7 Reasons why Formaldehyde in Clothing is Dangerous (and How to Protect Yourself)

7 Reasons why Formaldehyde in Clothing is Dangerous (and How to Protect Yourself)

Formaldehyde, also known as methanal, is an organic compound which is naturally occurring. Formaldehyde can be described as a bit more complicated compared to other simple carbon compounds because it is able to adopt in numerous different forms. The most common form is in gas. Under this form, formaldehyde is flammable and has a strong odor.

Where Formaldehyde is Found

Formaldehyde can be found in resins for composite wood products (particleboard, hardwood plywood and medium-density fiberboard), household items (paints, lacquers, coating, glues and permanent press fabrics), pesticides or fertilizers and also in consumer and cosmetic products like fabric softeners and dish washing liquids as preservatives.

This compound is also present in clothes since it is used to prevent wrinkles and mildew. It may be quite useful in preserving clothing materials since it can also increase stain resistance and colorfastness. Unfortunately, the presence of formaldehyde in clothes can cause problems for people.

Issues with Formaldehyde

Here are some reasons why formaldehyde is not as good as it seems:


Formaldehyde is considered toxic in various countries

Formaldehyde is considered as a human carcinogen as declared by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Countries such as the US and Canada have declared this material as toxic.


Research proves dangers attached to formaldehyde

A recent study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency has revealed that the highest levels of formaldehyde can be detected in the air which is often released from popular consumer products like building materials and furnishings as well as in cleaning products.

A person who is exposed to airborne formaldehyde may experience respiratory problems like chest pains, bronchitis, coughing and wheezing.


Some people have known sensitivity to this carbon compound

People who are extremely sensitive to formaldehyde will experience nasty side effects even with low level exposure. Patients have reported dermatitis (skin rash or skin irritation) and runny nose or headache when they come in contact with products which contain formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde in Clothing

Small amounts or minimal exposure to formaldehyde may not be as risky or toxic but people who are highly sensitive may be able to experience a number of side effects which can be quite serious or even debilitating in extreme cases.

The presence of formaldehyde in more items other than clothes can be very troublesome for people who are sensitive to chemicals in general since they will most likely suffer more from the exposure.


Ill-effects in general

Formaldehyde is known to cause ill effects to one’s health, even those who aren’t really allergic to the compound. It can cause irritation to the skin, throat, eyes and nose. Prolonged exposure may even result to certain types of cancers for some patients.


Long-term effects

Overexposure to this compound, especially for highly sensitive patients may lead to far more serious complications. Patients can possibly experience flu-like symptoms at the start but if the condition is not treated immediately, then it may lead to shock or even stroke.

Chronic or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde through inhaling can also cause severe side effects such as lesions in the lungs as well as labored breathing which can lead to long term damage to the lungs.


Pros and cons for clothing

Formaldehyde plays a big role in the clothing industry since it can be used to prevent mildew when transporting as well as minimize the presence of wrinkles. However, a notable number of consumers have reported experiencing headaches and sore throat when wearing new clothes without washing them.

In this case, the best way to minimize formaldehyde exposure is to give your new clothes a quick spin in the washer to get rid of traces of the substance.


Dangers to children

Children who may have been exposed to formaldehyde for an extended period of time will likely develop asthma or other similar medical conditions.

Clothing items with excessive formaldehyde is harmful especially to children because of their sensitive skin. Constant contact with such clothing items will cause dermatitis and other similar skin conditions.

How to protect yourself from the negative effects of formaldehyde

  • Take the time to wash new clothes instead of wearing them right away. This precautionary measure will remove about 60% of formaldehyde from the clothing, which is great news for people with hypersensitive skin.
  • Smell the clothing first to check if they emit too much chemical scent.
  • Avoid items that are labeled “iron-free,” “wrinkle-free,” “stain resistant” or “permanent press” because there is a big possibility that they contain formaldehyde.

