Last updated on February 13, 2022.
Recently, my plastic shower curtain bit the dust – it’s beyond repair now. My family moved into our house about 3 years ago, and at the time, although I’d always been a huge recycler and I was environmentally conscious, I didn’t really KNOW about the scale of the plastic problem yet. So this was the plastic shower curtain liner we purchased – a standard PEVA (polyethylene vinyl acetate) liner that is found in many homes because of its low cost and effectiveness. It had that new plastic smell that we have all come to associate with new and clean. This was before I knew that that smell was actually the off-gassing of toxins, such as phthalates, toluene, ethylbenzene, phenol, methyl isobutyl ketone, xylene, acetophenone, and cumene. Yuck, what are all of those things? At the time, I didn’t understand what those chemicals were, but I found that research indicated that they are harmful to human health.
“That smell, the one that comes pouring out of the package when you open it, is a plume of toxic gases that have built up while the item was sitting on the shelf.”-Michael SanClements, author of Plastic Purge1
Mold and repairs
This plastic shower curtain grew mildew and mold consistently! Gross. We have an old house and there is no ventilation in the bathroom, so that’s part of the problem. Over the years, I cleaned it with bleach, Comet, vinegar, Borax, and laundry detergents. All of those worked to clean the curtain temporarily. I’ve even put the whole thing in the washing machine on a casual cycle. But the mildew/mold always came back.
Plastic shower curtains split and break too, and we repaired it over and over again (Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com always writes that repairing something as much as possible to extend the life of an item is a great way to reduce waste). The shower curtain had new hole punches, plastic tape, and even staples from different repairs over time. So last week, I put it in the washing machine to clean it again…and it fell apart. It had such large holes and tears that I could no longer tape it together. It is a dead shower curtain. Frankly, I’m ready to get something plastic-free anyway.
Chemicals in Plastic/Vinyl Shower Curtains
In 2008, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice released a study after testing PVC shower curtains purchased at big box retailers. “All of the curtains contained cancer-causing volatile organic compounds [VOCs], phthalates, organotins (nervous system toxicants) and one or more of the heavy metals lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium.”2 As many as 108 VOCs can be emitted from a PVC shower curtain.
Though newer plastic shower curtain liners are supposedly less toxic, because of reports like that, there are still two major problems with them. First, I can still smell that SMELL. Since I don’t really know what my family is breathing and smelling from a potentially new plastic/vinyl shower curtain, I’d just rather avoid it. Second, it is made of PLASTIC! Call it vinyl, call it PEVA, call it whatever you’d like – but the fact is, is that it is a plastic product with no recyclability or afterlife use. [Side note: an undamaged old shower curtain could potentially be used as a drop cloth when painting or doing other tasks where you don’t want to damage or litter the floor. But then it still will have to be discarded at some point.]
So what are the alternatives?
The alternatives are organic cotton, hemp, and linen – all cloth materials. Hemp is evidently mold-resistant, so that’s the type I will most likely buy someday. On a discussion board at myplasticfreelife.com, a guest suggested rubbing beeswax on a cloth curtain to repel water and mold.3 I’ve also seen shower curtains made out of recycled sailcloth on sites like Etsy and Second Wind Sails. These are cool and something I’d like to try someday, but they are expensive.
Since the dead shower curtain liner was actually just a liner for us, I’m going to simply keep using the fabric shower curtain that I already have and hope that it doesn’t get ruined. I am seriously considering trying the beeswax method. If I do, I promise to update this article! (Please read my update here.)
What are your ideas to replace a plastic shower curtain, or what have you tried? I would love to know – please leave me a comment below!
Article, Volatile Vinyl: The New Shower Curtain’s Chemical Smell,” Center for Health, Environment and Justice, June 2008.