4 Toxic Materials You Probably Didn’t (Want to) Know Went Into Your Shoes

Toxic Chemicals Found In Shoes

A handful of recent studies continue to find high levels of toxic materials in shoes. Here are the four major offenders to be aware of.

No ingredient labels come attached your new shoes, and yet, it is still as important for your health to understand what they are made with. Shoe manufacturing is a complicated process with many steps to assemble, and pieces that come together are often filled with toxic materials that pose serious health risks for workers and wearers alike.

A handful of recent studies, detailed below, continue to find high levels of chemicals in shoes. The series of toxins used in making shoes lends to the fact that Greenpeace’s Detox campaign to encourage brands to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products, is extremely timely. Eighteen major global brands have already committed to Detox, including Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M, Zara, Levi’s, Uniqlo, and Victoria’s Secret. As a customer, you can show your support for the campaign by signing the Fashion Manifesto.

Below are four toxic ingredients to be aware of that are found in shoes.


Chromium tanning is present in 80-85 percent of all globally tanned leather. Chromium, a naturally occurring metal and known carcinogen, is extremely toxic to workers and still can be present even for the wearer. The element is also soluble in water, entering waterways and commonly accumulating in fish.

Plasticiser Phthalates

A recent study by the Consumer Council tested 28 pairs of shoes, in which 15 were found to have higher than regulated traces of phthalates. Phthalates are used to soften plastics, and the chemical was found in shoes that were made with plastic. Although this substance is not easily absorbed by the body, off-gases can be inhaled and increase risk of asthma, and even cause hormonal unbalance.

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)

Added to rubber and plastic products during the manufacturing process, companies like GAP, Disney, Adidas, American Apparel and Burberry were found to have detectable levels of NPEs in their products. Although stable and unreactive, NPEs can accumulate in the body and work as a hormone disruptor.

Dimethyl Fumarate (DMF)

Banned in Europe in 2009, DMF is still found in leather shoes, as well as handbags, and other leather products. Used as an anti-molding agent in leather, DMF can cause skin burns and rashes when the substance comes in contact with body heat. A recent three-month study by the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries revealed 25 percent of the shoes tested were contained with the toxic chemical.

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image: Luz Adriana Villa A

Juliette Donatelli

Working in the field of sustainability for over seven years, Juliette is passionate about its intersection within the fashion industry. Juliette began studying ecological conservation, and led consumer awareness campaigns around the world from water usage in southern California, riparian restoration in South Africa, food distribution in Paris and bison habitat in the Great Plains. She has launched her passion--consumerism and sustainability--into a place where it hits home--fashion. Juliette is the founder and editor-in-chief of spadesandsilk.com, Director of Sustainability at Manufacture NY, and loves to read, dance, swim and enjoy the occasional glass of champagne.