Image credit: B-D-S via Getty Images

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  • Contributor Maria M
Comments 18
  • Lorrie

    I have sensitive skin and am highly allergic to pretty much everything in nature. I recently discovered that I am allergic to the formaldehyde (and likely other additives) in clothes specifically from Walmart. I was a huge fan of their tank tops (they sell for $1.68) and wore them under everything, to bed, to my detriment. After eventually breaking out in lesions, I started steaming my clothes to my horror. It all came together when a cashier had to call a supervisor to ring up clothing purchases due to her allergy. I understand that products from China are shipped, warehoused, and cheap. It never occurred to me that formaldehyde, stain resistance, mildew resistance, pesticides, and chemicals for wrinkle free went into the mix. I remember using Dreft on baby clothes- why stop now?! I just wish there were standards, limitations, and more general knowledge like this so we as consumers can make educated choices and minimize risk. Thanks so much!

  • Charlotte Stowe
    Charlotte Stowe

    I react very badly to clothing from China, intense itching, needle-prick sensations and skin crawling. I’m constantly being told it’s just an allergy to Formaldehyde. I’m convinced there is something in the cotton. Please have a look at my YouTube clip, type in Morgellons bird mites body bugs
    You’ll see what I mean
    Charlotte Stowe

  • CJ

    John Smith — Commercial formaldehyde is produced principally by the vapour-phase oxidation of methanol and is commonly sold as Formalin — a straight-out petrochemical with major health risks. There is not enough naturally occurring formaldehyde, much less ways to capture it, to use for all the things discussed above.

  • Machelle

    I bought some black athletic slacks that stink like metal and I can’t get that smell out! Infact..it makes me wonder what with all the recycling and some of that product going into clothes..how do we know what we are basically putting on our skin all day? The chemical and materials used for processing? Along with the recycling of ? That go into these products? I’m wondering if it’s even safe to recycle some things now…

  • Machelle

    I bought some black athletic slacks that stink like metal and I can’t get that smell out! Infact..it makes me wonder what with all the recycling and some of that product going into clothes..how do we know what we are basically putting on our skin all day? The chemical and materials used for processing? Along with the recycling of ? That go into these products? I’m wondering if it’s even safe to recycle some things now…

  • Vivian M Swenson
    Vivian M Swenson

    After searching how to get rid of smells in new clothes, I find that it may not have been just “scents” which I have blamed the past few years for my new allergies. I got new appliances that still “stink” after 9 mos. I had gotten some new sheets (from India) that stink much like the appliances. Unfortunately none of the suggestions for removing the smell from clothe works on the appliances. I feel ANY item that has been treated with formaldehyde should have warning in bold letters placed on the item. I had no idea that my breathing problems were caused by these smells.

  • Pitt Chao
    Pitt Chao

    Formaldehyde Emission Climate Test Chamber(TU350) applies for the measurement of formaldehyde emission in a man-made board, compound wood floor, carpet, carpet liner, carpet adhesive, and other indoor decorating materials. It can also process wood and man-made board with constant temperature and humidity technology. Other harmful gas from construction materials can also be detected as well. It might provide you with some help.

  • Joan LangleyJomy Mes
    Joan LangleyJomy Mes

    My message should have red i developed an allergy due to formaldehyde

  • Joan Langley
    Joan Langley

    I developed an all3 after taking possession of a new fiat car three years ago and have just discovered all the illnesses I’ve had is due to formaldehyde in the interior .i will never recover .

  • mark b
    mark b

    I have a high sensitivity to toxic chemicals. Carpet fumes are the worst, and this is closely followed by new clothes, even paint fumes are less bad. I’ve read it’s mainly formaldehyde and also pesticides, I don’t know for sure. I’m interested, John Smith, if its true formaldehyde is simply something natural in the human body and apples. None of this is rocket science, over-exposure to chemicals we’re not particularly evolved to deal with, petrochemicals for example (natural but not something we would naturally interact with) , makes a minority of people like me immediately ill, and we’re the canaries that sound the warning for people with stronger constitutions who get cancer or some other illness after a lifetime of exposure to toxins in furniture, clothes, painting and decoration etc. I I imagine people who constantly buy new clothes, redecorate and buy new furnishings are at higher risk. It’s also scary the amount of toxic chemical crap in children’s clothes and toys which are replaced very often. I’m sure a John Smith around 1500 argued that lead free make-up was unnecessary because lead was simply a natural product .

