Shower Curtain Liners

The Best Eco-Friendly Shower Curtain Liners

Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” shower curtain liners, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.

Anyone else feel like it’s a constant battle when showering to make sure that those pesky plastic shower liners don’t stick to your wet body? Beyond the battles we see, what about the environmental impacts of those liners? The shower curtain liner market was valued at $431 million in 2021 and is projected to grow by more than 5% over the next year. That translates to a whole lot of resources being used to make shower curtain liners…of all things. So, let’s take a look at what to keep in mind when sifting through all the options out there and buying a new liner. 

WHAT TO BE WISE ON

Shower curtain liners are, objectively, somewhat mundane. They rarely come with the option to choose a colorful pattern that matches the rest of the bathroom like their curtain counterparts. The materials that they’re made of, however, are not so mundane and can have some serious environmental impacts. Many are made of synthetic materials that are associated with water and air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource use, and some even contain phthalates, which can cause endocrine disruption in humans. When choosing a shower curtain liner, try to look for one made of hemp or certified-organic cotton.

THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER

Synthetic Materials 

PVC

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride (sometimes vinyl for short), is a commonly used building and construction material. It is considered a ‘commodity plastic’, which means that it’s used in our everyday lives – including in our clothing, synthetic leathers, and… shower curtain liners. Unfortunately, PVC has some very serious health and environmental concerns associated with its production and use. 

The production of vinyl (putting the vinyl in polyvinyl) is responsible for about 40% of total global chlorine production, and is the largest single use of chlorine gas. Chlorine itself does not pose significant environmental harm, but, when combined with other materials, can rapidly form chemicals that can pollute waterways and bioaccumulate (aka build up over time) in ecosystems. Additionally,  the WHO’s (World Health Organization’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified vinyl chloride as a known human carcinogen. Similarly, many of the byproducts of the production of PVC are considered global pollutants – which have been shown to cause a range of health hazards, including birth defects, cancer, endocrine disruption, impaired child development, neurotoxicity, reproductive disruptions, and immune suppression. Yikes. 

PVC is also often mixed with other additives, like metal stabilizers, such as lead, cadmium, and organotins. These additives do not degrade in the environment and have become global pollutants, as well. For example, PVC pipes have been shown to release lead into the water flowing through them, which then enters the waterways and can cause developmental, neurological, and reproductive damage to both humans and marine life. 

Another unfortunate reality is that very little PVC is recycled. This is largely due to the fact that PVC contains a variable mix of additives, which makes each material made from PVC require a different recycling process. Additionally, post-consumer recycling of PVC is extremely difficult and, because it degrades over time, the recycled PVC does not function as well as virgin PVC. Even in the EU, where there are more advanced systems for PVC recycling, less than 3% is recycled and it is more often down-cycled than upcycled – creating no reduction in the overall production of virgin PVC.

Phthalates

As we were mentioning before, there are a lot of ingredients added to PVC to give it the qualities we know and “love”. For example, plasticizers are added to PVC to give it flexible elasticity and strength. Unfortunately, phthalates are a common plasticizer used in PVC to make it flexible and transparent. Phthalates are found in a vast array of products, including toys, wrappers, and even shower curtains. One specific phthalate found in PVC products like raincoats and shower curtains is DEHP, di-(2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate. DEHP is known to leach from products into the environment because it is not covalently bonded (aka strongly attached) to the polymers of PVC products. It’s been shown to cause endocrine disruption and is a testicular toxin. DEHP can be metabolized into human tissues and can even reach fetuses in utero. Similarly, DEHP is considered an environmental toxin and poses a significant risk to ecosystems it leaches into. 

Nylon and Polyester

Nylon and polyester are two of the most widely used synthetic fibers in the US, and are both made from petroleum. Petroleum is crude oil, which means it is tied to the fossil fuel industry. The manufacturing of nylon emits nitrous oxide -- which can deplete the ozone layer. No, thanks. Polyester has the cute nickname of the "workhorse fiber" of the textile industry because it is so commonly used. Polyester, unlike nylon, can be recycled -- and this reduces the environmental impact and pollution associated with virgin polyester. In fact, it is estimated that air pollution associated with polyester production, when recycled, is reduced by as much as 85%. Opt for recycled polyester over virgin polyester or nylon. 

