What You Need To Know About PFC-Free Outdoor Gear

By David Hanney

If you’ve ever worn a waterproof jacket or used a sleeping bag then you've probably used a PFC, maybe without knowing it.

Recently governments have banned the most harmful forms of PFCs and there is emerging evidence all clothing and equipment made with PFCs leach harmful chemicals into the wild places we love.

Alpkit is one of the first technical outdoor brands in the world to become entirely PFC-free. Look out for our PFC-free outdoor clothing and equipment as these are tested to perform without compromise to function or the environment.

In this article we give the lowdown on what is PFC-free and why it is so important. Sustainability never sleeps...

    1. Are PFCs harmful to the environment?

    2. What is PFC-Free?

    3. Why is Alpkit now PFC-free?

    4. Is PFC-free outdoor clothing harder to look after?

Are PFCs harmful to the environment?

PFCs can often leach into the water system during manufacturing, or directly from clothes, where they will then build up through the food chain. As a result, PFCs have been found in glaciers, on the icecaps and even in the stomachs of polar bears. There are multiple different types of PFCs and some are more toxic and harmful than others. However, all PFCs can break down into other substances which are harmful in high quantities.

PFC stands for ‘perfluorinated compound’, more commonly referred to as ‘fluorocarbons’. PFCs are a wide range of man-made chemicals used in everything from non-stick coatings on pans to the foam in fire extinguishers.

Some PFCs are exceptionally good at repelling water, dirt and oil which has led to them being used in waterproofs. They are used in a durable water repellent (DWR) treatments applied to a garment to lower the surface tension of a fabric allowing water to form into droplets (called beading) and run-off clothing rather than soak in and wet out.

Your waterproof wouldn't stay breathable for very long without a reliable, long-lasting DWR treatment. They help keep you warm, dry and safe in the most challenging conditions.

Whilst PFCs are mostly used on waterproof fabrics to keep them breathable, they are also used to treat everything from gloves to tents to sleeping bags to rucksacks for additional weather resistance.

Long-chain PFCs

Historically, the most commonly used PFCs in outdoor gear manufacture were 'C8' fluorocarbons (PFCs with 8 carbon atoms) like PFOA and PFOS. However, they were found to be highly ‘persistent’, building up in the environment without breaking down, and were linked to causing a number of health problems in the human body. As a consequence, they were soon banned in Europe and around the world.

_Short-chain PFCs

The outdoor industry shifted to using ‘shorter chain’ or ‘C6’ PFCs for DWR treatments as these were still water and oil repellent (if not quite as long-lasting) and thought to be less harmful. Although these C6 PFCs break down quicker and accumulate a lot slower, evidence suggests they can also build up in the environment with a potentially harmful effect.

Since the 1970's, PFCs have helped revolutionise technical outdoor clothing and made outdoors accessible to many people. However their use has an unnecessary environmental cost.

Recent breakthroughs result in PFC-free outdoor clothing without compromise to performance, safety or the environment.

What is PFC-Free?

PFC-free is a term for durable water repellent treatments that work without the use of flurocarbons. They can be silicon-based, wax-based or even plant-based, so ‘PFC-free' is really just a catch-all term for a wide range of treatments. PFC-free treatments have come a long way in a short space of time with more and more options becoming available.

Why is Alpkit now PFC-free?

Moving away from PFCs has been a long-term goal for Alpkit. We've been working on our own range of PFC-free clothing since Spring 2018!

The effectiveness of the treatment depends on the composition, structure and purpose of each individual fabric. Some fabrics are really hard to find an effective finish for without causing negative side effects. Pairing the right fabric with the right treatment, as well as all the testing and manufacturing, takes a lot of time.

The first step was to stop using any DWR treatments on products where it wasn’t critical to their performance. Last year, we started using PFC-free DWR treatments across our insulation range and sleeping bags, as well as switching over to Downtek PFC-Free Water Repellent Down.

The most challenging step was to find a treatment and fabric combination for our waterproofs that wouldn’t compromise their performance. We've made garments where one half is PFC-free and the other is C8 to test and compare performance in the real world. We’re very proud to say that our new waterproof jackets – the Fortitude and the updated Balance – are completely PFC-free. And proud to be one of the first technical outdoor brands in the world to be a 100% PFC-free across our entire product range in Spring 2021.

We always say the most sustainable product is the one you use the most, for longest. And your waterproof wouldn't stay breathable for very long without a reliable, long-lasting DWR treatment.

Is PFC-free outdoor clothing harder to look after?

Waterproofs jackets have always needed care to last a lifetime. Regularly wash and re-activate the DWR and they will last for years.

Looking after any brand of waterproof is easy: wash and reproof.

PFC-free DWRs are no different. PFC-free DWRs are great are repelling water, however they don't repel oil or dirt, so you still need to regularly wash and reproof your equipment.

Washing and reproofing ensures that water beads effectively on the outer surface. Other than that, PFC-free DWRs work in exactly the same way.

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