Toxic chemicals have been found in some guitar strings that have no business being used to marginally improve your playing experience.
Many of you who read my articles know me as a pretty opinionated content creator. I’ve managed to get myself into disagreements with everyone from Gibson to Silvertone. Time to add some string manufacturers to that list. What you may or may not know is that this whole time I’ve also been working on my PhD in chemical oceanography. Well, as I celebrate five years of guitar journalism, I’m also poised to graduate from that PhD program after 5 years of studying something called PFAS.
What is PFAS? Well, it’s a family of man-made chemicals that we have used in so, so many things. Why is your rain jacket waterproof? Because of PFAS and their water repellant characteristics. Why does food not stick to your cooking pan? Teflon is the answer, which is made from PFAS. Even though Teflon itself is harmless, the process of making it requires the use of and disposal (usually unregulated) of lots of bad PFAS.
So what does this have to do with the guitar? Well, these PFAS have also been found in guitar strings of all places, because that water and grease and oil repellent nature of them can coat your strings and make them last longer. Thus, coated strings.
Make no mistake PFAS are bad for you, they get into you through food, water, inhalation, and can be passed down from your mom during birth and breastfeeding. They have a myriad of negative human health impacts (read more about that here) but even worse, they don’t go away. PFAS are called forever chemicals because they don’t just break down quickly or easily. In fact, some PFAS can stay in your body for around a decade. So why in the world do we need to use this in guitar strings of all places? Good question.
Many of us in the scientific field have argued for something called the essential use principle. This means we will reduce the amount of PFAS produced, used, and released to the environment to harm us. We will reduce that amount by only using it where it is absolutely, completely necessary. For example, a teflon pan isn’t necessary when cast iron or ceramic ones exist. And rain coats can be crafted without water proofing PFAS treatment, why not use natural waxes to treat them instead? So yeah, your coated guitar strings are not essential. If you know, work for, or have any connection to string manufacturers, point them my way, and let’s work together to figure out if Teflon or other PFAS-based chemistries are involved in your coated string processing.
Even if they make up only a small amount of the total PFAS production and use, it is something you can do right now to make a big difference. Stop buying them, spread the word, buy regular old un-coated guitar strings, and lets get PFAS out of the guitar industry for good.
EDIT: It seems that Stringjoy is making coated guitar strings using enamels that are free of teflon and other volatile chemicals of concern, so for your coated string needs go check them out!
The opinions presented here are entirely my own, and not representative of URI, STEEP, or any other academic and research institutions that I am a part of.-Matt Dunn, Guitars For Idiots editor & 5th year PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of Oceanography, URI
Wanna learn more about how I measure PFAS in the environment with these little tubes? Check out some of my research translation writing for URI’s STEEP Superfund Center!