PEVA

PEVA, or polyethylene vinyl acetate, is a plastic that is a popular alternative to PVC. Because it is a plastic, it does require crude oils (which contribute to significant emissions). Unlike PVC, it is chlorine-free, which limits the off-gassing that can cause those harmful environmental impacts we discussed above. Want another win? PEVA does not contain phthalates! However, studies show that PEVA plastic can have adverse effects on living organisms. One study of worms exposed to PEVA showed that the material changed their social behaviors, limited their ability to intake oxygen, and altered their normal activity. While more research is needed to evaluate the impact on human health, PEVA is not the “sustainable” option some brands tout it to be. But, in a showdown between PVC and PEVA, opt for PEVA. 

Organic Materials 

Hemp

Hemp is a byproduct of the Cannabis plant -- slow your roll, potheads. Hemp does not contain THC, the cannabinoid that can get you high. Hemp is a fiber, and can be used to make materials like clothing and shower curtains. Hemp can grow in many different types of soil and environmental conditions, making it a hearty and weather-resistant crop. It also has been identified as a lower-impact crop relative to other crops, like cotton. 

Cotton 

In general, plant-based materials like cotton require less energy to manufacture compared to petroleum-based alternatives like polyester. However, the production and maintenance of cotton products require a lot of water compared to these alternatives. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton is 46% less harmful to global warming, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface, and groundwater use falls anywhere from 48% to 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. Organic cotton ensures that the crop is grown without relying on harmful chemicals for fertilization, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. It also produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton. Conventional cotton can also contain nasty pesticide residues that can lead to endocrine disruption and cancer. 

Comparing cotton and hemp

As always, there are environmental trade offs when considering hemp and conventional cotton, though hemp wins in most impact categories. Throughout the production process of hemp, it creates, on average, less carbon dioxide emissions than conventional cotton. However, the total energy consumption of hemp is nearly three times higher than that of cotton. When compared to hemp, conventional cotton requires three times more water to produce 1kg of the final fiber product. And, when it comes to the cost of products made with these materials, hemp will often be less expensive because hemp has a relatively low total agricultural activity cost – meaning it is more productive. When compared to cotton, the cost reduction is nearly 78% lower than the agricultural activity cost of cotton. Opting for organic cotton can reduce its environmental impact significantly, so when choosing between cotton and hemp, look for GOTS-certified organic cotton or opt for hemp. Shower curtain liners made from cotton or hemp are harder to find and are often more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, which is noteworthy when considering accessibility. 

Certifications

When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on shower curtain liners. 

Global Organic Textile Standard Certification

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)

When looking for organic cotton, check out the GOTS certification. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification for textiles made of organic materials. To get this certification, a product must contain at least 70% organic materials and meet all of the ecological and social well-being criteria outlined by the certifying agency. This includes, but is not limited to, workplace safety, wage gap assessments, wastewater treatment, and limitations on conventional fiber products.

A FEW TAKEAWAYS

Shower curtain liners are typically made from synthetic materials and plastics like PVC, PEVA, nylon, and polyester, some of which can contain ingredients, like phthalates, that can harm both human and planetary health. When looking for a shower curtain, opt for hemp or certified organic cotton if you’re willing to throw a little extra money toward this product. 

COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET

Is there an eco-friendly shower curtain liner?

Eco-friendly is technically defined as ‘not harmful to the environment,’ but this is an impossible standard for a product to meet. Luckily, the Finch extension helps you to look through all of the options available on Amazon and make the choice that is the least harmful to the environment. Add the free Finch extension to your Chrome browser and start shopping!

Is PEVA eco-friendly?

PEVA is a common alternative to PVC. While PEVA is still plastic, it does contain fewer environmental and human health toxins compared to PVC. Unfortunately, this does not make it “eco-friendly,” because it still has impacts on people and the planet.  In a showdown between PVC and PEVA, opt for PEVA, but choose hemp or certified-organic cotton over both!

Are plastic or cloth shower curtain liners better?

“Better” is subjective and it lies in the eye of the beholder! So, it really depends on what you’re looking for. When it comes to the environmental and human health impacts of plastic and cloth shower curtain liners, hemp or certified-organic cotton liners win!