Hazardous thrift shopping?

Buying second-hand clothes can be kind on your wallet. But are the savings worth the risk to your health?

By Lovely Nica Lee

Ukay-ukay, literally to sift and dig in, first caused a buzz sometime in the 90’s when store spaces in the summer capital of Baguio City began selling used clothes from abroad. While not an entirely new concept—secondhand clothes were sold in Manila’s Bambang market decades earlier—Baguio’s ukay-ukay built such a large following for its “value-for-money” proposition that similar shops were soon spotted in Manila. Today, ukay-ukay, or thrift shops, has become part of the lexicon and a treasure trove for bargain hunters to dig up fashionable, branded, and unique clothes at grossly cheap prices.

Ukay shops also sparked controversy: were taxes paid on the used goods? Were they unfairly competing with local manufacturers? No less important but often overlooked is the issue of safety among shoppers and users of ukay-ukay wares.

The real dangers

“The possibility for shoppers to contract skin irritants and develop allergies from second-hand goods such as ukay-ukay clothes is a real threat,” says Dr. Raul Ojeda, a practicing dermatologist for seven years and a fellow of the Philippine Dermatological Society.

Exposure to used clothes such as those sold in thrift shops, he says, can cause contact dermatitis, a condition characterized by the skin’s direct contact either with irritants or allergens. Dr. Cesar Joseph Gloria, an allergy and immunology specialist with St. Luke’s Medical Center in Global City, concurs and cautions that both irritants and allergens can make a person sick.

According to Dr. Gloria, irritants may be caused by chemicals and residues from dried perfume, lotions, or detergents that may remain in used clothes even after washing. “These are usually suspected when there is abnormal discoloration or hardening of the cloth textile around the armpits and the neck area,” he notes. 

Another irritant can be third-hand smoke, described as the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to hair and clothing especially if the previous owner was a smoker. Allergens, on the other hand, may consist of house dust mites, cockroach and cat or dog dander, if the previous owner had a pet.

Symptoms for irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis are similar—redness, itchiness, and sometimes swelling of the skin—making it difficult to tell them apart. The easiest way to understand their nature is this: Irritations depend on the concentration or strength of the alkali or acid present, while allergies develop through interplay between the genes of the person and proper environmental exposure.

“Allergies, however, are more skin deep, that’s why other organs such as the lungs and even certain blood cells may get involved. Most cells, or the cells located in the blood and solid organs, secrete a substance called histamine. The histamine mediates the allergic reaction manifested not only in the skin but also in the nose, eyes, and even the lungs,” Dr. Gloria explains. Hence, medications for allergies are called antihistamines.

“The inhalation of irritants and allergies may cause rhinitis or the swelling of the air passages inside the nose, making breathing difficult,” adds Dr. Gloria. “In severe cases, the inhalation may lead to coughing or an asthma attack.”

For safety tips and more information about the health dangers of thrift shops, buy a copy of HealthToday December 2010-January 2011 issue.

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