Waterproof clothing relies on DWR treatments to help rain 'bead'

Waterproof clothing relies on DWR treatments to help rain 'bead'

Campaign group Greenpeace recently turned its sights on the outdoor industry for its use of controversial chemicals used in many of the outdoor clothing brands we use.

Here, industry expert Charles Ross gives his view on the matter and where the outdoor world goes from here.

One of the hot topics within the outdoor industry currently is PFCs. Perfluorinated compounds are used in the durable water resistant finishes on outer garments, or in plain speak they are the part of the DWR that gives that ‘tefal’ effect that makes the water bead up and run off your jackets.

The ‘wetting out’ of the DWR is what starts to cut down on the effectiveness of the breathability of garments.

Five years ago Greenpeace launched their Detox campaign with clever emotional marketing to retail and brands on the back of their Clean Clothes Campaign which highlighted the terrible state of pollution in the waterways of China as a result of the textile industry moving there towards the end of the last century.

I have yet to find a single member of the outdoor industry who disagrees with the desire of the campaign, but know lots who have problems co-operating with it. The main reason – something that might sound surprising in this age of white-coated scientists – is that all the replacement ingredients to PFC chemistry do not work as well as long chain fluorocarbon PFCs.

If there had been support provided by the NGO which enabled DWRs to continue to perform, but with better chemicals, then I am sure the industry would have adopted it. The campaign was targeted at the industry as this was the link that we outdoor enthusiasts could easily influence.

Previous efforts to lobby the chemicals industry by the campaigning organisation had been brushed off, but the tactics were seen most effectively when Zara, Europe’s biggest clothing retailer, was targeted in the run up to Christmas in 2012. In nine days the Spanish parent company went from refusing to host a conversation to signing on the dotted line.

The new accelerant came in the form of a Norwegian law that came into effect last year – textiles have a further two years to comply as their long supply chains lobbied for exceptions – banning the PFC chemicals. Although Norway is outside the EU, the European Commission takes note of what it does and why it did it. The fear was that the remainder of the Scandinavian Outdoor Group would adopt the same standard and Germany would get on board too as the most eco-nation in Europe.

Páramo is one brand that has committed itself to a 'detox'

Páramo is one brand that has committed itself to a 'detox'

Any change like this would make it near impossible for any brand selling across the EU to stock control – so the option would be to change all DWRs in Europe. When the brands got to grips with this they realised that DWRs all over the world would have to change: a magnificent case of 5 million people changing the whole 7 billion in the world for the better.

In recent years several substances of high concern have been put on a ‘blacklist’ and turned into European Law (Try Googling ReaCh).

The backdated restricted lists are being made law using a fast-track process. Although this will happen to the ‘bad’ chemicals in DWRs, experience demonstrates that new legislation could take up to a decade to come into effect as the 28 EU countries need to be in agreement, so the stop-gap PFCs are likely to be around for a while.

PFCs are something that are now in the environment and they will not disappear. Finally years of research have proved that long chain fluorocarbons are toxic: a bio-accumulative – ie they seemingly silently build up to a dangerous level in your body – and do not break down in the environment – ie the threat stays around and just gets worse.

The evidence has proved itself after years of studies. Even 3M has been caught out (Google Scotchgard withdrawal in 2000). The voluntary move by the textile industry has been to go from long-chain (C8 and above) DWRs to shorter-chained versions – evidence does not yet exist on C6.

The UK's damp climate presents a challenge to outdoor garment designers

The UK's damp climate presents a challenge to outdoor garment designers

The immediate result is that the DWR appears to not be as good as the long-chained version as it rubs off easier; but the intelligent thinkers are finding it hard to reason that the evidence against C8 will not apply to shorter-chained versions. C8 has been shown to travel 5,000 miles in three weeks and it has entered to food chain, and now progressed through it – effects are being seen in humans now. This stated the garment finishes that are currently used will not kill anyone in their dilute concentration.

Also worth considering is that the more coating you put on a fibre the less breathable the garment is. DWRs feature the benefit of acceptable levels of breathability – certainly more than the membrane can handle – while adding to the water repellency of the fabric.

Hence lots of confusion around the whole DWR subject. DWRs do three things: repel water, resist stains, and stay on the garment. DWRs themselves are only one part of the four factors that influence the breathability of a garment, but they are the biggest effect that can be compromised or enhanced with informed action.

For those that need a reminder of the detail mentioned earlier in this paragraph: breathability (for the majority of those in the outdoors nowadays never had a non-breathable PU Peter Storm as their first waterproof) varies because of four different factors: the outside humidity (there is a big argument that as we are a nation with almost no point more than 100 miles from the sea that this country is too humid for membranes like Gore-Tex to breathe as efficiently as when it is well inland like on the Alps); the amount of perspiration a body produces (depends on how much we sweat and how hydrated we are and how much insulation we are wearing); membrane (in simple terms the more breathable it is, the less waterproof it is and vice versa); plus the DWR (cheap ones wet out after minutes, the better ones can last for almost a quarter of the day in solid rain).

