Polartec NeoShell PFAS-free fabric

A Chemical Fix: Polartec Takes Stand Against Toxic ‘PFAS’ Treatments

The textile manufacturer’s decision to ditch PFAS will add to its sustainability portfolio and affect a wide range of brands.

In a move that will impact a massive swath of the outdoor industry, Polartec announced Wednesday it will fully eliminate PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances) from its DWR treatments. The change affects the brand’s entire line of DWR performance fabrics and goes into effect immediately.

Its new, more sustainable treatment will be used in its Hardface, Power Shield, Power Shield Pro, NeoShell, and Windbloc products. The technology will also extend to fleece and insulation treatments on products like Thermal Pro and Alpha.

Polartec claims that introducing the alternative treatment will constitute no performance loss in its products’ water repellency or durability. But while performance ramifications may be minimal, the overall effect in the industry will not.

Polartec Halts PFAS Use

Polartec supplies a lot of brands. Ariat and Arc’Teryx; Filson and Fila; prAna and Prada mark just a few of the big brands that consumers know. What’s more, every branch of the United States military kits out in gear made with Polartec fabrics.

Now, each company Polartec supplies will get a planet-friendlier upgrade, courtesy of its PFAS moratorium. But this won’t be the first time the brand has committed to a progressive sustainability measure.

Way back in 1993, Polartec pioneered the idea of turning postconsumer plastic into performance fabrics. In 2019, it made a commitment to using 100% recycled materials and biodegradability across its entire product line.

“Achieving non-PFAS treatments within our product line is an important milestone in our commitment to sustainably made performance fabrics,” said Steve Layton, Polartec president. “It’s the latest step on our journey to an even more sustainable Polartec.”

However, Polartec is not the first outdoor brand to go PFAS-free. According to PFAS Central, a clearinghouse of information for consumers, Jack Wolfskin, Deuter, KEEN, and Nikwax use no PFAS in their products. And brands like Columbia, Mammut, Marmot, and others have begun phasing them out.

But given its size and influence as a key ingredient brand in most technical outdoor apparel, Polartec’s announcement will have far-reaching ramifications.

What Are PFAS?

Per the CDC, PFAS are nonbiodegradable, manmade chemicals commonly found in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and, of course, water-repellent clothing. They first went into use in the 1950s. 

The CDC also notes that PFAS are everywhere. Due to their widespread use and their “persistence in the environment,” PFAS can be found in the blood of people and animals all over the world. They also now exist at low levels in a variety of food products. 

The most toxic chemistries in the PFAS universe are PFOA and PFOS. Despite their high water repellency, the textile industry has been phasing them out for years due to the environmental hazard they represent. The industry has largely replaced them with “Short-chain” Side Chain Polymers (SCP), but scientific research shows growing concern over their toxicity as well.

The EPA reports that PFAS exposure has caused reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Exposure also commonly results in high cholesterol and tumors, and it can cause an array of less common adverse effects from low infant birth weight to cancer.

According to the EPA, PFAS are most commonly released “during normal use, biodegradation, or disposal of consumer products that contain PFAS” (EPA’s emphasis). It also recognizes drinking water and soil contamination as threats.

Concerns About PFAS Mount, Bans Gain Traction

PFAS compounds work extremely well for what they’re designed to do; that’s what makes them popular. However, their toxicity is beginning to garner attention in high places.

Fluorocarbon ski waxes use PFAS compounds because of their ability to make skis glide extremely well over snow and their resistance to breaking down. But the International Ski Federation (FIS) banned Fluoro waxes in all its events after identifying their toxicity to the environment, as well as to techs who apply the wax. The ban took effect on July 1, in time for the 2021-22 season.

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Lindsey Vonn at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Sankt Moritz, Switzerland, February 9, 2017; (Photo/Erich Spiess, Red Bull Content Pool)
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On May 4, Vermont’s state government unanimously banned the Fluoro wax statewide (effective July 1, 2023), among other PFAS products. And on June 3, a group of U.S.-based NGOs, including the Environmental Defense Fund, submitted a petition to the FDA to ban PFAS in food packaging nationwide.

Polartec Takes Another Step Toward Sustainability

With its PFAS ban, the pervasive fabric supplier has taken direct action that will resonate throughout the outdoor community. As of this writing, Polartec had yet to announce the details on its new, non-PFAS DWR treatment.

Polartec advises anyone seeking to learn more about its new non-PFAS DWR fabrics to contact the company through its website. Learn more.

Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.