Thursday, February 7, 2013

Toxic Chemicals in New Clothes

Have you ever noticed a "chemical" smell coming from clothes (or bedding or other fabrics) you just purchased? New clothing is treated with a variety of chemicals. Some of these pose a danger to our health directly, while others are environmental toxins.

Some of the substances that are used in the manufacturing process include the following:


Clothing is often treated with formaldehyde, a toxin and known human carcinogen, to prevent mildew while it is being transported from factory to store. In addition, as noted in this 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), garments made of cotton and other natural fibers are often treated with resins containing formaldehyde in order to provide wrinkle resistance.

For those with an acute sensitivity, skin exposure to these resins can result in allergic contact dermatitis, a form of eczema that can affect the immune system and produce very painful skin reactions.

In addition, formaldehyde-containing resins in stored or closeted clothes may chemically degrade and off gas free formaldehyde. Breathing formaldehyde can result in nasal and eye irritation, neurological effects and changes in lung function. Children exposed to this toxin may develop asthma or asthma-like symptoms.

It's impossible to know for sure if an item has been treated with or contains formaldehyde, because clothing labels do not identify such items. However, some of these garments, or bedding, are marketed with phrases such as "wrinkle-free," "wrinkle resistant," "noniron," "no iron," or "easy care."

Various sources, including medical articles, recommend washing clothes before wearing to reduce exposure to formaldehyde. Researchers, including contributors to the GAO report, said their findings caused them to wash no-iron clothes "at least twice" before wearing them.

However, the report notes that while washing clothing before wearing it often reduces formaldehyde levels, it is not always successful. The effects of laundering on formaldehyde levels depends on the type of resin used as well as other factors. In fact, some studies report that while formaldehyde levels decline initially after washing, levels may start increasing after multiple washes.


Some dyes found in imported clothing, including azo, disperse or benzidine dyes, are highly allergenic and possible carcinogens. Disperse dyes easily rub off onto the skin and can cause severe skin reactions in those who have a sensitivity to these chemicals.

Benzidine dyes are so toxic that many countries have enacted stringent regulations that limit their use. There are no such laws or regulations in effect in the U.S. While these dyes are no longer manufactured here, there is no prohibition on their use in imported clothing.

However, the EPA recognizes that dyes such as benzidine-based azo dyes can metabolize into compounds that are known to be human carcinogens, and have the potential to leach from textiles that are in contact with skin. The agency is "concerned" about the risk of exposure, including the exposure of children, to products containing these dyes. Therefore, it has taken preliminary steps to review and evaluate the use of some of these dyes in imported clothing.


New clothing may be treated with a variety of substances intended to provide certain properties to the fabric.

Antimicrobial Pesticides

For example, clothing marketed as anti-odor or antimicrobial may be treated with the pesticides Triclosan or nanosilver.

Triclosan, as I posted here, is harmful both to our health and the environment.

Nanosilver, extremely tiny particles of silver, is being used in a wide variety of consumer products, including clothing, baby blankets and pillowcases. It has never been thoroughly tested for its effects on human health. However, because of their size, nanoparticles of silver are easily inhaled, absorbed by the skin or ingested. There is evidence that these particles can cross the blood-brain barrier.

Nanosilver, like Triclosan, may also have adverse impacts on the environment. Both of these pesticides are released into the water when items are laundered. A 2010 study found that nanosilver is toxic to aquatic organisms.

Some scientists believe that the use of antimicrobial textiles may lead to dangerous bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, leading to serious public health consequences.

Stain- and Water-Resistant Finishes

Clothing, including rain gear and outerwear, that is marketed as stain-resistant, water-resistant or waterproof is often made with chemicals called PFCs; one common PFC found in clothing is PFOA. PFCs, including PFOA, are suspected health and environmental toxins. They are also likely carcinogens. The CDC found PFCs in the blood of nearly all Americans it tested.

Widespread concern about the use of these toxic compounds led to recent announcements by two of the world's largest clothing retailers, H&M and Zara, that they would eliminate the use of PFCs in their products.

Finally, most of the clothing sold in the U.S. is now imported, much of it from Asia. Clothing and textiles are treated with a variety of preservatives, pesticides and fungicides to prevent infestations as they are transported here from halfway around the world.


  • Wash all new clothing before wearing.  At least once; I wash my daughter's things at least twice. This is an imperfect solution, as washing will not remove all potentially harmful substances from clothing, but it is important to remove as much as possible. This page has some tips on how to remove the "chemical" smell from new clothes.
  • Shop for organic clothes or clothes certified to be free of toxic substances. Products, such as apparel and bedding, certified under the Oeko-Tex 100 Standard are tested for over 100 harmful substances; the standard bans many chemicals and limits others. Many Hanna Andersson products are either organic or Oeko-Tex certified. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an even stricter standard that governs environmental and social criteria throughout the supply chain. The online retailer Gaiam sells only textiles, including clothing and bedding, from suppliers that are GOTS certified. Finally, this page has some good information and resources for eco-friendly children's clothing.
  • Shop consignment and resale shops. This issue is one of the reasons why I am a big fan of these stores, especially for kids' clothing. My thinking is that used clothing will have gone through multiple washings, removing a good amount of any finishes and dyes. Some caveats apply. Make sure the store looks (and smells!) clean and that the clothes are in good condition. Also be aware that some thrift stores may spray clothes with disinfectants or other chemicals to get rid of funky odors. Avoid any store or any clothes that smell "chemically" or bad.
  • Avoid clothing with chemical "functional" finishes. These include items made of fabric labeled as stain-resistant, waterproof and water-resistant, antimicrobial, anti-odor, wrinkle-resistant or wrinkle-free.