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Why Swimwear Rash Guards Can Be Dangerous For The Ocean
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Why Swimwear Rash Guards Can Be Dangerous For The Ocean

Wave Tribe

Ever since the first wave of rash guards were invented by our Aussie surfer bros in the 1970s, they’ve now become an indispensable part of surfing culture.

Published by Wave Tribe

Originally used to protect the skin from the chafing caused by the wax we put on our surfer boards, it’s now being used by anyone needing protection from the sun, sand or the chafing from neoprene wetsuits.

It’s even crossed over to contact sports; Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athletes use rash guards to protect themselves from mat burns, cuts or the spread of diseases.

It’s a very useful athletic shirt.

But now, it seems that there’s a new reason why using it may not be beneficial for the marine environment.

Here’s why rash guards can be dangerous for the ocean:

1. Embedded Toxic Screens
2. Dangerous Fabric
3. Widespread Use of Synthetic Fibers
4. A Dangerous Trio of Fibers

Ultimately, it’s in finding an eco-friendly solution that we can lick this particular problem. We can’t do away rash guards; they’re far too useful in how we enjoy our sport. But the surfing industry can innovate and come up with ideas in order to safeguard our oceans more.

— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder

Embedded Toxic Screens

It used to be that the objections to the use of rash guards as swimwear stem from the fact that modern rash guard fabrics are chemically treated to protect the wearer from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

As Eco-novice notes, some of these sunscreen chemicals are toxic for humans and wildlife. When the chemical coating wears off, as it will happen when it’s used in the ocean, the chemicals will be released into the marine environment where it can cause corals to die off.

That’s why eco-consumers recommend using clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) label. UPF shirts have tighter weaves, darker colors and thicker fabrics to block UV rays. They’re a safer and natural option than chemically treated UV protection shirts.

Dangerous Fabric

But just last month, scientists have discovered another troubling piece of news.

In a recent autopsy of dead dolphins and whales, British researchers found out that while these died from plastic ingestion, it wasn’t from drinking straws and plastic bags.

It was from fabric.

At least 84% of the plastic debris found in the stomachs of the dead dolphins were synthetic fibers. And 60% of these fibers is comprised of nylon, a synthetic fabric commonly used in stockings and swimwear.

This has troubling implications because nylon is also used in rash guards. They’re usually combined with spandex and nylon, and sometimes polyester. That’s why they’re easy to dry, don’t shrink or stretch and are resistant to abrasion - all of which make up a good and useful rash guard.

Widespread Use of Synthetic Fibers

Even troubling is that nylon and other similar synthetically produced fabric, are widely used by the global garment industry.

Created through chemical synthesis, synthetic fibers are preferred by the clothing industry because it has better qualities than natural fibers. They’re more durable, more stain-resistant, waterproof and are stretchable. They also pick up dyes easily.

They’re also easy to produce and less costly. In 2014 alone, the global production of synthetic fibers was at 55.2 million tonnes. Vox reports that at least 60% of the world’s clothing production uses synthetic fibers.

But they’re not eco-friendly. Synthetic fibers are produced using petroleum-based chemicals and so the production process has a high carbon footprint. In fact, it is estimated that the clothing industry alone is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emission per year, more than the airline and shipping industry combined.

A Dangerous Trio of Fibers

Out of all the synthetic fibers currently being produced, acrylic, nylon and polyester are the mostly widely used. These three are usually blended with natural fibers to create fabrics that are used for specific purposes.

Polyester is the most popular,and used for performance and active wear. Because it’s water resistant, it’s also used for weather-proof clothes, as well as swimming trunks and bikinis.

Nylon’s versatility makes it useful not only for women’s clothing and nightwear, but also for industrial applications. It drapes well and can be easily dyed which is why designers like to work with it because it comes in a variety of colors.

Acrylic’s resemblance to wool makes its the preferred fiber in the production of knitted apparels such as socks, sportswear and sweaters. It’s soft and lightweight, but unlike natural wool, which has to be harvested from live animals, it isn’t difficult to produce.

How These End up in the Ocean

And because these are present in our clothes, it’s no wonder that they’re the leading cause of plastic debris pollution in our oceans.

When garments made from these synthetic fibers are washed in domestic washing machines, they shed microfibres that are washed down the drain along with the detergent. Acrylic is the more notorious of the three, since it’s easily prone to shedding.

A microfiber is 100 times thinner than human hair which is why it can easily pass through wastewater treatment plants and into the waterways. Because it doesn’t biodegrade, it can get into the food chain courtesy of planktons and shellfish.

While there are still no conclusive studies yet on the effect of plastics when we ingest it, the deaths of those cetaceans should be enough to alarm us. If nothing else, it serves to underscore how our plastic-dependent habits have caught up to us.

So given what we now know about the potential negative impact of rash guards, what should we do?

Don’t Use Rash Guards

This is an extreme response to the problem. But it’s also the appropriate solution if you’re just wearing a rash guard because it’s fashionable and it fits right in with your idea of how a stylish surfer should look.

With or without a rash guard, a real surfer would still brave the oceans just to ride his dream wave. If you’re just in it for your Instagram OoTD selfies at the beach, we suggest you ditch it. The ocean’s health is way more precious than your fashion.

Hand Wash Rash Guards

But if you can’t do without a rash guard, then the easiest thing to do would be to never wash it in a laundry machine.

If you surfed websites looking for information on how to care for your rash guard, most will tell you to put it in a lingerie bag before cycling it gently in the washer. But now that we know how easily the synthetic fiber degrades, it’s best to just hand wash it carefully, if you really need to have it cleaned.

Use Eco-friendly Rash Guards

Most of the alternatives to conventional rash guards being sold in the market currently focus more reducing carbon footprint than plastic pollution.

These range from using recycled nylon taken from fishing trawler nets abandoned in the ocean to using recycled plastic bottles. Because the production process doesn’t require raw petrochemical to produce nylon fibers, the carbon footprint is significantly reduced.

Or Really, Just Wear A Tight T-Shirt

In which case, I might add, something that uses hemp as part of the fabric.

Here at Wave Tribe, we’ve been using hemp for our surfing travel bags, which are our best-selling product. It’s durable than cotton, UV protective, odor-resistant and can even stop the spread of surface bacteria. I should know. Before I started Wave Tribe, I used to have a hemp t-shirt company. Back then, there wasn’t much support for hemp-based products but with the recent signing of the bill legalizing hemp production, I expect a new crop of hemp-based companies to get on the wave of making sustainable products from hemp.

Ultimately, it’s in finding an eco-friendly solution that we can lick this particular problem. We can’t do away rash guards; they’re far too useful in how we enjoy our sport. But the surfing industry can innovate and come up with ideas in order to safeguard our oceans more.

We did that by creating eco-friendly surfboards and waxes. Pretty soon, a genuine eco-friendly alternative to a rash guard may not be too far out on the horizon.

And I’m going to look forward to it.

Other Essential Stuff to Read

Why is Plastic Bad for the Ocean?
How to Make your Surfing Travel Plans Eco-Friendly
The Ultimate Guide on How To Lower My Carbon Footprint - Surfer's Edition

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