The shower curtain dilemma: Avoiding chemicals and finding one that works

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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Share Your Thoughts

  1. […] ← Previous Next → […]

    May 30, 2013 • 10:36 am •
  2. Nooooooo.. I just bought a new shower curtain about a month ago.. of course I don’t have the package to see what its’s made of. Never even thought that a shower curtain can be harmful..

    January 15, 2014 • 10:09 am •
  3. Solution Man

    Another option that may work for some people depending on their shower/tub/bathroom configuration is to simply move your shower rod inward a few inches and install a natural fiber liner (cotton, silk, hemp) and then install a second shower rod closer to the outside. Now you have separate rods and your inner liner should not stick to your curtain and transfer water to it.

    Also most shower rods are plastic that is made to resemble metal. Replace your shower rod with metal or wood for a more natural and nicer looking approach. Wood can be wiped with natural oils (coconut, mango, etc, or even animal fat if you are okay with that) that will protect it from the water. Same goes for your curtain rings and also make sure your curtain fabric is 100% natural too with no chemical bleaches or dyes used.

    Another tip: Have some confidence in yourself! Grab a natural fiber curtain or make one yourself and use a natural dye like organic indigo, hibiscus or other and either free hand or stencil your own unique design on the fabric. Now you have your very own custom made and unique all natural shower curtain.

    Next Step: Cleaning up the rest of your toxic life!

    June 8, 2014 • 6:48 pm •
  4. Azzizah

    In other countries they bathe out of a container filled with water and the floor and walls are a natural material to start with. Voila! no shower curtain. These problems we have going natural toxins free are very difficult to find solutions for since the problem emerges from our wasteful anti-natural culture to begin with and this influences the design of our homes in ways that do not support a natural lifestyle.

    March 23, 2015 • 11:40 am •
  5. Jax

    I just received a PVC shower curtain as a gift from a registry I put together for my upcoming wedding. I’m very conscious about having a healthy and toxic-free indoor living environment, but when I put this item on my registry I didn’t look much further than the seller labeling it “Eco-friendly.” When the curtain arrived I excitedly pulled it out of the package and hung it up. After three minutes of it hanging it filled the bathroom with such a pungent plastic smell that I knew right away I had made a huge mistake. In a panic, I swiftly unclipped it from the rack, threw it outside and started searching the web. I came across your article and I am so happy I did. I made a conscious effort to purchase a shower curtain that I assumed would be hazardous free based on the label of eco friendly. What I realize now is that it was being used as a buzz word that wasn’t even concerned with the environment. Buying a shower curtain is a dilemma and I super appreciate how sensitive you are to that fact. Anyway, the curtain hung for 5 minutes in my home and now we are shipping it back. I’m still nervous about the 5 minutes it was in the house off-gassing. I have all my doors and windows open trying to move the inside air out. I’m sure we will be ok, but I’m so appalled that this product can be sold. Terrible.

    February 8, 2016 • 12:09 am •
  6. Hi,

    Was doing some research and came across a medical article regarding research on PEVA… Thought I would share with you and your audience.

    Volatile organic compounds of polyethylene vinyl acetate plastic are toxic to living organisms.
    Meng TT1.

    Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic products readily evaporate; as a result, hazardous gases enter the ecosystem, and cause cancer in humans and other animals. Polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) plastic has recently become a popular alternative to PVC since it is chlorine-free. In order to determine whether PEVA is harmful to humans, this research employed the freshwater oligochaete Lumbriculus variegatus as a model to compare their oxygen intakes while they were exposed to the original stock solutions of PEVA, PVC or distilled water at a different length of time for one day, four days or eight days. During the exposure periods, the oxygen intakes in both PEVA and PVC groups were much higher than in the distilled water group, indicating that VOCs in both PEVA and PVC were toxins that stressed L. variegatus. Furthermore, none of the worms fully recovered during the24-hr recovery period. Additionally, the L. variegatus did not clump together tightly after four or eight days’ exposure to either of the two types of plastic solutions, which meant that both PEVA and PVC negatively affected the social behaviors of these blackworms. The LD50 tests also supported the observations above. For the first time, our results have shown that PEVA plastic has adverse effects on living organisms, and therefore it is NOT a safe alternative to PVC. Further studies should identify specific compounds causing the adverse effects, and determine whether toxic effect occurs in more complex organisms, especially humans.

    Perla Middleton

    April 4, 2016 • 9:03 pm •