Tea bags are one of the most common methods for steeping tea globally, and they’re also a common method for packing and distributing tea. However, depending on which type of tea bag you use, you might be exposing yourself to harm.
Tea bags are made of various materials such as filter paper, food-grade plastic, cotton, and silk. Plastic tea bags can potentially shed microplastics into your tea. Microplastics are considered a risk for human consumption, so tea bags made of natural materials are recommended.
Tea bags may come in several varieties, but they aren’t the only options you have when choosing methods for steeping your tea. Keep reading to learn more about the materials that tea bags are made of and alternative methods for steeping your tea.
Materials Used for Tea Bags
Many types of materials are used to make tea bags. They each have advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the materials commonly found in tea bags:
- Muslin cotton: Muslin cotton is one of the most popular materials used in reusable home tea bags. This cotton is also found in aromatic sachets. Muslin cotton is a good option for tea drinkers who want to fill their own bags with bulk loose leaf tea.
- Silken plastic: Plastic tea bags are one of the most unpopular options for tea bags since they’re not biodegradable. These tea bags may also result in accidentally consuming microplastics.
- Filter paper: Filter paper is commonly found in cheaper boxed tea bags. Filter paper tea bags are compostable and biodegradable, making them environmentally friendly. However, they don’t do much to preserve a tea’s aroma or flavor over time.
Are Tea Bags Made of Plastic?
While you might assume the tea bags you use are made of paper, you might be wrong. Silken plastic is often difficult to discern from filter paper since it may involve a combination of silk and plastic. Plastics are used in tea bags to help the tea bags hold their shape and to keep tea bags sealed at the seam.
Here are some of the plastics found in tea bags:
- Nylon: Nylon is commonly found in reusable tea bags that are considered somewhat environmentally friendly since they can be used repeatedly. However, this environmentally friendly status is somewhat hindered by the fact that nylon is not biodegradable.
- Polypropylene terephthalate (PET): PET is a composite plastic considered food-safe due to its high melting point. This type of plastic is often found in silken luxury tea bags.
Even though plastic tea bags are somewhat controversial, they’re preferred by many tea drinkers over filter paper tea bags. This is because steeped filter paper can add a note of bitterness to the tea once it’s brewed.
Do Tea Bags Hurt the Environment?
Tea bags can potentially damage the environment depending on which type you use. Plastic tea bags aren’t biodegradable, but they can still be somewhat good for the environment if using them multiple times prevents you from using disposable tea bags.
Muslin cotton has the same reusable benefits associated with plastic tea bags but is much easier to compost when you’re ready to replace them.
There are several ways that tea bags are beneficial to the environment. Here are a few ways that tea bags can help the environment rather than hurt it:
- Composting: Used disposable tea bags can be placed directly in your compost pile since they break down quickly when they come into contact with soil or compost. These disposable tea bags allow you to return the used tea leaves back to the soil to provide nutrients and essential minerals for the plants grown there.
- Fairtrade tea: If you go out of your way to purchase tea bags produced through fair trade agriculture, you can help prevent the exploitation of workers while also bolstering local economies where the tea is produced. This usually ends up being good for both the environment and society.
Are There Chemicals in Tea Bags?
Another reason that cheap paper tea bags are not the recommended option for drinking good tea is that they can be treated with various chemicals you don’t want to consume if you can avoid them. These chemicals include the following:
- Dioxin: Dioxin is considered a “persistent organic pollutant” by the Environmental Protection Agency, and this toxin is known to have carcinogenic properties. Dioxin can interfere with hormone production and can also damage the human immune system.
- Epichlorohydrin: Epichlorohydrin is a chemical obtained when propylene is exposed to chlorination. This chemical can cause respiratory distress and skin irritation.
- Chlorine: While chlorine is commonly found in drinking water, chlorine residue on paper tea bags can cause tea to develop off-flavors during the steeping process. Some paper tea bags are soaked in chlorine to lighten them.
Even though these chemicals are considered food-safe in small amounts, they can be dangerous when heated to the high temperatures involved in steeping tea.
Are Tea Bags Bad for You?
Since paper tea bags may be contaminated with chemicals and plastic tea bags may cause you to ingest microplastics, does this mean tea bags are generally bad for you?
Tea bags should be avoided if you’re looking for the best aromatic and flavor experience with your tea, but cotton tea bags can be used without worrying about either your health or the environment. Otherwise, there are better alternatives available to using tea bags.
This post may contain affiliate links. My full disclosure policy is sort of boring, but you can find it here.
Alternatives to Using Tea Bags
Tea bags aren’t the only way you can keep and store your tea. There are several ways for you to steep loose leaf tea without even placing it inside a tea bag. Here are a few methods you can use to avoid tea bags altogether:
- Tea infuser ball: Steel tea infuser balls are one of the most popular ways to infuse loose leaf tea. These balls usually come on a metal chain so that they can be dipped in the teapot, or on the end of a handle. Spoon infusers are a good option for infusing individual cups of tea.
- Tea basket strainer: Another style of tea infuser is a mesh basket strainer. These infusers are styled like a filtered cup that is dipped down into a cup or teapot with the loose leaf tea in the middle. These strainers are also suitable for tea that may contain larger stems or leaves, such as yerba mate.
- Silicone figurine tea infuser: For a more whimsical take on tea infusers, many come shaped like animals or figurines. These are a good option for people who want to assign individual infusers to different members of the household, or for adding some extra personality to your tea drinking experience. I love my Manatea tea infuser!
If you’re trying to get away from drinking your tea out of tea bags, these other tools can allow you to infuse your loose leaf tea without using one. The other great thing about tea infusers versus tea bags is that tea infusers can be used again and again, and you can even re steep tea in them if you don’t mind a little dilution. This makes them very environmentally friendly compared to reusable plastic tea bags.
Tea Bags Aren’t the Only Option
You can find environmentally friendly and food-safe tea bags, but drinking loose leaf tea out of reusable stainless steel infusers is even better for the environment and your health. Choose your tea bag material carefully if you do choose to use tea bags to avoid harming either the environment or yourself.