The iron, that relic of households past, is no longer required to look neat and freshly pressed. Why bother when retailers like Nordstrom offer crisp “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L. L. Bean sells chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”
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.
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, they said, 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 were with the 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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
As for ridding clothes of wrinkles, she said, “We’re all for irons, to be honest.”