Shower curtain chemicals

Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about their shower curtain. But for me, buying a shower curtain has always been a real dilemma! Many curtains are made of PVC, which off-gasses harmful chemicals that significantly contribute to indoor air pollution and are detrimental to our health. And while there are many non-PVC alternatives out there, it is hard to determine which is best in terms of both function and composition.

Oy, what a headache!

Speaking of which: headaches are just one of the many side-effects associated with PVC shower curtains. Others include eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea; loss of coordination; and damage to the central nervous system.

Not so innocent anymore, huh?

The problem

If you’ve ever purchased a PVC shower curtain before, you know the scent that accompanies it, that overpowering plasticy scent that fills up the entire bathroom quickly after the curtain is removed from the bag. Whew, is it rough!

Well it turns out that this overpowering scent is actually harmful chemicals off-gassing into the air. A few years back, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice conducted a laboratory study of PVC curtains. The curtains tested (purchased from Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Walmart, K-Mart and Sears) released as many as 108 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, some of which persisted for nearly a month after the curtain was removed from the packaging. This is a whopping 16 times greater than the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council. Furthermore, seven of these chemicals – toluene, ethylbenzene, phenol, methyl isobutyl ketone, xylene, acetophenone and cumene – have been identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as hazardous air pollutants.

PVC shower curtains

Despite the fact that VOC concentrations are higher in indoor air than outdoor air, and that studies show that VOCs pose a significant health threat, no federal agency has the legal authority to regulate the chemical composition of consumer products:

“While we do regulate VOCs in outdoor air from an indoor air perspective, EPA has no authority to regulate household products (or any other aspect of indoor air quality)… Even if we had authority to regulate indoor air quality, it would be difficult to regulate household products because we have no authority to collect information on the chemical content of products in the marketplace (not does any Federal Agency)” – EPA representative. 

The solution

Fortunately, a number of non-PVC shower curtain alternatives exist for us to choose from:

  • Cotton: Cotton curtains do absorb the water but dry rather quickly. Since I use an outer decorative curtain, the cotton liner just did not work for me as the water seeped through to the outer curtain. However, this is an alternative to consider if you do not use a decorative curtain.
  • Polyester: Much like cotton, polyester curtains do absorb water but are fast-drying. Unlike cotton curtains, they are more likely to retain their shape after being washed. 
  • Hemp: Hemp is naturally mildew resistant and fast-drying, which make it a great material for a shower curtain. However, hemp curtains unfortunately come with a larger price-tag.
  • PEVA or EVA: PEVA or EVA curtains are probably the most easily accessible and affordable non-PVC option. They are not perfect as they are still petrochemical products, but they are a step in the right direction in the attempt to find green polymers. While I was at first hesitant to purchase another plastic liner, PEVA curtains do not come with the horrible scent (i.e. the VOCs off-gassing) that accompanies PVC curtains, and are a much safer option. As I use a decorative outer curtain, I have found this to be the best option for me. And since they can be easily cleaned with a good scrubbing, they will last quite a long time and won’t simply be another plastic item in the landfill (another reason I was hesitant to buy plastic). 

This little switch can have a significant impact on the quality of your indoor air and your health, so don’t delay!

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