The Non-Iron Dilemma: How to Remove Formaldehyde From Shirts Is any exposure to carcinogens bad?
An issue with quick-to-market retail innovations is that we’re so excited to sell and buy convenience, we often discard the fact that we have no idea how a new chemical or additive will play over time. (Recall that menthol cigarettes were once marketed as healthy.) And today, one of the biggest boons in menswear is the non-iron shirt.
Formaldehyde in Non-Iron Dress Shirts
Happily exposing ourselves to carcinogens in order to save five minutes on ironing a shirt has become second nature. How do fabrics become permanently wrinkle-resistant, though? It’s not so much magic or miracle as it is a chemical resin that releases formaldehyde. In fact, since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, the EPA has only tested 200 of the 84,000 (opens in new window) chemicals on the market. That’s a shame, since Brooks Brothers is an old entity in which we seem to have unquestionable trust–then again, so is the U.S. government.
How much formaldehyde are we being exposed to?
While the U.S. doesn’t regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, many other countries do. According to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), we meet most countries’ safety concentration standards: about 75 parts per million (ppm) (opens in new window) for items that make skin contact. However, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found those with sensitive skin develop rashes and other dermatological diseases from formaldehyde concentrations well below 1ppm (opens in new window). GAO also found that some retail items tested had reached up to 200ppm.
The redness, swelling, and blisters that come along with formaldehyde allergies are no joke. The Washington Post (opens in new window) reported in as far back as 2009 that TSA agents with chemically treated uniforms were suffering rashes and in some cases “runny or bloody noses, lightheadedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips.” Moreover, doctors have seen a rise in patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) and dermatitis caused by formaldehyde in recent years. They’ve found that repeated exposure to even low levels of the carcinogen can cause the development of chemical allergies.
How to Avoid Formaldehyde
So what are the options? Most men’s dress shirts today are treated with a non-iron resin. That means you’ll deal with nasty breakouts if you’ve got sensitive skin, and if your skin isn’t sensitive… well, you’ll be taking small doses of poison each day regardless of whether there are visible effects at the moment.
Your best bet is to avoid fabrics that boast “non-iron” or “wrinkle-resistant” properties. Opt for organic clothing brands, or wear any of our Alynn shirts (opens in new window), which we chose to make without chemical resins in order to avoid this mess. You’ll have to learn how to iron a shirt, though. But that will likely be less trouble than the steps for removing formaldehyde from your clothing, which we’ve outlined below.
How to Remove Formaldehyde from Your Non-Iron Shirt
Please note that these methods can help reduce the effects of formaldehyde exposure, but they may not remove 100% of the chemical residue. In fact, brands go through great lengths to bond formaldehyde to fabrics so that they can maintain their wrinkle-resistant resin after many washes.
1. Air Out Your Non-Iron Shirt
Air out your newly purchased clothes in order to facilitate off-gassing, which is the release of chemical fumes. Put your shirt by a fan, or hang it outside. Be wary of polluting a closed space with formaldehyde emissions, though. i.e. airing out a bunch of chemically treated items in a small room will affect the air quality. This is typically only an issue if you’re dealing with larger items like new furniture or newly painted cabinets.
2. Soak Your Non-Iron Shirt in Baking Soda
Soak your shirt in baking soda for several hours or overnight before washing. Rather than soaking your shirt for days at once, it’s more effective to soak it overnight, wash it, dry it, and repeat the cycle a few times before wearing. Baking Soda, being slightly alkaline with a PH of 9 to 11, is effective in neutralizing acidic fumes.
3. Use White Vinegar
After soaking the shirt, start a wash cycle. Later, after the water has filled again, pause the machine before it commences its rinse cycle. Add a cup of distilled white vinegar to remove alkali residues. Vinegar, being acidic, is effective at neutralizing bases. In combination with baking soda, the two agents are able to balance out and eliminate most of the chemical residue. Let the shirt soak for one hour in white vinegar and water before resuming the rinse cycle. Select an extra rinse cycle if your machine has one, and do an extra rinse with water only.
4. Dry Your Dress Shirt Outside
Try to dry your clothes outside in direct sunlight so that they can finish airing off. But be aware that the sun’s rays may leave damaging streaks and stains if the shirt isn’t properly rinsed. If you must use a dryer, set a low temperature, as high temperatures can actually cause remaining odors to “set” into the fabric by fusing them with fibers and dyes.
Repeat the process. Each washing and airing will reduce the effects of formaldehyde. It may take many attempts, especially if you are chemically sensitive.
Non Non-Iron Shirts
If you’re interested in skipping the above steps, feel free to check out any of our new dress shirts (opens in new window).
Video by Kenneth Yates, Ties.com Studios
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