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Self Cleaning Clothes

Updated on September 20, 2012

No More Clotheslines In The Future

photo by Rik_C via Flickr
photo by Rik_C via Flickr

Washless Laundry

There are countless variations of products that merge nanotech into fashion and clothing in interesting ways. Some of the nanotechnology products have seemingly beneficial uses, but are there risks with the implementations? Nanotech in clothing products is becoming more common place everyday. The following look at nanotech in clothing products highlights current research and understanding. You may soon be wearing potentially toxic nanoparticles without even knowing it.

Self-cleaning clothing -

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are the ones many people are most familiar with. Their presence is exceedingly invasive with stealth applications in everything from toothpaste to food additives. The list of uses for this molecule seems to have no end with almost daily announcements as to a newly found nanotech application. TiO2 can come in anatase form, rutile mineral derivatives and other nanotube/nanodisc variants. The current nanotechnology trend is to dope or co-dope the titanium dioxide nanoparticles with other elements in order to leverage variations in properties.

One such synthesized property allows TiO2 nanos doped with nitrogen to exhibit a photocatalytic effect under visible light conditions. This varies from the plain TiO2 behavior which only undergoes photocatalysis when exposed to ultraviolet light sources. The doping of TiO2 and other NPs with accessory periodic table elements is producing an entire body of particles that have barely been studied. It is bad enough that the nanotoxicology of the base nanoparticles is only partially understood. Certainly, long-term in vitro and in vivo studies have not been done at all. However, nanotech firms that want to be the leaders in their retail market will push forward production based on preliminary evidence that these items are non-toxic to humans and the environment.

The N-TiO2 (nitrogen-doped titanium dioxide) allows for self-cleaning fabrics that could eliminate the family washing machine. Unfortunately, the underlying nanotechnology has the potential to eliminate the human wearer as well. Like most other products, there will likely be no warning to the end consumer unless a company decides to boast about the nanoparticles within. In many cases, as evidenced by the sunscreen fiasco, it is probable that they will not. Rather, the advertising will probably be more focused on the effects without explaining the how. "Needs no washing" and other slogans will parallel the higher SPF claims while the casual shopper might not even consider the possibility of toxic nanoparticles. Hopefully, deaths do not have to occur in order to recognize harmful effects, but it is challenging to point to any past emerging industry where that has been the case. The photocatalytic degradation effect is being used to break down dyes, pollutants and other unwanted substances in water and air filtration systems as well. Another positive feature of the doping is increased photocatalytic bactericidal effects. It all seems to be great for the end user who can stay clean and healthy through these new textiles.

However, earlier nanotechnology attempts looked at iron-doped titanium dioxide nanoparticles as a means of increasing photoactivity. Nanotoxicologists produced evidence that rutile FE-TiO2 actually increased systemic and pulmonary inflammation in rats and other models. Oxidative stress as well as toxic effects on liver function, heart rate, and blood pressure led researchers to the nitrogen doped alternatives. In the nano world of pathophysiology, you are only as safe as the latest toxicology report. Is progress coming too fast without regard for the dangers? When the time comes that you are browsing the clothing racks at the local brick and mortar or at the online apparel shop and see new "washless" brands or items that are "self-cleaning" it would be wise to consider how that is achieved. Then you can make the decision as to whether the nanoparticles are worth the risk.


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    • tobint44 profile image

      Tyler Tobin 5 years ago from North Carolina

      You lost me at N-Tio2, but interesting concept. Great writing! Voted Up and interesting, wish I could get me a self cleaning shirt!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Hi againsttheodds. You wrote:

      "Nanotoxicologists produced evidence that rutile FE-TiO2 actually increased systemic and pulmonary inflammation in rats and other models."

      There's a risk that clothing manufacturers will conveniently overlook the risks of NPs in clothing. But there's also a risk for Type 2 errors, in which researchers subject experimental animals to 'doses' that are orders of magnitude greater than people would ever be exposed to.

      Surprise, surprise! NPs cause this or that health problem in lab rats. Let's have a government-sponsored war all things nano. This would encompass sale, possession, civil forfeiture, and even nano-pornography. Come on, let's get real.

      What we really need is research that leads to a robust dose-response curve that includes the range of typical human exposure. Then we can balance the risks against the benefits. And if the risks are small but real, we may even find reasonable ways to mitigate them.

      That would beat the heck out of the ostrich approach, as well as the Prohibition approach. Sorry for such a generic comment.