My first thought when I saw wrinkle free clothes showing up in the stores was – What are they using to make that happen. That turns out to be a good question, because the answer is formaldehyde! But, isn’t that what the frog you dissected in biology class had been stored in? Isn’t formaldehyde the primary ingredient in embalming fluid? Why yes, it is the same formaldehyde. So why would you want it in your clothing?Formaldehyde is also used in building materials such as plywood. It is used in clothing, draperies, sheets, pillow cases, and upholstered furniture. It is also used in many personal care products. Sadly, it isn’t labeled, it isn’t regulated and there is no disclosure required.
Why formaldehyde? My favorite question: Why? It seems that clothing treated with a resin that releases formaldehyde won’t wrinkle when they are washed, so it’s a huge time-saver. As often happens with our time-savers, we give up a bit of our quality of life.
Some may ask – Is it safe? I say no, absolutely not. What you put on your skin, gets on your body. And if the formaldehyde is released, then you’re also breathing it in.Unfortunately, it’s big business and most people won’t have a problem with it. It’s the old argument that the biggest problem most of us are likely to encounter is contact dermatitis. Even though it can have serious health implications for people who work with the chemical in factories.There are many sources of formaldehyde in our world: the clothing and other products mentioned above, cigarette smoke, fungicides, germicides, disinfectants, pressed-wood products, glues, adhesives, and some insulation. Any of these products containing formaldehyde can release it into the air. An additional source of formaldehyde in the air is from automobile emissions.According to OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. OSHA addresses exposure in a factory setting. But I wonder what level, if any, is really safe? When the body ingests toxins, either through digestion, skin, or breathing, the liver has the job of dealing with them. It works to detox them, but can get overloaded. At that point, the toxins are stored in fat cells. Over time, they build up to the point that people can’t really handle them anymore. This is what happens to the workers in the factory. Our world is full of toxins. Over time, the build up can exceed our body capacity to detox for any one of us. Though it is not obvious from the label, the antiwrinkle finish comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde, the chemical that is usually associated with embalming fluids or dissected frogs in biology class.And clothing is not the only thing treated with the chemical. Formaldehyde is commonly found in a broad range of consumer products and can show up in practically every room of the house. The sheets and pillow cases on the bed. The drapes hanging in the living room. The upholstery on the couch. In the bathroom, it can be found in personal care products like shampoos, lotions and eye shadow. It may even be in the baseball cap hanging by the back door.Most consumers will probably never have a problem with exposure to formaldehyde, though it can have serious health implications for people who work with the chemical in factories. The biggest potential issue for those wearing wrinkle-resistant clothing can be a skin condition called contact dermatitis. It affects a small group of people and can cause itchy skin, rashes and blisters, according to a recent government study on formaldehyde in textiles. Still, some critics said more studies on a wider array of textiles and clothing chemicals were needed, including a closer look at the effects of cumulative exposure.
At the very least, better labeling would help.“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”The United States does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, most of which is now made overseas. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels. So sensitive consumers may have a hard time avoiding it (though washing the clothes before wearing them helps).The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently examined the levels and potential health risks of formaldehyde as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.Most of the 180 items tested, largely clothes and bed linens, had low or undetectable levels of formaldehyde that met the voluntary industry guidelines based on standards in Japan, which are among the most stringent. Still, about 5.5 percent of the items — primarily wrinkle-free shirts and pants, easy-care pillow cases, crib sheets and a boy’s baseball hat — exceeded the most stringent standards of 75 parts per million, for products that touch the skin. (Levels must be undetectable, or less than 20 parts per million for children under 3 years, and can be as high as 300 parts per million for products like outerwear that do not come into direct contact with the skin.)The study did not offer recommendations, but the researchers said in interviews that their findings made them think twice about wearing no-iron clothes without washing them first.
Some of the highest occurrences of formaldehyde are in men’s shirts, said John Stephenson, director of environmental protection issues at the G.A.O. “That was an eye opener because I wear, almost exclusively, non-iron shirts.” He added, “That caused me to wash them, at least twice.”The levels found in the study are not likely to irritate most people. People who have allergic contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde in clothing typically become hypersensitive because of some other exposure, like a worker with chapped hands who has handled metal-working fluids that contained the chemical, or someone who applied moisturizer with a formaldehyde preservative on inflamed skin, said Susan T. Nedorost, associate professor of dermatology and environmental health sciences at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.“People rarely become allergic to the low levels of formaldehyde released by textile resins, but for those already sensitized, it is entirely possible to react to the low levels released by textile resins in clothing,” she said, adding that some people were probably genetically predisposed to allergy. Research shows that the small group of people who are allergic can develop a rash with levels as low as 30 parts per million.So why use the chemical at all? Formaldehyde basically keeps the fabric’s fibers in place after a spin in the washing machine. Without it, the fibers become wrinkled or creases may fade.Formaldehyde levels have declined over the last several decades, largely as a byproduct of regulations protecting factory workers at risk of inhaling the chemical and improved resins.
The retail industry has also helped to reduce the numbers. The American Apparel and Footwear Association maintains a growing list of restricted substances — a collection of 200 chemicals that are banned or restricted around the globe — that it provides to the industry as a reference tool.“Even in the absence of regulation, we are trying to get the industry engaged to be at the forefront, to be self-regulating,” said Nate Herman, vice president for international trade at the association.Several retailers, including the Gap, whose Banana Republic stores offer an array of no-iron shirts, said those shirts met the most stringent standards. Land’s End and Levi Strauss & Company, too, said all adult textiles, including the never-iron Dockers, met the standards. Nordstrom said all of its clothing conformed with the standard except for its wrinkle-free garments, because of the way they were manufactured. But the company said the levels were minimal.“Many of the retailers do commit themselves to those standards, but not everybody does,” said David Brookstein, executive dean for university research at Philadelphia University, and a textile engineer who has conducted his own formaldehyde tests. “As a scientist, I think it would be good if there was a strong part of the label that said, ‘Wash before wearing.’ ”That can certainly help, though studies found that results varied based on the resins involved and the water used. And people generally do not wash items like hats beforehand. Meanwhile, humidity and sweating can also have an effect on the chemical’s release. It must also be applied properly during manufacturing.“The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.”
A 2006 study that tested people with suspected skin allergies found that 9 percent of those tested were allergic to formaldehyde, but not all of those people will necessarily have a bad reaction to various compounds that release formaldehyde, said Dr. Peter Schalock, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School who runs a skin allergy patch testing clinic.Critics of the government’s study say it could have incorporated a wider array of textiles, like drapes and upholstery. Others are calling for a closer look at the potential cumulative effects of exposure.“Given all of the things we buy new that can release formaldehyde in our house, all of those things contribute,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union, who noted that the Environmental Protection Agency was currently developing formaldehyde emissions regulations for pressed-wood products. “Over all, minimizing your exposure is a good idea.”
The best way to protect ourselves? Well, since running naked is frowned upon in public, we need to be as smart about our clothing as we are our food. Choose organic cotton and other natural fibers, a;ways wash clothing before wearing, and avoid clothes that are "stain resistant" "Wrinkle resistant" or "Water resistant". As for ridding clothes of wrinkles, an iron has worked perfectly fine for centuries!
Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville; Dr. Fowler's research
David Brookstein, Philadelphia University; Textile Chemist and Colorist