing products or surfaces.” One tip is to avoid having PFAS clothing directly touching skin for long periods of time.

Some companies aren’t just leading the transition away from PFAS; they’ve already finished. As of the summer of 2019, all Jack Wolfskin clothes, packs and bags are “100% PFC-free.” Vaude Sport’s clothes were PFC-free as of 2018, and their backpacks and footwear as of 2020. Most Haglofs products are now PFC-free, excepting those containing Gore-Tex fabrics. Fjällräven’s product line will be entirely PFAS-free by this summer, with many items available online or in stores already there. Patagonia is aiming to be PFAS-free by the end of 2024, and already offers PFC-free durable water repellent or “PFC-free DWR” products.

For many other brands, though, consumers will have to wait until stricter regulations make PFAS-free options easier to find. 

“Consumers should not have to buy their way out of the problem,” says Avinash Kar, a senior attorney and senior director at NRDC. “We should be making sure that the products that people buy are not harmful to them or the environment and passing these laws helps ensure that that’s the case.”

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