Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3

Last updated on February 4, 2021.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the death of my vinyl plastic shower curtain liner, and my decision to never buy plastic liners again. Plastic liners off-gas toxic chemicals in your home and the curtains can end up in the ocean after disposal. I tried using the fabric curtain without a liner, but it quickly grew mildew and mold and after washing it several times, it started to fall apart. So in my second post, I repaired it and then coated the bottom half of the curtain (where the most moisture accumulates) with Otter Wax.

This, however, was a complete failure.

The cloth curtain grew mildew and mold even quicker, and to the point that I could no longer clean it. I don’t know if I spread the Otter Wax unevenly or if I just didn’t apply enough of it onto the fabric. It seemed that the nooks and crannies of the fabric weave held in moisture easier. Perhaps Otter Wax was not meant to prevent mold growth in fabric that is constantly in a warm, moist environment.

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

No More Plastic

I refuse to give up and go back to vinyl/plastic shower curtain liners. Since first writing about my shower curtain pursuit in 2018, I have learned a lot about the chemical compositions of plastics and how they adversely affect human health. Captain Charles Moore wrote about this subject in his book, Plastic Ocean:

“Who doesn’t know that potent ‘plasticky’ smell that somehow we’ve come to associate with ‘new’ and ‘clean’?”

He cited a 2008 study that quantified fumes off-gassing from PVC shower curtains, in which they logged 108 chemicals, mostly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates. “Prolonged exposure to these chemicals is associated with respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and potential harm to the liver, the kidneys, and the central nervous system. They can also cause cancer.” There are now many studies about off-gassing plastics and they all indicate the same health problems.

Failing Forward

If you’ll recall from my second post, the gray cloth shower curtain was intended to be used with a plastic liner and not meant to withstand daily use without one. So I learned to invest in a better cloth shower curtain, one intended to be used solely. The lower cost of plastic shower curtains is not worth the environmental consequences nor the risks to my family’s health. I decided to purchase a hemp canvas shower curtain from lifewithoutplastic.com. Hemp fabrics inhibit mold and mildew growth which makes them a great option for shower curtains. It was expensive but it was the best option for our home. I’ve had it for just over one year now, and I will share my trials and errors with you.

Hemp shower curtain in package

Cloth shower curtains require special care

Overall, I like this shower curtain, but it is not perfect. We adjusted the curtain rod because this curtain was much longer than our old shower curtain. But then the first time I washed and dried it, the curtain shrunk by about 7 inches! So again, we had to adjust the shower curtain rod, which again marked up the walls. I learned that it is best to simply wash it in the machine and rehang it to dry.

The hemp shower curtain came with specific care instructions, and although they appeared unprofessional, I tried to follow them. We draw the curtain outside of the shower to let it dry out after every shower. But I do not launder it weekly. I have had some mold growth so I have boiled it in hot water to kill it per the instructions and that seemed to work.

Hemp shower curtain instructions

However, upon writing this post, I discovered that the instructions have been updated on the website and are different from the ones I received in the package. They now recommend washing it every few weeks instead of weekly. If mold appears, they suggest washing the shower curtain with half a cup of Borax and/or oxygen bleach in the machine on the delicate cycle. Last, they indicate to hang dry it – I wish I’d known that before drying it in the dryer and thus shrinking it that first time!

Hemp shower curtain in bathroom
This is the hemp curtain as of this writing. You can see slight discoloration at the bottom but I don’t find it all that noticeable.

Shopping for Shower Curtains

Obviously, stay away from plastic shower curtains, including plastic-derived fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and microfiber. These synthetics can cause as much environmental damage as vinyl, especially when laundered. Some of these “fabric” polyester curtains even contain chemicals to make the plastic fabric water repellent. Ingredients such as perfluorooctane sulfonate, a chemical known to cause cancer and has a Proposition 65 warning, is just one example I found on Kohls’ website. If you do happen to find a cotton and “chemical-free” shower curtain at a department store, these almost always recommend using a liner with the curtain, defeating the purpose of switching to a fabric shower curtain. I’ve found examples of those on Target’s website.

Look for hemp or a hemp cotton blend. If you can’t find a hemp curtain in your price range, get a cotton curtain so that you can wash it regularly. Read the fine print you know exactly what type of fabric it is. Check the details as some fabric curtains have a disclaimer such as, “recommend using with a shower curtain liner.” This often indicates that the curtain cannot withstand constant water exposure and will not last very long. Also, read the reviews to help determine durability and quality.

Another option is reclaimed sailcloth, which I mentioned in a previous post. This is what I’d like to purchase someday as long as I can find one made of authentic, reclaimed sailcloth. These generally run in the $200-$300 range and I frankly cannot afford one right now.

Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain
Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain, from Etsy. Photo by seller

Conclusion

Other than having glass doors professionally installed, I’m not sure that there is a perfect replacement for a plastic shower curtain. Although a better option than plastic by far, the mold-resistant hemp canvas shower curtain is not perfect. This curtain does not round or cover the ends of the shower the way a plastic curtain does, so some water gets out and we have to clean up small amounts of water on the walls and floors after each shower.

Unfortunately, the curtain has begun to deteriorate the fabric on the bottom section where it gets the wettest and where mold grows. I think I’m going to hem it where the holes are rather than trying to patch it. It might be my fault for not laundering it often enough. But I guess I was hoping for more durability for the amount I paid for it. Still, this is the best solution I have at this time, so I will continue with this curtain. If I have to do something different, I’ll be sure to update this post with a Part 4!

