Organic cotton: expensive but a saviour for sensitve skin

Mothers now have a greater choice of organic gear for children with sensitive skin, but high prices and a limited range of colours put some off, writes Vanessa Yung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 1:50pm

Like many first-time parents, Cherie Choi Suet-ying was excitedly stocking up on fancy baby gear when she was expecting two years ago. Choi and her husband soon realised, however, that much of it was simply unsuitable because they might have passed an unfortunate trait onto their son. Like his parents, young Kai-yin had eczema and often broke out in rashes.

Choi, a full-time mum, noticed that wearing clothes made from organic cotton helped alleviate her son's discomfort and reduced the frequency of rashes.

"His skin is pretty sensitive and he has asthma, too, because his bronchial tract often gets allergic reactions, so we have to be very careful," she says. "It's worse when the weather changes. He can't talk yet, but he gets in very bad mood when he develops red, itchy skin.

"I can tell when we give him clothing mixed with [synthetic] yarn such as nylon; his symptoms are worse, as the fabric doesn't ventilate well. That's why we avoid buying synthetics as much as possible."

The selection of organic gear was relatively limited at first. But over the past year, Choi has noticed more children's wear made from organic cotton, with new entries such as 3 Sprouts from the United States. What's more, the palette of colours is no longer limited to the white and beige shades associated with untreated cotton.

Among Choi's new discoveries is Fox Fibre Colorganic, a Spanish brand making clothing in a range of earth tones, including green and brown, using naturally coloured cotton.

The fibre comes from varieties of Mexican shrubs that produce coloured cotton, says former banker Connie Ng Pui-yu, who distributes the label through her Muddy Fingers company.

Cotton bushes didn't always produce the white-fibre bolls that we commonly see, Ng explains. Different varieties yield bolls in various colours. But for commercial purposes, cotton growers selected domesticated varieties with white fibres, which could then be easily dyed into whatever shade manufacturers wanted.

Although organic clothing is slowly gaining attention in Hong Kong, Ng says, most people are reluctant to pay a premium for it.

"Many are willing to buy organic food as it goes into their stomach, but for clothes, many wonder why they should spend three times more for the same piece."

The price is one reason Choi hasn't fitted her son with an entirely organic wardrobe. "Organic clothing can be quite expensive, so I will just buy him organic cotton underwear, which is closest to his body, as well as items that he has to be with most of the time," she says.

"For instance, I bought a blanket from Muddy Fingers for more than HK$1,000, which is quite expensive. But as he can use it for quite some time and the quality is pretty good, it's worth it."

The limited range of colours and designs is another drawback, she adds. "In Hong Kong, many brands carry organic clothing only for children aged up to two years old. But my son will be entering school soon, and the organic clothing may not be very suitable to wear to school interviews."

Families who are not utterly opposed to the use of chemical dyes can have far more colourful wardrobe choices.

Green Cosmo, an organic babywear distributor launched by fellow mums Teresa Woo Yan-yan and Dorothy Lam Wai-shan, has expanded its range from the mainly earth-toned gear it started with four years ago. Parents can now choose more colourful designs from Piccalilly, a British brand, and locally based Breganwood Organics.

"We believe in less is more, but we also have to cater to the needs of parents who want their children to be healthy and look smart at the same time," says Woo, a former merchandiser.

"They use low-impact dyes, which are non-toxic and eco-friendly. All production processes are controlled and certified. It is different from buying clothes from random brands; you have no idea what it may contain."

Local fashion stylist Denise Ho Hoi-ling, uses Tencel - a brand name for lyocell, a material made from wood pulp cellulose - in clothes for A for Apple, a baby brand that she co-founded.

"It is a 100 per cent organic fibre made from [cultivated] eucalyptus trees. Tencel is an ideal material to make baby clothing, as it is allergy free, soft, light and has high moisture absorption - perfect for combating the humid weather in Hong Kong," she says.

Developed by Lenzing, an Austrian cellulose textile company, the material was not commonly used at first, but it has been gaining popularity in the past decade because of the fabric's breathability and moisture-wicking qualities. "It is truly environmentally friendly," Ho says.

However, dermatologist Louis Shih Tai-cho is sceptical, saying there is little scientific evidence that organic clothing is better for the child, and companies may use it simply as a buzzword to boost sales.

"Atopic eczema is very common among babies; more than 10 out of 100 babies suffer from it. There's no proof that organic clothing helps," he says.

However, Shih has been encouraging his patients to wear pure cotton for many years because it is less irritating to the skin.

"One's skin condition is very much inherited, and those with allergy-prone skin should avoid animal hair and material such as wool. Synthetic material such as nylon should also be avoided, as it is very closely knit and doesn't allow skin to breathe. Sweat is a source of irritation, so any material that doesn't absorb sweat is not ideal for children, especially those with skin problems."

He says it's more important to avoid giving children very hot baths, as they tend to wash away the layer of oil that protects their delicate skin.

Swaddling children in thick clothing, especially during winter, is also a bad idea. Being too tightly wrapped increases friction; they also become too warm and produce more sweat, which irritates the skin.

But Yeung King-yin, a funeral director who suffered eczema as a child and still has sensitive skin, reckons she is a testimony to the benefits of wearing organic fibres.

"My skin reacts easily to fabric mixed with other material. I used to wear conventional cotton when organic cotton was not so common, so I can tell the difference. Organic cotton is lighter and smoother to the touch," Yeung says.

"The skin is the largest organ of your body and skin problems can be due to what you eat or wear, the environment and your emotions. It's all about you feeling the material yourself and trying for yourself. Otherwise, you will never know if you like it or not."

Organic product retailers are confident that using organic cotton not only keeps children away from clothes with chemicals and harmful substances, but also creates less pollution.

"To be fair, toxic chemical residues left on cloth may be gone after several washes, so unless you have very sensitive skin, there may not be a huge difference," Woo says.

"But our major goal in setting up the company is to show people the long-term benefits of organic fibre. The earth is like a container, things move around within it. Chemicals used in cultivating the plants and during manufacturing will enter the air, soil and water sources."

To help spread the message, Green Cosmo has collaborated with WWF Hong Kong to launch a collection of organic cotton T-shirts and hoodies. The collection was initially sold at department stores such as Harvey Nichols and Yata, as well as baby clothing shops including Babybug in Jordan and Little Bare Feet in Central, but the partners have just launched it on their website so it is more accessible.

"We hope that organic clothing will no longer be a niche sector in the future," Lam says. "Organic cotton products are relatively hard to find now, and we'd like the situation reversed soon. We want more firms to start selling them."

Woo adds: "Everything around us [is interconnected], so it's not just about the clothing our children wear having less chemicals, but also about ensuring a better, less polluted earth for them and their children."