Cotton’s Dirty Secret: The Shocking Reasons to Avoid Dirty Cotton and Choose Organic

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Cotton – harmless and cheap – right? Sadly not. In fact, regular, everyday cotton, more accurately known as dirty cotton, is exceptionally dangerous. Yes, it’s cheap in terms of your bank balance, but it’s devastatingly expensive in terms of your health, the environment, wildlife, and the people who live and work in and around dirty cotton production. You hear “Organic cotton is just a silly fad. There’s no difference.” But there really, really is. Let’s look at some of the more shocking reasons you should avoid dirty cotton at all costs and why you should switch to the safer alternatives.

Heavy Chemical Use

The Soil Association reports that cotton crops grow on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural space, but accounts for

  • 25% of the world’s insecticide use
  • 10% of the world’s pesticide use.

Those shocking figures alone should let you know just how bad cotton is.

Toxic Nerve Agents

toddler with gas mask

Yep – that’s right. Many of the pesticides commonly used on dirty cotton were originally engineered as toxic nerve agents during WWII. Potent nerve gas fatal to humans – and they spray it on the cotton crops that we then wear (and eat). Yup – your baby’s favorite blankie – the one she likes to snuggle with – the one with the tatty corner that she likes to put in her mouth. However much processing the cotton undergoes – traces of these devastating chemicals remain.


Aside from the terrifying thought of toxic nerve agents on your bed linen and your baby’s toys and clothing, there’s another terror to face: Many of the chemicals used to treat cotton during both the growth and processing phases are known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) – and are even banned in many countries – although not where the cotton is produced and processed.

Here are just a few of the lethal chemicals used in cotton growth and processing:


  • Arsenic – Known carcinogen. Also causes:
    • Muscle weakness
    • Fatigue
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Liver and kidney damage
    • Weakened immune system.
  • Formaldehyde – Known carcinogen. Also causes:
    • Potentially fatal respiratory distress.
  • Benzidine – Known carcinogen. Also causes:
    • Bladder injury
  • Parathion – Probable carcinogen. Also causes:
    • Severe damage to the central nervous system
    • Severe and potentially lethal respiratory distress
    • Seizures
    • Blood disorders
    • Paralysis
    • Coma
    • Liver failure

Not known as carcinogens, but dreadfully toxic:

  • Mercury
    • Severe neurological damage
    • Birth defects
    • Involuntary tremors
    • Nerve damage
    • Respiratory failure
    • Impaired cognitive function
  • Aldicarb
    • Severe and potentially fatal respiratory distress
    • Aggressively attacks the central nervous system
    • Involuntary tremors
    • Epigastric cramping

And it’s not just those – it’s common practice among dirty cotton growers to use broadspectrum organophosphates, dioxins, and other lethal chemicals like toxic defoliants.

Why – why would you want to come into contact with anything that contains even faint traces of these (and a huge number of other just as lethal) chemicals? Why would you want to subject yourself, your animals, your children, or anyone else to this lethal cocktail? Yet how many of us are surrounded by regular, dirty cotton? In fact, your entire family is probably wearing it right now. And probably sitting on it, and playing with it. And eating – yes eating it – every. single. day.

And, to top it all off, using these chemicals to kill off pests isn’t that effective. The pests eventually build up a tolerance to the lethal cocktails, so the farmers use higher, more concentrated doses until the bugs again become immune, at which point the farmers up the dose again…. and so the cycle continues.

Human Dangers

Obviously, the biggest concern for you is the danger to you and your loved ones. The list of chemicals and their known side effects listed above tell you that every second that you’re wearing or using dirty cotton, you’re in danger. Additionally, dirty cotton and other chemical-infused textiles are closely linked to increased occurrences of asthma and allergies in general. So be smart and [easyazon_link keywords=”organic cotton” locale=”US” localize=”y” tag=”realselfsuff-20″]buy organic cotton[/easyazon_link].

Aside from the dangers to your family – take a second to think about the cotton workers – the farmers and the laborers – and their families – and all the poor souls who live in the surrounding areas. They are exposed to far higher concentrations of these toxins.

