At Outdoor Research, our goal is to provide our customers with elite outdoor apparel through sustainable material sourcing and business practices. Recently, we have been exploring alternative durable water repellant (DWR) treatments to the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) DWR treatments that are widely used on outdoor apparel. This blog article explores PFAS, their impact on the environment and human health, and why the outdoor industry is shifting away from their use as DWR treatments. 

What Are PFAS? 

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a family of manufactured chemicals with a long history of applications in various industrial and consumer products, including non-stick cookware, food packaging, firefighting foam, and yes, your favorite water-resistant clothing and outerwear. They are used widely in the apparel space because they are incredibly effective at repelling water, oil, and stains due to their strong carbon-fluorine bonds.

How Long Have PFAS Been Used in the Apparel Industry?

PFAS as a DWR treatment in the apparel industry dates back to the mid-20th century. The first commercial PFAS-based DWR treatment was introduced in the 1940s by the company 3M under the brand name "Scotchgard." This revolutionary technology offered remarkable water and stain resistance to fabrics, making it highly desirable for various applications, including outdoor apparel and textiles.  

The popularity of PFAS-based DWR treatments continued to grow through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Many leading outdoor apparel brands incorporated these treatments into their products, as they were widely available, cost-effective, and delivered excellent performance. 

Are PFAS Bad?

PFAS are incredibly effective at accomplishing what they are designed to do, but their chemical composition is extremely slow to biodegrade. PFAS chemicals do not readily break down in the environment and can accumulate in soil, water, and living organisms, leading to potential adverse effects on ecosystems and human health. Most of the studies and resulting data surrounding the harmful physical effects of PFAS pertain to ingestion of contaminated food and water. There is little literature on the effects of direct contact to garments treated with PFAS.

What Do PFAS Have To Do With Outdoor Apparel? 

PFAS-based DWR treatments have been commonly used in outdoor apparel to make fabric water-resistant. However, concerns about their environmental and human health impact have been on the rise. These chemicals are highly persistent, meaning that they do not break down easily in the environment and can accumulate over time. Additionally, PFAS can enter the food chain and water supply in the production process, potentially exposing wildlife and humans to harmful levels of these chemicals.  

Why Are PFAS Trending Right Now?

There has been growing concern about the impact of PFAS on the environment and human health in recent years, which has led to increased media coverage and regulatory action. Several states have already passed legislation banning or restricting the use of PFAS in certain products, including outdoor apparel. In California, New York, and Maine, new regulations will go into effect on 1/1/25 mandating a shift away from PFAS in outdoor apparel.  

Why Are PFAS Trending Right Now?

There has been growing concern about the impact of PFAS on the environment and human health in recent years, which has led to increased media coverage and regulatory action. Several states have already passed legislation banning or restricting the use of PFAS in certain products, including outdoor apparel. In California, New York, and Maine, new regulations will go into effect on 1/1/25 mandating a shift away from PFAS in outdoor apparel.  

Why Are PFAS Trending in the Outdoor Industry Right Now?

There has been growing concern about the impact of PFAS on the environment and human health in recent years, which has led to increased media coverage and regulatory action. Several states have already passed legislation banning or restricting the use of PFAS in certain products, including outdoor apparel. In California, New York, and Maine, new regulations will go into effect in 2025 mandating a shift away from PFAS as a DWR treatment on outdoor apparel. Many outdoor apparel companies, including OR, had already begun shifting away from using PFAS DWR; the upcoming regulations have accelerated the timeline to complete the transition to an eco-friendlier alternative.

How Do PFAS Get Into the Ecosystem?

Because PFAS are widely used, they can enter the environment in several ways. As far as the outdoor industry is concerned, the main vector is the manufacturing process, where the chemicals can be released into the air or bodies of water. Once PFAS enter the air and water, they can travel a long distance from the source of the contamination due to their highly persistent nature. Improper disposal of used garments containing PFAS, or home application of an aftermarket PFAS-containing DWR to outerwear, can also release the chemicals into the ecosystem. 

How Do PFAS Enter the Body?

The primary way PFAS enter the body is through direct ingestion of contaminated food and water. Once ingested, PFAS can accumulate in the body over time. Research has shown that PFAS can affect the function of hormones, leading to various health problems. PFAS can also affect the immune system, making it less effective at fighting infections. 

Can Wearing Outerwear Coated With PFAS Adversely Affect My Health?

Currently, there is not much literature or scientific evidence surrounding exposure to PFAS from direct contact with textiles and apparel, and wearing outerwear coated with PFAS will not likely cause immediate or acute health effects. The primary reason companies are moving away from using PFAS as a DWR treatment is to avoid contamination during manufacturing, where the chemicals can potentially enter the water and atmosphere.  

While the concentration of PFAS potentially absorbed through the skin from a single jacket is extremely low, repeated and prolonged exposure to PFAS-treated clothing or other products could contribute to the buildup of these chemicals in the body. Additional research to support this claim is necessary. 

Is Apparel That Uses Alternative DWR Treatments to PFAS Less Waterproof?

While providing comparable water resistance, most alternative DWR treatments to PFAS are less durable and offer weaker dirt and oil resistance. Dirt and oil contamination drastically reduce the effectiveness of any DWR treatment, requiring more frequent washing and DWR reapplication after garment purchase. However, newer eco-friendly DWR technologies have significantly progressed in bridging the gap between PFAS-based treatments and alternative solutions. Fluorine-free DWR treatments, plant-based alternatives, and nanotechnology approaches, among others, offer improved water repellency and durability. 

What Is Outdoor Research Doing to Transition Away From PFAS DWR Treatments?

We have been testing various alternatives to PFAS, such as DWR that forgo the fluorinated chemistry that PFAS utilize, to find the best solutions for our products. We are focusing on improving the overall performance of our eco-friendly DWR treatments to meet consumer demands for both sustainability and functionality. And we're thrilled to have recently partnered with Nikwax, the global leader in creating innovative PFC-free aftercare and materials for outdoor explorers, to elevate our product assortment's eco-friendly water resistance for longer garment life and better performance.

What Is the Takeaway Here?

PFAS are widely used in various industrial and consumer products, including outdoor apparel, due to their highly effective oil, dirt, and water-repelling properties. However, growing concern about the impact of PFAS released into the environment during the manufacturing process has led to the outdoor industry exploring alternatives to these chemicals. New regulations in several states have also mandated a shift away from PFAS in outdoor apparel, most of which go into effect in 2025. 
 
At Outdoor Research, we are committed to providing our customers with safe and sustainable products, and we’re continuously exploring and developing alternatives to PFAS-based DWR treatments. We’ll begin to showcase our latest eco-friendly technology in our Spring 2024 collection and target our Fall 2024 collection to be 100% free of intentionally-added PFAS. 

Back to blog