Do Your Workout Clothes Contain Endocrine-Disrupting Microplastics?

Written by: Denise John, PhD


Published on: May 9, 2024


We’ve come across some alarming headlines in the last year suggesting that workout clothes potentially expose us to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Before throwing out all our workout gear, we paused—and decided to investigate. Here’s what we found after digging into the research and talking to five experts in environmental health, plastic toxicity, and bioengineering.

What are microplastics?

As the name suggests, microplastics are tiny particles of plastic, less than five millimeters long. They fall into two categories: Primary microplastics, which are microplastics directly released into the environment as small particles. And secondary microplastics, which come from larger plastics (like bags, bottles, or fishing nets) that break off into tiny pieces over time.

The world’s largest source of primary microplastics is clothing—accounting for an estimated 35 percent. (Car tires are the second largest primary microplastic source.) About 70 percent of clothes produced around the world are made from plastic (synthetic) materials: polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane (a polyurethane-polyurea copolymer that’s also known by its brand names, Lycra and spandex). Tiny pieces of synthetic fabric break off from clothing—due to friction caused by washing and wearing—creating microplastics.

What do microplastics have to do with endocrine-disrupting chemicals?

Because of their chemical structure, microplastics attach easily to known endocrine-disrupting chemicals—including dioxins, pesticides (like DDT), brominated flame retardants, phthalates, and bisphenol A (BPA)—in the environment. That means that the endocrine disruptors go everywhere that microplastics do: domestic water systems, rivers, lakes, oceans, and the air.

Eventually they make their way into our bodies—scientists have found evidence of microplastics and nanoplastics (smaller pieces of microplastics) in human bloodintestines, lungs, kidneys, livers, hearts, reproductive organs, and even placentas. They can disrupt critical reproductive and metabolic hormone-regulating connections, like the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, as well as the HP-testicular, HP-thyroid, and HP-adrenal axes, for example. Some studies suggest that microplastics disturb the immune system’s normal response and damage immune cells.

Why are workout clothes of particular concern?

Some of the same harmful chemicals that attach to microplastics from the environment, like BPA, are also found in clothes that are made from synthetic materials, according to Kizzy Charles-Guzman, the chief executive officer at the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce people’s exposure to toxic chemicals. These synthetic materials are not unique to workout clothing, but how we wear workout garments may mean that they pose a greater health risk than other clothing does, at least hypothetically.

For example, workout clothes, like sport bras and leggings, are designed to fit tightly—directly against our skin. Research shows that microplastics can enter the body through sweat glands, hair follicles, and skin wounds; the close contact could increase the chances of harmful chemicals getting into our bodies. Plus, we probably sweat in workout gear more than we do in any other kind of clothing—preliminary data suggest that sweat may increase the chances of microplastics and toxic chemicals moving through the skin into the body.

If and how our workout clothes are leaching microplastics and endocrine disruptors directly into our bodies is theoretical, though. “Our understanding of the full impact of microplastics as carriers of endocrine disruptors—that’s still evolving,” says Jeff Karp, PhD, a Harvard Medical School professor and MIT bioengineer. We need more investigation to elucidate the exact impact on our health—and true solutions will follow. “Any time there’s a problem that gets to be well understood in society, it then creates this crucible moment to focus innovation on it,” Karp says.

How can we reduce the toxic chemical exposure and microfiber shedding from our workout clothes?

What we do know for certain is that microplastics are getting into our bodies—in different ways and from various sources. And reducing the chances for them to do so can benefit our health. There are a few ways you can limit your microplastic exposure from clothing, along with the amount of microplastics you release into the world.

  1. Choose natural fibers when possible. It’s difficult to find workout clothing made entirely of natural fibers (e.g., cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk, jute). Until there are more (and better) options, finding clothing with some natural fibers—it probably won’t be 100 percent—is progress.
  2. Remove your workout clothes immediately after exercising. “Don’t spend your entire day in your sweaty polyester bra,” Charles-Guzman says. “The moment you finish your workout, remove it and shower.” This may help reduce the possibility of microplastics and the harmful chemicals that bind to them entering your body.
  3. Wash your clothes at lower temperatures. We wash our workout clothes more frequently than other clothing (for good reason). But 8,000 to 6,000,000 microfibers shed per wash, making laundering the biggest contributor of microplastics getting into the environment and eventually into our bodies. Adjusting how we wash (and dry) can reduce our indirect exposure to microplastics through ingestion or inhalation (and the presence of microplastics in our ecosystems). “The warmer the water, the easier [the fabrics] break,” says Maria Westerbos, the founder and director of Plastic Soup Foundation, a nonprofit based in the Netherlands. Washing at 86°F (30°C)—which is usually the cold wash setting on most washers—is recommended. Check your washer for specific temperature settings.
  4. Filter your wash water. Studies suggest that washing machine filters—the external filters that attach to your washer—can reduce microfiber emissions. “PlanetCare makes one that’s easy to install and works well,” Westerbos says. She says laundering clothes in mesh washing bags advertised to filter microplastics doesn’t actually offer much benefit.
  5. Air-dry clothing when possible. Research shows that tumble drying clothes releases microfibers into the air. When you can, air-dry your workout clothes.
  6. Clean your indoor air. Generally, microplastics can accumulate in your indoor air. Dusting frequently, ventilating your home, and changing your AC filters regularly can help minimize their presence.

For more information about what you can do to reduce the number of microfibers that enter the environment and to minimize your plastic footprint, the Plastic Soup guide and app are great places to start. And if you’d like to learn more ways to limit your exposure to microplastics and harmful chemicals in your workout clothes (and other products), the Center for Environmental Health and Toxic-Free Future are excellent resources.



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.