Most Bed Sheets Are Awash in Harmful Dyes. They Don't Have to Be

To prove its point, last year Aizome released a skin-care product called Wastecare created from Aizome’s own industrial wastewater, racking up awards for creative advertising from Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the Webby Awards, and Fast Company. It’s collaborating with a pharmaceutical company in Japan to register its wastewater as an active cosmetic ingredient with the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients system so other companies can use it in their products.

The first orders of Aizome’s naturally dyed, medicinal T-shirts—the start of its Healthware line—should ship in July.

Totally Intended to Treat

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of May. I’ve encountered many overambitious social entrepreneurs who say they’re going to change the world one purse or pair of shoes at a time. May is ambitious, but strategic. He founded Aizome to prove a point: that modern, colorfast, naturally dyed textiles are possible, that they are better for us, and that people will pay more for textiles that are free of harmful chemicals.

When I first talked to May in December 2023, he was in northern Thailand for a two-month working retreat. He had brought Aizome’s six-person team along with him, as well as his wife (Aizome’s cofounder), his newborn, and an environmental lawyer, Karen Wade Cavanagh.

Cavanagh has spent her career working on the legal side of building decontamination efforts after anthrax attacks and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Her job was about protecting people in public spaces and commercial buildings from hazardous contaminants and harsh chemicals. “We know these chemicals are not safe,” she says, referencing things like formaldehyde. “We don’t expect to be living with them, breathing with them, sleeping with them.”

What she’s saying is that unless you’re truly scrupulous, your home is likely full of poorly regulated consumer products off-gassing noxious volatile organic chemicals, leaching endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates, and shedding plastic microfibers infused with hazardous chemicals.

Cavanagh was attracted to Aizome because of the complexity of navigating regulations on health products set by the US Food and Drug Administration. And she wishes something like Aizome had been available when her kids were young. Cavanagh’s now-grown children have suffered from allergies, ulcerative colitis, and asthma so severe they’ve landed in the hospital. One couldn’t stand the feel of clothing tags touching his skin. “I know that my son was always sensitive to what he was wearing. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was real,” she says. “And yet, people with these problems, they go to the doctor, and they’re either told it’s in their head, which is not helpful, or they’re given medication and are told there’s nothing they can do.”

While most supplements have a disclaimer that they’re not intended to treat, mitigate, or cure any diseases, Aizome sheets are now registered with the FDA as Class 1 medical devices intended to mitigate and alleviate skin problems.

This strategy seems to be working. Aizome is big in the eczema community—it was recommended by the National Eczema Society until last year when, ironically, the NES scrapped the entire textile category, saying textile products are too complicated to assess.

May has been single-minded about proving his theories. He was one of the authors, along with two Egyptian researchers and a University of Cambridge researcher, of a 2022 study in the Journal of Applied Biomedicine showing indigo’s wound-healing properties. Aizome is opening a research division to use government grants to test the medicinal properties and microbiome effects of dyed fabrics. Research showing indigo’s antibacterial properties has been around for a while (Aizome claims these properties help neutralize body odor).

Even if you think all of this is total bunk, if you have the money to spend, there’s no real downside to slipping into classy pastel cotton sheets for a good night’s sleep, free of the anxiety about what synthetic chemicals could be lurking in them. A calm mind leads to better rest.

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