Corner of curtain, falling apart
One corner of the curtain is starting to fall apart. It is also not very noticeable.

I hope that this short series has been helpful and saved you some time and effort. Thanks for reading and please subscribe. I’d love to hear about your experience so please leave me a comment below!

 

Disclaimers: This post contains one affiliate at lifewithoutplastic.com. All photos by me except where noted.

 

Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 2

Last updated on December 3, 2020.

If you read my previous post about the death of my plastic shower curtain liner, you’ll recall that my goal was to find a plastic-free alternative. First, I decided that we would try getting by with only the cloth shower curtain. And I told you I’d update you on how that went!

The Shower Curtain

I purchased the cloth shower curtain at Bed Bath & Beyond back in 2015. As I mentioned before, I also had a plastic liner to protect it. The cloth one is made of 100% cotton and listed as machine washable on their website. But it also indicated “liner not included,” meaning it was intended to be a  decorative curtain, protected by a separate liner. I think I knew that at the time I purchased it, but back then I thought I would always have a plastic/vinyl shower curtain liner.

But the shower curtain has not withstood daily use in the shower and two subsequent washing machine cycles. The curtain got very dark and dingy with a few mold spots. After I washed it the first time in the washing machine, I noticed some small holes and areas where the fabric was starting to deteriorate. But I rehung it for a couple of more months and it got gross again.

Image shows the bottom section of the dingy shower curtain.
Image shows the bottom section of the dingy shower curtain.
Close-up image of the mold spots and dinginess.
Close-up image of the mold spots and dinginess.

Washing the Shower Curtain

This week, it was time to wash it again. In recent weeks, I discovered Otter Wax, which is a waterproofing wax made of different waxes, including beeswax. This product does not contain paraffin, silicone, or other petroleum-based synthetic ingredients. So I ordered some and planned to waterproof my shower curtain.

Image of the Otter Wax I purchased.

The instructions are clear that the fabric item must be cleaned and dried, but also be able to cure for 24 hours. Since we only have one shower, I had to time this perfectly around three people’s daily use of the shower. I took it down after the last shower one morning this week and worked on it right away to make sure I had enough time.

The night before I pre-treated it by spraying 3% hydrogen peroxide on the inside of the curtain, to deal with the mold spots. (I avoid using bleach whenever possible because of its toxicity, and I keep reading that bleach just changes the color of mold and doesn’t actually kill it.) I let it sit on the curtain for a while and rinsed it off later. It did not make any visible difference but I had hoped it killed the mold.

I put 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle.
I put 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle.

Next, I put it in the washing machine on the casual cycle (which is supposed to be gentler during the spin cycle than the regular cycle). But here’s what happened!

Image of the damaged shower curtain.
This is the damaged shower curtain. Thankfully the damage was isolated to the bottom portion of the curtain.

Oh, dear.

My initial thought was that I would have to purchase a new hemp shower curtain. But money is tight these days, so I decided not to give up on this curtain just yet!

Reparations

Obviously, damage this bad cannot be mended or patched up. My only option was to hem the shower curtain. I needed to cut off 7 inches (up to the highest points of the damaged areas) and then I used a half-inch folded twice to make a new bottom hem. This meant I was going to lose a total of 8 inches off the bottom.

I cut, pinned, and then held it up to the shower curtain rod to see if it would still be long enough before I completed it. It seemed fine and the curtain rod is adjustable, so I went ahead and hemmed the curtain.

Trimming the shower curtain.
Trimming the shower curtain.
Pinning the hem.
Pinning the hem.
The final hem.
The final hem.

Waterproofing

The last step was to apply the Otter Wax on the fabric, which took some elbow grease. I only ended up having enough wax to do the lower half of the shower curtain (and just enough time before going to work that day). My bar is only the size of a pat of butter now!

Full bar of Otter Wax before I began.
Full bar of Otter Wax before I began.
My tiny leftover piece after completion.
My tiny leftover piece after completion.

After it was coated, I allowed about 22 hours to cure. I left it out on my dining room table at room temperature. The next morning, my husband and I hung it back up. We did have to lower the shower curtain rod a couple of inches (which lightly damaged the paint, so I’ll have to touch that up this weekend). But the shorter length is not that noticeable.

Cleaned, repaired, and re-hung: a second life for this shower curtain.
Cleaned, repaired, and re-hung: a second life for this shower curtain.

The next step

It’s not perfectly coated, so I may need to apply another layer. For now, I’m going to see how it repels water. I followed the instructions on the paper label, but I’ve since watched YouTube videos about how others use OtterWax. Some users recommended using a hairdryer on low to make the wax easier to spread onto the fabric. Others recommended ironing the entire piece on low after rubbing the bar into the fabric. This is the option I will try should I need to make it more waterproof.

I hope this post was helpful! Have you had any struggles going plastic-free with a shower curtain? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Please check out Part 3 in this short series. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

All images in this post were taken by me.

Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 1

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Torn plastic shower curtain.
This plastic shower curtain liner is beyond repair.

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.

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.”1 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.]

Photo of a bathroom shower with a blue and white curtain
Photo by House Method on Unsplash

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.2 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!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, Volatile Vinyl: The New Shower Curtain’s Chemical Smell,” Center for Health, Environment and Justice, June 2008.

Footnotes: