Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have long been a popular choice for stain protection treatments in upholstery fabric. These man-made chemicals were introduced in the 1940s, a decade well-known for the rapid-fire introduction of countless miracle chemicals — such as DDT, CFCs, and Silly Putty — that in no way came back to bite us in the ensuing years.
PFAS (the acronym is technically singular but is used as a plural — yeah, it confuses me too) work and they work well. They offer effective water-repellent, stain-resistant, and durable finishes for a wide variety of upholstery textiles for use on sofas, chairs, and sectionals. Research has brought attention to the potential risks associated with their use and, over the decades, a number of revised molecular structures have been introduced in an attempt to lessen these risks. However, recent further research has called into question the effectiveness of these "safer" PFAS, leading many to avoid them entirely.
Let's go over the risks of PFAS in stain protection treatments and explore the alternative methods for adding stain-resistance to upholstery fabrics that don't require you to wrap your sofa in clear plastic like my Sicilian relatives.
The Appeal of PFAS for Stain Protection
PFAS are characterized by strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which means nothing to me because I got a C in Chemistry (sorry, Mr. Dow) but evidently makes them incredibly resistant to degradation. Their hydrophobic, oleophobic, and rizzophobic properties provide an effective barrier against water, oil, and grease stains. As you can imagine, this is very helpful for cleaning your sofa after dropping pizza on it.
Risks Associated with PFAS
So those miraculous PFAS have been used in textiles, cookware (perhaps you've used a non-stick frying pan...), clothing, and packaging of all sorts. Now for the bad news. Like certain pesticides or a televised holiday special featuring the Kardashians, PFAS can have worrying effects on the environment and human health.
Environmental Persistence and Bioaccumulation
One of the primary concerns surrounding PFAS is their environmental persistence. These chemicals are very slow to break down, hence the term "forever chemicals." Over time, they accumulate in soil, water, and living organisms. PFAS have been found in ecosystems worldwide, with the potential to impact wildlife and contaminate food and water sources.
Human Health Concerns
Studies have shown that exposure to PFAS may lead to adverse health effects, such as hormonal disruption, immune system issues, and even cancer. As these chemicals accumulate in the human body, long-term exposure may exacerbate these health risks. The later-introduced PFAS variants created using six- and four-chain compounds are intended to have a shorter period of persistence in the body, but it remains unclear how much this reduces risk. The level of exposure is believed to vary according to the type of application in which PFAS were used; a PFAS-treated cooking utensil or drinking vessel would presumably be far more problematic than upholstery fabric you are sitting on, as the primary method of accumulation in the human body would be through ingesting the chemicals. Nonetheless, risk remains.
Increased awareness of the potential risks associated with PFAS has led to regulatory scrutiny and restrictions on their use. Some countries and US states have already banned specific PFAS chemicals, while others are considering stricter regulations. This shifting regulatory landscape can impact manufacturers (that's us) and consumers (that's you and...also us!). As a result and somewhat ahead of full consensus on the risks, many of the textile manufacturers we work with are proceeding with eliminating them in favor of alternative protection techniques.
If Not PFAS, Then What?
There are a number of alternative methods for creating practical, stain-resistant textiles without resorting to applying PFAS.
As a completely different method of creating and coloring a yarn thread, solution-dyed fabric sidesteps a number of the reasons textiles might need stain protection in the first place. Inherently moisture-resistant, solution-dyed fabrics do not absorb water or oil, meaning that stains don't have much grip on the fabric. Because the color runs through the entire thread rather than a fragile coating of dye wrapping around it as on traditional fabrics, there's less risk of cleaning agents bleaching color away. Many solution-dyed fabrics meet the stringent ecological standards of the GreenGuard and Cradle to Cradle organizations.
Some manufacturers are pairing their skills with creating durable woven textiles with expertise in polyurethane products, by applying a thin layer of polyurethane to the underside of fabric to form a liquid barrier. By reducing the ability of moisture to saturate the fabric — not to mention eliminating the possibility of liquids to soak into the underlying cushions and padding — the fabric can still be easily cleaned. So you can pour an entire bottle of wine on your sofa! (Don't pour an entire bottle of wine on your sofa.)
Natural Fiber Selection
Choosing upholstery fabrics made from naturally stain-resistant fibers can be another way to avoid PFAS-based treatments. Wool, for one, is naturally water-repellent and stain-resistant, thanks to its lambolin lanolin content. Other natural fibers, like hemp and linen, can also provide increased resistance to stains and moisture. And while stain protection is important, it can be easy to forget that most fabrics can be cleaned with a bit of patience and care.
While PFAS have been effective in providing stain protection for upholstery fabrics, their potential environmental and health risks cannot be ignored. By exploring alternative methods and materials, we can work towards creating safer and more sustainable stain-resistant fabrics without compromising on performance. As consumers and manufacturers become more aware of the hazards associated with PFAS, the demand for eco-friendly and health-conscious alternatives will continue to grow. For assistance with your fabric selection and more information on alternatives to PFAS, give us a shout.