It’s not just the immediate area, either. Because cotton crops get their lethal chemicals via spraying planes, the toxic dust spreads on the wind, infecting bodies of water, other crops, human habitation, and the earth itself. The Environmental Justice Foundation highlight this shocking fact, saying:

[callout style=”black” centertitle=”true” align=”center”]”In Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, toxic agrochemicals first applied to cotton 50 years ago now pollute the country’s land, air, food and drinking water.”[/callout]

Environmental Hazards of Dirty Cotton

So, we know dirty cotton is seriously hazardous to us – and to the people to live in or around cotton-growing locations. If it’s that bad for us, let’s take a look at just how bad it is for the environment.


These toxins don’t discriminate. The pesticides don’t just attack unwanted insects. Sadly, they kill millions of beneficial insects, birds, and animals every year. And, in so doing, unbalances the food chain, putting multiple species at risk of localized extinction.

The Ecosystem

Leaching into the water table and into the earth itself, the chemicals used in the growth and processing of dirty cotton make thousands of acres of land unusable. This toxic pollution devastates whole ecosystems. Plants that should feed local wildlife become lethal when ingested. In turn, animals that eat other creatures that have ingested these toxins also receive a dose of the poisons, and so on. Additionally, with the chemicals being present in the water, even taking a drink becomes deadly.


This one is both an environmental issue and a human one. Aquatic ecosystems are quickly devastated, with fish and other water-dwellers dying in untold millions. There are three main ways chemicals from cotton enter bodies of water.

  1. Plane spraying results in wind-borne particles landing in water.
  2. After rains or irrigation, the chemicals are washed into waterways.
  3. This one is possibly the worst – because it’s so deliberate – during production/factory processing, huge quantities of water are laden with chemicals for dyeing, washing, treating, and other processes. Once used, this wastewater is dumped directly into natural bodies of water, causing irrevocable damage.

Whole aquatic ecosystems – all the creatures and plants that dwell in or around these water sources – die out. So do many of the creatures that rely on these toxic water sources for sustenance. In many of the countries where these deplorable processes occur as a matter of course, the water that people use and drink in their homes doesn’t undergo the same level of processing and treatment as water in the US, UK, or Australia. So these poor people have no choice but to drink contaminated water. Hence the generally higher percentage of tumors, birth defects, and other chemical-related illnesses.

[callout style=”black” centertitle=”true” align=”center”]”At least 40,000 people die every year from accidental pesticide poisoning. – World Health Organization[/callout]

Thirsty Cotton

Cotton isn’t just the world’s dirtiest crop – it’s the thirstiest, too. Because it’s grown with no other thought than to maximize yield and profit, no thought is given to proper water management. Below-ground water, as well as rivers and lakes are drained completely – causing further environmental devastation – to feed cotton crops.

aral sea
Image courtesy of

One of the most obvious examples of the damage dirty cotton (and the humans that grow it) does to our fragile planet is the loss of the Aral Sea. Used as a water source for ever-thirsty dirty cotton, this once-thriving aquatic ecosystem, that also provided valuable food and supported countless humans, is now nothing but a barren wasteland. No water. No life. Just empty desert. And it’s because of dirty cotton.

aral sea

This is the shrinkage of the Aral sea from 1989 to 2009, caused by dirty cotton production – see just how much that cheap t-shirt costs?

Shocking Things That Contain Dirty Cotton

Most people think cotton is just for clothing, upholstery, toys, and the like. You’ll be amazed at where you find dirty cotton:

  • Mattresses (including crib mattresses)
  • Toy stuffing
  • Filter paper (like coffee filters)
  • Vegetable oil – yep – you eat this toxin-laden gunk every time you use vegetable oil!
  • Candle wicks
  • Sanitary products
  • Hair care products
  • Cosmetics – with unethically sourced cosmetics, you’re actually rubbing this crap into your skin
  • Toothpaste – yup – it’s going in your mouth twice a day
  • Rayon and synthetic yarn
  • Food casings – like synthetic sausage skins
  • Cheap pizza cheese – uh-huh – it’s added to pizza cheese to encourage even melting
  • Sports drinks
  • Low-calorie or “diet” foods – Yep – cellulose fibers from cotton are added to bulk up diet foods without adding calories. They just add carcinogens and debilitating toxins, instead. Much better than a few extra calories – not!

– Basically any food or drink that contains added cellulose – or thickeners – or stabilizers – is highly likely to contain dirty cotton fibers – it includes breakfast cereals, pre-mixed seasonings, processed dairy goods, pre-cooked pasta, ice cream – the list is endless.

