Home > Fluorescent Whitening Agents > FWAs – a Gateway to other Clothing Chemicals

FWAs – a Gateway to other Clothing Chemicals

Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs) also known as “optical brighteners” are gateways to other clothing chemicals as cigarette smoking a gateway to illegal drug use.  FWAs are not biodegradable and relatively non-toxic compared to other more harmful chemicals that are used prior to the processing of fabrics and clothes.

This post will be dedicated to help consumers identify clothes which contain flourescent whitening agents (FWAs).  Identifying FWAs are the easiest method for consumers to determine whether the clothes you buy are truly organic or not.  Secondly, there is high probability that if FWAs are used, then other chemicals have been used in making your clothes.  Consumers cannot determine from just the outside appearance whether clothes have been treated with other chemicals such as formaldehyde, perfluorooctace sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), bromines, other chemical processes and finishes.  Determination of those chemicals require a much more expensive and sophisticated machinery.

At best, consumers can only rely on what the manufacturers write on the tags of clothing.  Unfortunately when the tag reads “please wash before you wear” this is the only tell-tale sign that chemicals irritating to the skin have been used.  To give the benefit of the doubt, manufacturers do follow EPA/FDA guidelines in the cleansing of chemicals found in clothes.  However it is the residues which can cause skin atopies especially in those people with sensitive skin ie. babies.

So how do we know which clothing products contain FWAs?   Ultraviolet light (UV-A) is the best way to identify FWAs in your clothing.  It is also a  scientific term for “black light“.  All one has to do is to go to a dark room, shine a UV lamp or flashlight onto the clothing product in question and if it contains FWAs, it will glow a bright fluorescent blue.

The science behind the glow is that FWAs absorb ultraviolet light and re-mit most of the absorbed energy as blue fluorescent light between 400 and 500 nm.

FWA Absorption and Fluorescence Emissions Curve
Ultraviolet light absorption level of fluorescent whitening agents is shown in red and the re-emitting level of light from FWAs is shown in blue.

There are many kinds of ultraviolet lights in the market but the UV light that emits 385 nm is more preferable to 395nm.  Since 385nm is further away from the visible spectrum, there will be less perceived light even though the light is on.  395nm will have a more purple-blue light shown in the background since it is more closer to visible light.  However 395 nm UV light is sufficient for the purpose of identifying FWAs because there is a huge difference between the fluorescent blue light that is re-emitted vs. the slight purple-blue hue in the background.

One may be surprised to find when one uses the UV light that FWAs are found in many of our products – from the bristles of our toothbrushes to copy machine paper to even the elastic band used by a supermarket when tying the chicken legs together during roasting.

On a separate note, UV light has other usefulness in identifying scorpions, bodily secretions and other things that are invisible to the naked eye.  One word of caution is that it is not a toy.  Although UV light (UV-A) is relatively harmless compared to UV-B and UV-C (which cause direct DNA damage to the skin).  UV light still has the potential to damage collagen fibers and destroy vitamins A and D in the skin.  However UV-A will not cause sunburn and furthermore the UV output in black light is less than 1%.  Compared to sunlight and those tanning salons which are constantly “burning” the skin, there is virtually no harm in using the few seconds of UV light for purposes of identifying FWAs.

Although the purpose of this piece was to bring light to FWAs as a litmus test for organic clothing, consumers in general should become more aware of the amount of FWAs used in our daily lives.  The vast majority of the public will be unaware of the impact FWAs have become.  There are ongoing research on FWAs and while some conclude that it is not toxic, others conclude that irritation to the skin and eyes can occur, skin atopies can result and gastrointestinal problems can arise when ingested.  Discovering FWAs in our clothes should be served as a boon, not bane, since we can use this test to determine whether more toxic chemicals are used on our clothing products.   At the very least, this should serve as a warning to the manufacturers of baby clothing not to use these chemicals!  Protect our babies and protect our future.

FWAs found in baby mitts, handkerchiefs and clothing diapers.

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