Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3

Last updated on March 27, 2023.

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 article, 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 just didn’t apply enough 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. 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, are 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 so 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.


Other than having glass doors professionally installed, I’m not sure 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!

All photos by Marie Cullis unless otherwise noted.

8 Replies to “Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3”

    1. Bonnie, this is a great question and one that warrants further investigation! I am not a tent camper, so I’m not familiar with the practices of waterproofing a tent. So I read a couple of articles, including one from REI Co-Op. It seems that many of the tent sealers are made for specific tent fabrics, such as nylon, and not necessarily hemp, canvas, or cotton fabrics. However, my search revealed that a tent or gear waterproofing spray that has a water-based and biodegradable formula (containing no fluorocarbons or VOCs) might be a good option, unless those are also only made for water-resistant fabrics like nylon. One other consideration is the chemical composition of any treatment you use, to prevent the off-gassing of toxic chemicals – whether it is for a tent or shower curtain – there are some chemicals that are extremely dangerous to human health. Patagonia, famous for its quality outdoor gear, has some great articles on harmful chemicals related to waterproofing. Thank you for the great question! I would love to know if you or anyone else tries this, and what your results were?

  1. So, I had a huge mold problem and developed a pretty serious illness and am out of my home while it is being demolished and redone. We took out the shower glass door and threw it out and am considering options. I need something completely natural with no off gas. Considering another glass door, or, a natural shower curtain. Came across hemp, organic cotton all with no liners. Some suggesting coat it in wax with a natural mold inhibitor, or sail cloth. All seems to be about the same price by the time you add up so I just wonder about the work and expense it will take for a curtain vs the expense of a glass door. I can´t seem to find a really good way to line the hemp curtain or coat it well enough to repel water with something. When I asked on a site about Otter wax, they said it was not enough to inhibit mold, that I would need to add something to it. But what is natural. I am kind of confused. Thanks for this post, it is giving me some ideas.

    1. Hi Amy, thanks for your comment! Yes, the Otter wax makes fabric repellent but not waterproof enough for a shower curtain – I have had trouble with mold as well. Honestly, if I ever start over and completely remodel the bathroom, I will likely have a glass door installed. Caring for fabric, even the hemp curtain, takes a lot of effort but I refuse to go back to off-gassing plastic liners. Glass doors seem easier to clean and maintain. I’d love to know what you decide on, so please keep me posted!

        1. Hi Sandy! I wanted to address your comment and have actually updated my post to be more clear about shopping for fabric shower curtains. Most often, fabric shower curtains sold at Target, Kohls’s, and Walmart are made of polyester, a fabric made from plastic, which still contributes to environmental problems. The cotton ones I’ve found at those department stores all require liners and their descriptions usually indicate that. But to buy a plastic liner for a fabric shower curtain defeats the purpose when trying to live plastic-free. Last, sometimes the “fabric” curtains sold at those same types of stores are chemically treated with harmful chemicals that can cause cancer. Unfortunately, those shower curtains are not good solutions even though they are affordable and much easier to care for. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment here – I was able to update and clarify my article, so thank you!

  2. Thank you-super helpful information! I am guilty of associating that plastic smell with new and clean. My current shower curtain is plastic and I’m reluctant to dump it and put in a landfill to never deteriorate, but as soon as I can come up with an alternative use for it, I”ll start looking into a cloth alternative.

    1. Thank you for your comment! We are taught through advertising to associate that smell with new and clean, so don’t feel bad about it. You can use the old plastic shower curtain as a drop cloth for painting or storage; you can also use it in the yard as a tarp. If you have children, you can put it under their indoor or outdoor work area for messy projects such as painting, slime, or sand play. I would love to hear what you decide to do with it, so please let me know!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.