History of Formaldehyde in Textiles
Formaldehyde resins have been used to treat textiles, particularly cotton since the 1920’s. Formaldehyde treatments are usually applied to combat wrinkling, improve stain resistance/colorfastness, and prevent mildew. Essentially, it has been used to make apparel fabrics easier to care for, transport, and manufacture over the last 100 years.
Government Regulations Improve Consumer Safety
Not until 1973 were formaldehyde levels in textiles monitored for safety purposes by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The results indicated that an insignificant number of people were actually affected by this treatment of textiles. A similar study was performed in 1984, again revealing that textile treatment was not a health concern, with an insignificant number of subjects experiencing mild skin irritation.
In the textile industry, regulations dictate that 100 ppm (or less) formaldehyde concentration in textiles is safe for human contact. In the previously mentioned 1984 study, 67% of apparel tested for formaldehyde indicated levels above 100 ppm. However, with the rise in regulations worldwide to protect textile/apparel laborers and consumers alike, GAO reports from 2003 and later have found less than 2% of apparel in the US tested above 100 ppm.
Allergic (Skin Irritation) Reactions Affect Few
The main health concern related to formaldehyde in apparel is allergic contact dermatitis (itchy rashes caused by skin contact). Again, the 1984 study revealed that less than 2% of the population experienced skin irritation, even at a time when overall formaldehyde levels in clothing were much higher than at present.
“Basically, this has not been a problem for years,” says Phillip Wakelyn, a fabric consultant in Washington, D.C., who worked for many years in the apparel and cotton industry. “I have dealt with this issue since the Occupational Safety & Health Administration was working on a standard for formaldehyde in the early 1980s.” Further, he adds, “Studies done over the past 20 years show that you would need a concentration of about 300 ppm on the fabric before dermatitis is likely to be a problem.”
However, for consumers with notoriously sensitive skin or those that just wish to play it safe, it’s best to wash all clothing before wearing.
Airborne Formaldehyde vs. On-Fabric
The general population’s worry over formaldehyde in clothes may come from recent reports on the potential risk of cancer from airborne exposure to formaldehyde. Airborne formaldehyde is much riskier and has documented serious health effects, thus it is very strictly regulated.
Because airborne formaldehyde is significantly more harmful than textile formaldehyde, OSHA regulations suggest a much lower threshold for airborne exposure, usually around .5 ppm. However, once a shirt is outside of the treating location it is extremely unlikely for any formaldehyde in the fabric to become airborne at all and very little is even transferred to the skin. For these reasons and the previously described testing, any fabrics under 100 ppm are deemed safe for daily usage. But we do suggest washing any formaldehyde treated fabrics to further minimize this already negligible risk and avoid any potential allergic reactions for sensitive skin.