According to the Rodale Institute, around 65% of dirty cotton ends up in the food chain. Much of the plant matter – stalks, leaves, woody stems etc – is no good for textile production. So it’s compressed into oil or sold off for animal feed. Particularly cattle. So the animal consumes the chemical-laden feed, and many of those chemicals are still detectable in the milk and meat of the cow. So just think about that the next time you pour milk in your coffee, slap a slice of cheese on your toast, or tuck into a juicy steak. Always know where your food comes from!

What Can You Do?

It’s really very simple: [easyazon_link keywords=”organic cotton” locale=”US” localize=”y” tag=”realselfsuff-20″]Buy organic cotton[/easyazon_link]. Replacing everything you own that contains dirty cotton fibers all at once probably isn’t going to happen. But as you replace items, choose organic. Organic cotton [easyazon_link keywords=”organic cotton baby clothes” locale=”US” localize=”y” tag=”realselfsuff-20″]baby clothes[/easyazon_link], cloth diapers, sanitary products, mattresses, kid’s clothing, adult clothing, and more are all readily available. As for food – make sure you really know what you’re eating. Choose natural, unprocessed organic food whenever possible. Even better – grow your own!


  • Every item you buy helps
  • It’s better for you and your family
  • It’s better for the environment
  • It’s better for the human population
  • It’s greener
  • Organic cotton practices have a far lower carbon footprint
  • You’re also supporting ethical, organic cotton farmers
  • Your cotton items won’t be made in sweatshops using child labor
  • Every organic cotton item you buy decreases the demand for dirty cotton. This devalues the dirty cotton
  • Making it less valuable makes growing organic cotton more appealing and encourages organic processes

Consumer Power is the singularly most important element when it comes to dirty cotton. If enough of us refuse to buy it or anything that contains it, then it becomes less appealing to the growers and processors. We can use our power as consumers to have a huge impact on the planet. Use your powers for good!

Dirty cotton workers and their families suffer some serious ill health and financial difficulties, whether they work in the fields or in the processing plants and textile factories. Organic cotton workers don’t. The whole dirty cotton culture revolves around some of the poorest people in the world, working in atrocious conditions, for barely any money. From plant growth to garment construction.

Organic cotton farming is a more fair and just economy. Workers and independent farmers are paid a fair rate for their work and their produce. Additionally, there’s far fewer incidences of death, birth defects, and ill health, because there are no chemicals involved at any point in the process.

So how do organic cotton producers do things? The old fashioned way. Ethical farmers use the same techniques that have been used since the first recorded confirmation of cotton growth – in 3000 BC. That’s an impressively long time. And up until the 1950s, almost every cotton farmer followed these practices. So, if these techniques worked for 5,000 years, there’s really no reason not to use them now.

Crop rotation preserves nutrients and water in the soil. A knowledge of pests and their breeding and feeding habits lets farmers gauge when to plant and harvest for minimal pest infestation. Companion planting with bug-repelling plants alongside the cotton reduces pests, as does proper earth tilling. Ample plant spacing reduces nutrient and water usage, and proper water management techniques conserve water. Then, during processing, there are no harmful chemicals and only natural dyes are used. The entire process has minimal environmental and social impact.

certified organic baby

Just remember – make sure the cotton products you choose are “certified organic”. If the products are USDA-certified as organic, it means there have been no chemicals used in growth or production. “Grown organically” and all those other terms are useless. They simply mean that at some stage, there have been no chemicals – but it’s very likely that chemicals have been used during production or processing. So shop smart!

Does organic cotton cost you a little more in terms of pennies? Yes. A little. But the benefits to your health and the planet are literally priceless.

So please, make the switch!

Use your consumer power to demand ethical, organic cotton and help to end the dirty cotton business!

Here’s 50 more ways to go green!

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2 thoughts on “Cotton’s Dirty Secret: The Shocking Reasons to Avoid Dirty Cotton and Choose Organic”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! We always try to buy organic products or make our own from organic stuff… I had no idea cotton was in so many things, like vegetable oil and toothpaste! Ew! And I never even thought about even the wicks on candles having gross stuff in them! I wonder what effect that has when we’re actually using the candles.

    1. I make candles, too, because I don’t like fake fragrances, and there’s a lot of potentially dangerous stuff in fake fragrance oils. I use organic cotton wicks – or at least wicks that I can trace the source of, purely because I don’t want my family to breathe in anything remaining from the cotton processing. You can also use wooden wicks – I love them – they give off a wonderful crackling sound as they burn.

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