  • Sue

    I had the same problem with M & S chinos as Angie. Contact dermatitis on lower legs, caused almost certainly by formaldehyde in the trousers. I’ve never had any problem with new clothing before, but will always wash any new trousers now before I wear them.

  • Loree

    Hi Monna😊
    Could you put the 7 reasons or put the links where you found Information?
    I knew about Johnson & Johnson but not the clothes.
    Thanks in advance 😊

  • Monna Ellithorpe
    Monna Ellithorpe

    Hello and thank you for this article. I’ve just come to notice this odor in the last few months. I bought a new shirt and didn’t wash it before I wore it. No problems, no smell or anything. I wore it a couple of times and threw it in the laundry hamper. I washed all of the clothes in the basket and noticed this terrible sickening odor (very close to causing emesis). I still didn’t realize what was causing it but I washed that same load of clothes about 6 times with vinegar, double rinsing, extra detergent and even went to my daughters to use another washer.

    I narrowed it down to the one shirt and threw it out on the patio (which I believe is still there). I ended up throwing away all of the other clothes that I had washed with it.

    I decide to stop into my favorite store yesterday where I get the larger sizes and I was almost knocked down by the same odor that I had with that shirt. Again, I didn’t think too much about it and didn’t connect the two (I’m dense sometimes). I went into the dressing room to try on the clothes I had picked out and started coughing and gagging and sweating. I had tried on 2 pair of paints and decided not to get them. I bought a shirt and the smell was still with me.

    The shirt is still closed up in the store bag and I’ll be taking the shirt back to the store and probably wear one of those white masks when I do. I don’t remember ever being so sensitive to anything like this but I’ve developed quite a few allergies as I’ve gotten older and this is another one I’ll have to find a way around.

  • Angie

    I bought two pairs of summer chino trousers from Marks and Spencer recently. I didn’t think to wash them before I wore them, as I’ve never had any bad reaction with new clothing before. This time however, I developed contact dermatitis on my lower legs which I’m 99% sure was caused by the formaldehyde in the trousers. The rash is only just clearing, thanks to some cream my doctor prescribed. Lesson learned. Any new clothes I buy in future will be washed before I wear them.

  • Sohan

    Nice article. It gives good information of the use of formaldehyde. Good read. Keep posting such articles.

  • living example
    living example

    ok John Smith, the writer isnt trying to scare people about the truth. you must be one of these terrible people that own a slave factory in China that produces this crappy ass clothes. I bet you won’t wear it. only poor people can afford this crap. this article is 100% true. Mr John Smith show me your statistics

  • Dave Hunter
    Dave Hunter

    John Smith, formaldehyde is added to clothing made in foreign countries to prevent the clothes getting moldy during shipping. People who never had reactions to clothing made in the US have reactions (even just from walking through a store) to the formaldehyde in clothing, as well as toxic chemicals in dyes and plastics, latex, and spandex. I myself have had many reactions (including inability to take a good breath) after being exposed to current clothing which comes from China, Bangladesh, etc. Why would these people even have a business at all unless consumers needed their products? Suggesting they’re attempting to scare people into buying their clothing is absurd.

  • John Smith
    John Smith

    stop perpetrating false information and provoking fear into consumers in order to help sell t-shirts. the amount of formaldehyde required to have any long term effect or cause cancer is insignificantly huge not what one gets with a t-shirt. And over 90% of formaldehyde is produced naturally whether its through the use of amino acids in the human body or produced naturally by fruit such apples.

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