Membranes can work better in Alpine conditions

Membranes can work better in Alpine conditions

As there is little that can be done to the first three factors, most of the attention is being paid to the DWR. The other thing is that a DWR is just that – durable, but not permanent. It wears off – brushing against itself underneath your arms, against your pack straps, and against vegetation you squeeze past – plus can get compromised from the detritus of sweat.

Your body sweats to cool down faster and the side effect is the flushing out of all the dead cells in your skin – the stuff that causes BO. The latest version of the Arc’teryx Alpha SV features a double collar as the brand has recognised that detritus on the inside of a shell fabric will compromise the DWR on the outside of that fabric, thus the design solution is physically putting more material to block the way in the most affected area.

The replacement chemicals in the DWRs repel water well, are getting all the more durable as newer versions are produced (currently the most durable PFC-free DWR in the field is offered by a Japanese company, Amaterrace. Problem is that they are a fabric converter so their brand name is never seen); but on the third benefit – all the PFC-free versions are terrible at stain resistance.

This last category ranges from external effects such as grass stains, mud, food, to internal ones – the aforementioned skin detritus. As the problem has come to light, more attention has been paid to this area by bigger concerns. Long-chain fluorocarbons cover car seats and used to be used in food packaging (it was what stopped your pizza from sticking to the take-away box!), thus further research is being centred in this area.

The main line of thinking has progressed too. When Gore-Tex first created the breathable category most of the garment owners were too afraid to wash their jackets. Since the breathable fabrics have entered the higher aerobic activities of bike and run, they have been washed more often. Washing gets rid of the detritus.

However before you chuck your expensive garments in the machine, there is more to prepare. The physical side of the garment: do up zips and flaps, relax the drawcords, take out the stowed hoods, apply Velcro closures, and so on.

Next is to clean your washing machine. For those that speak old money this is called a service wash. Run your machine at its highest temperature option with no contents. Use ½ cup of white wine vinegar in the detergent drawer, having taken the drawer out of the machine first to clean it – chip off or wipe away the residue of dried soap powder.

A sign that your machine is operating inefficiently is that there is a build-up of detergent gunk around the rubber seal of the machine door. The manufacturers recommend (and you would know if you had read the thick instruction book that came with the appliance) that a service wash should be done every 20- 30 washes as it will make the machine wash better at low temperatures, as well as extending the operating life of the machine.

Specialist products such as these from Storm can be used to wash and re-proof garments

Specialist products such as these from Storm can be used to wash and re-proof garments

Always do a service wash before re-applying DWRs as DWRs are compromised by detergents: you need all trace of detergents removed from the machine to get the best from laundering and reproofing process.

Detergents are both bio and non-biological washing solutions. As a general rule they leave an anhydrous layer on garments: in common speak that means that they leave a water-attracting finish on the surface of your garment – the last thing you want for a water repellent finish!

The science of why detergents have taken over from pure soap concerns the water-loving finish which aids the flushing out of the soap solution (which by this stage has acted like a magnet to attract the dirts off the garment, prompted by the agitation of the machine motion).

Prior to detergents machines had twin-tubs: the washing was done in one tub, the rinsing and flushing out of the soap solution in the other one. Twin-tubs also required to flushes to get rid of the soap. Knowing this it becomes apparent how effective detergents are at attracting the water to get the soap flushed away.

As a general rule always wash the garment in a soap solution first (Dreft or Lux are commercial brands, Nikwax’s Techwash and Storm’s Cleaner are the specialist ones). Quite often just removing the soil and detritus will allow the fabric to perform back at its original levels of breathability; but every so often (for me it is twice a year) I need to reproof them.

If the garments have stubborn stains then you can use laundry additives (like Vanish or Shout) to clean them in a detergent wash – choose to rinse them a second time as well; then wash them in pure soap too, remembering to rinse them again to ensure a good flush out of the cleaning solution; next re-proof them if required; finally heat seal them.

Whatever solutions you use it is important to ‘cure’ them afterwards. Some re-proofing solutions offer the ability to air cure, but a heat cure will always be much more durable. People have been afraid to put their garments underneath a cool iron or low tumble dry – but the nylons & polyesters used as face fabrics, have been engineered to cope with this. Even if you miss out the re-proofing stage, still heat finish the garments for best performance.

In the future it is hoped that a better DWR will be developed. Who knows it might even become a PWR. There has been some world-leading research done in Yorkshire in using ‘plasma’ technology to apply the DWR – initial results show better results in both durability and stain resistance; plus last year the Patagonia-backed investment fund ‘$20 Million & Change’ put over $1m into a Swiss green chemistry company best known for stain-resistant technology.

Beyond Surface Technologies might well share what they develop – like Patagonia did when they pioneered Synchilla fleece.

In the short term people need to be aware that the performance of DWRs on garments will change for the worse, compared to how the finish works now, but if the garments are looked after properly they will perform to current standards and longer than a C8 unloved garment. In a world where people are prepared to get a car regularly serviced, is it too much for them to apply the same thinking to their outdoor shells?

Charles Ross

Charles Ross

Charles Ross is a lecturer in performance sportswear design at Falmouth University. He has taught many of the Millennials who now lead the design of the outdoor industry. His graduates are in Mountain Equipment, Rab, Arc’teryx, Berghaus, Patagonia, Páramo and Montane among others.