By Diane Small

Close your eyes and think of your favourite department store – especially the clothing section. There’s a smell…can you recall it? A little bit sweet, a little bit plasticky, some would say it’s the smell of all things ‘new’.

But that smell is likely a serious health hazard hiding in your clothes – namely, formaldehyde, a highly toxic, colourless gas that has been linked to skin irritation allergic reactions and worse: the chemical is classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Whenever you open a new pack of T-shirts, buy new shoes, or even purchase kids’ pajamas, you’re probably breathing in a bit of this gas, which is added to garments simply to give them a fresh, unwrinkled appearance and prevent mildew during shipping. And for some, the consequences can be grave.

Last year, air crew of American and United Airlines reported dizziness, a lack of energy, and even blackouts. The culprit? The formaldehyde in their new uniforms. That was highly reported in the news, but what you won’t hear so much is individual people’s reactions to clothing infused with the stuff. For example? Textile workers commonly suffer from dermatitis and other skin rashes from handling clothing with it; sensitive individual’s health can seriously suffer from it, and employees forced to wear uniforms made with it may have to quit.

Consumers have tried to do something about it – Victoria’s Secret faced a lawsuit after over 600 customers became ‘utterly, utterly sick’ from one of their bras, which brings me to another point: the closer the garment is to your body – as in the case of underwear, bras or jeans – the more you need to worry.

Watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty breathing, coughing, fluid in the lungs, asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, rashes and general fatigue are but a few symptoms people show when exposed to formaldehyde, but over time, diseases like leukemia (particularly myeloid leukemia) and brain cancer can develop (see the National Cancer Institute’s factsheet here). And yet, the chemical’s use is still unregulated by all governments, except those in Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Japan.

But formaldehyde isn’t the only concern. Some years ago, Greenpeace published a report, Dirty Laundry 2, revealing it had detected traces of toxic chemicals — specifically nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) — in products made by 14 big-brand clothing manufacturers, including G Star Raw, Ralph Lauren, Adidas and H&M.

NPEs are commonly used as detergents in the textile industry. Their use is restricted in Europe, but since most big brands are produced overseas where no such regulations exist, we may still be wearing them. But even if we’re not, they pose a risk to our health: even at low levels, when this chemical comes into contact with water, it degrades and become hazardous. The worst part? It’s bio-accumulative which means that it builds up in your body.

No wonder Killer Clothes author Brian Clement claims that over the past 60 years there’s been a significant increase in health problems that may be associated with wearing synthetics. In his book, he states that synthetic clothes contain toxins including cancer-causing brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals, as well as trichloroethylene. These aren’t just found in clothing, but are in just about any textile-based items in your home: drapes, mattresses, carpets and furniture, for example.

Another chemical that can cause problems is p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), used in black clothing, leather products and hair dye. If you’ve ever coloured your hair darker and had a reaction, you may find yourself having a reaction to darker clothing, too. And if you’ve ever had dermatitis after wearing dark leather jackets or shoes, it’s more likely to be the PPD, not the leather itself.

But let’s get back to formaldehyde. It’s often suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of it, but that may only sometimes be true. Think about it: why would a manufacturer create a ‘wrinkle resistant’ finish that washes out?  If that were the case, your permanent press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed. Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these finishes do NOT wash out.  But here’s what you CAN do to reduce the toxins in your clothing.

Health Hazard Hiding in Your Clothes

What you can do

1. Avoid buying any clothing that says ‘wrinkle free’, ‘no-press’, ‘anti-static’, ‘permanent press’ or ‘shrink-proof’

2. Wash clothes (that do not carry the labels in point 1) before wearing them

3. Buy more natural, organic or second hand clothing from trustworthy brands (see below)

4. Avoid buying black or darker garments unless they’re naturally dyed

5. Know that rayon, cotton blends and corduroy are amongst the most formaldehyde treated materials – and avoid them

Natural brands to trust

1. Nour Luxury

You sleep on sheets longer than you wear clothes, so be sure they’re 100% natural, like these organic cotton sheets by Nour Luxury. Thick and soft against the skin, they’re dyed with plant based colours that won’t harm your health.

Image: xAmeliax. Check her luxury channel out here.


2. Natural Clothing Company

Protect your breast health (and overall health, really!) with what sits closest to your skin: organic cotton bras and panties, naturally dyed.


3.  Cone Denim

It’s so sad that most jeans brands use seriously toxic chemicals to produce their goods. But the Cone Denim brand uses what nature intended – plant based indigo! It may be a bit pricier, but what’s your health worth?