What We May Not Want To Know: Toxic Materials in Art and Fashion

Carl Wilhelm Scheele courtesy of daviddarling.info

When Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t,” he probably did not know it would apply to the investigations of toxins found in fashion. It seems the deeper we dive into this line of research, the more hidden truths come to light concerning toxic chemicals found in our clothes, paint, and household objects. While we would like to think this is an issue from the past, new investigative journalism indicates otherwise. So, let’s take a look at some of these unfortunate findings from recent history and today.

Hues to Die For: Copper Arsenite

“Arsenic green” was a fashion trend for a long time until more people found out it was toxic. Carl Wilfeld Scheele, a pharmaceutical chemist in Sweden, invented the color in 1775 Scheele's green was made with copper arsenite, a chemical now known to be a highly toxic carcinogen, causing stomach cancers and excruciating sores in people who were exposed to it for long periods of time. The chemist worked heavily in studying lead, arsenic, and mercury, which caused his kidneys to fail, resulting in his death in 1785.

While the inventor never lived to truly see the color’s popularity, his compounds became the standard for creating dyes in the 1800s. Shceele’s Green was an incredibly popular color in the 19th century, especially in women’s clothing. Copper arsenite was used in other pigments, such as paints, coming with similar health concerns. People began referring to the sickness associated with cloth chemical exposure as “mauve measles,” as the dyes would leach onto people’s skin and cause severe cases of irritation.


Scheele was aware of the health problems associated with his dye long before his kidneys failed and yet continued to manufacture it anyway. 

Children continued to waste away in rooms of green wallpaper, stomach cancer spikes continued to grow, and the mauve measles flourished. Here, green became the color associated with poison as opposed to a color of growth and rebirth.


Portrait of Laura Gonzaga
Portrait of Laura Gonzaga by Lavinia Fontana courtesy of American Duchess Blog

Since the color was so popular, it appeared on the walls of homes and along dresses in paintings. In the 19th century, artists became inspired by the mundane in the lives of everyday people, so depictions of women and children relaxing in the house while working on needlework became more common. In Georg Friedrich Kersting’s Woman Embroidering (1812), A woman in a green apron attends to her embroidery within her room, the opacity of the green walls becoming so intense that the painting on the wall looks like it has been absorbed by the wallpaper. Her window is open, allowing more moisture into the room and causing the pigment to flake off the walls and into the woman’s digestive system. However, she is content in her space, blissfully unaware of the green killer attacking her body.

The arsenic waltz
The Arsenic Waltz, 1862 image public domain

As news of Scheele’s green’s toxicity spread in the 1860s, some stopped wearing the dye in favor of their health. For many, however, their love of Sheele’s green was enough to die for. When Napoleon was exiled in St. Helena, the walls of his home were covered in the sickly yellow-green hue, as it was his favorite color. The climate of St. Helena was humid. When he died, many believed he succumbed to stomach cancer, which became more common from people constantly exposed to the toxic color. Although the arsenic was most known to be in Sheele’s green, the chemical was also in various shades of yellow, magenta, and blue. Eventually, the staple cloth and paint pigment was pulled from production, leaving a gaping hole in Scheele’s business model larger than the sores on their arsenic-obsessed customers.


What's even more disappointing—they recovered from Scheele's Green's fallout by reselling the clothing carcinogen as an insecticide, so these chemicals are still used and consumed by people today.

A Cure for the Living: Radioactive Radium

Most chemicals are discovered to be toxic years too late. Radium is a prime example. First used in the early 21st century to create glow-in-the-dark clocks, this chemical was, according to CNN, “radium was discovered by Nobel laureate Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898. It was quickly put to use as a cancer treatment … Boldly advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead” and “Perpetual Sunshine,” it promised to tackle various ailments from arthritis to gout.” It continued to be marketed as a health tonic before research indicated otherwise in the late 1930s. 

Sheer Radium Silk
Sheer Radium Silk courtesy of Witness 2 Fashion blog

When Marie Curie exposed herself to so much radiation, her body was radioactive when she died. She actually became a radioactive anomaly and had to be buried in a lead-linen coffin.


Around this same time, radium was used to create luxurious undergarments for women. As much as radium was considered a health tonic, the word carried a similar luxurious allure to that of platinum and titanium. Even the packaging of cards and clothing included radium.  Marketing teams sometimes took advantage of the “radium” trend by promoting the radioactive substance in butter, though it was likely used as a buzzword for boosting sales and did not contain any actual radium.


Radium also appeared in paint, and in the 1920s, more and more people became aware of “radium necrosis,” which was the “PG” way of letting the public know that prolonged exposure to radium was causing people to develop tumors and their jaws were rapidly deteriorating. The women who caught this disease worked in a watchmaking factory where they were instructed to point their paint brushes by sticking the radium paint-laden bristles in their mouths, ingesting the radioactive substance almost daily.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint
Acrylic paint courtesy of Art is Fun blog

As conversations on sustainability and environmental health increase, more people are investigating the environmental impacts of the widespread use of acrylic paint in art. While acrylic paint is, in fact, recyclable, it is not so easy to do so. And because it is a plastic material originating from fossil fuels, it is hard to label this product as environmentally friendly. Luckily, acrylic paint has similar properties to glass, therefore, rendering it safer than its plastic counterparts.

Toxic Materials in Fast Fashion Today and Pop Culture Products

While we would like to think that toxic materials are a thing of the past, recent investigative journalism says otherwise. One article from Greenpeace titled “Taking the shine off SHEIN: Hazardous chemicals in SHEIN products break EU regulations, a new report finds,” uncovered a large percentage of the tested products contained hazardous chemicals such as lead.


Another brand, Thinx, was exposed for having hazardous chemicals in its products. The chemicals are poly-fluoroalkyl substances (‘PFAS’)”, more commonly known as “forever chemicals”. In addition to the fact that PFAS can be harmful to menstruating people, this brand marketed itself as “sustainable” and “non-toxic,” and, as a Thinx consumer myself, I believed it. PFAS are anything but sustainable—they literally cannot be destroyed. Remember when they found plastic in the human bloodstream for the first time? You kind of have to wonder if there is a connection between PFAS and other toxic chemicals we are all wearing every day.


So, if toxic materials can be dangerous for our health, why are companies using them? The answer is, unfortunately, simple: profit. Zaful, Shein, and H&M are each worth approximately $100 billion. They simply do not care what materials will get them there.

Shein marketing image courtesy of Euronews

Toxic Fashion Comes Full Circle

Shopping sustainably and safely (avoiding toxins) is expensive, so there must be disparities between mindful and sustainable shopping and starting a witch hunt over people shopping at specific brands. This is where the phrase “no ethical consumption under capitalism” originates, but its intentions were to be used as an equitable viewpoint of consumerism along the poverty line vs. its current use as a justification for dumping hundreds of dollars into clothing without the intention of keeping it.


While art and fashion have the power to inspire the masses, it also has the capability to cause great harm and even kill others when crafted with the wrong materials. Whether the victim is a person or an ecosystem, more people are researching and calling for more chemicals to be taken off the shelves of stores to protect the health of the Earth and everyone living on it.

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