Chemical Clothing, Bras, Finishes and What is the Likely Culprit?

I’ll take the bloody wrinkles, thank you!

Ok, my blood’s really pumping after watching a short segment on 16 x 9, a news program where they explored chemicals in clothing.

About a year ago, I’d written a blog post about the troubles I was having finding casual business clothing for my husband, due to the amount of formaldehyde in this type of clothing. Not only is it in individual brands, it adds up to create stores which are filled with fumes. It also further complicates shopping due to the fact that fabric easily soaks up the chemicals in the air around it.

So why is my blood boiling? For some as yet unidentified reason, I feel really cheezed off by the fact that someone would think it a good idea to add formaldehyde to clothing and not tell us. But why should I be surprised since this is the trend nowadays.


          Types of Technology for achieving “wrinkle free” finish

The major application methods currently used are based on the following processes: pre-cure; post-cure; garment-dip; spray (metered) application; and Vapour phase.

In pre-cure, the fabric is treated with resin, dried and cured in flat open-width form. This fabric can be used to produce garments that resist wrinkling during wearing and have a smooth appearance after washing and tumble drying. However, it will not be possible to introduce sharp durable creases as the cross-linked fabric will resist any attempt to press in creases. Such fabrics usually find application in the womenswear market for some skirts, casual trousers and shirting where smoothness is the main criterion.

A post-cure process gives an option to produce a garment with smooth drying and wrinkle resistant properties along with sharp creases that are durable for the life of the garment. In this process the resin is padded onto the fabric and dried at low temperature ( as in the Koretron process ). The fabric is then cut, garment constructed and creases pressed into the garment. A high temperature cure in this configuration is given to cross-link the resin. This process, though giving excellent results, has not been too successful with garment manufacturers owing to obvious limitations of colors, styles and fabric weight, and the need for a direct interface between mills, garment manufacturers and retailers.

In an improvement to this process, a company in Japan gave a post-cure finish to fabric that was mercerised in liquid ammonia, giving exceptional easy care properties together with the soft handle of non-cross-linked cotton. Liquid ammonia mercerization is a treatment given at ultra-low temperatures and it causes deconvolution of cotton; smoothing of the surface; swelling of the fibre to a circular cross section; improved absorbency, strength and lustre; and a very soft touch.

The other three options are for finishing the fabric once it has been constructed into a garment. In the garment-dip method, garments are constructed from non-resinated fabric, then impregnated with a resin formula similar to that used in the post-cure process, extracted to about 65% wet pick-up and then tumble dried to 8-10% moisture content, a critical factor that is determined using a moisture meter.

In the spray method, the resin is applied by spraying it onto the garment during tumbling in an enclosed rotational device. A microprocessor is used to meter the exact amount of chemicals and to control the rotation time, desired wet pick-up, spray rate and process time. The garments are then pressed and cured as in the case of the post-cure process. The process is increasingly used for both menswear and womenswear with the market moving towards washed-down looks and softer handles.

In the vapour phase process, the fabric is dyed and finished at the mill, cut sewn and pressed into garment form before cross linking. Gaseous formaldehyde is then applied together with an acid catalyst in a special chamber oven. The garments are later steamed to induce cross-linking. Excess moisture is then exhausted. The formaldehyde itself forms the cross-links ( conventional resin will always have unreacted N-methylol groups that can hydrolyze to release formaldehyde ). The process is being used today by manufacturers of shirts and other light weight garments. However, it is reportedly difficult to control, potentially resulting in uneven treatments and higher strength losses. 

Only a few countries regulate amounts of formaldehyde in clothing. As with other products, I expect after some public uproar, the industry will warn us about the use of this chemical in children’s clothing but won’t do much to remove it from other clothing. Companies might take note and offer “allergy-free” or “for sensitive skin” options that don’t contain the chemical.

The news segment points out how many people experience skin rashes from formaldehyde exposure and dermatologists are often asked to comment on the issue. This canary in the chemical soup warns that breathing problems are also a real issues. Exposure routes are through the skin AND the lungs. The stuff takes my breath away. Also, formaldehyde is a carcinogen and a sensitizer, meaning exposures can lead to a person becoming sensitive to many other chemicals, not just formaldehyde.

Take it from someone who gets sick from products containing formaldehyde, it’s hard to avoid. It’s in wrinkle-free fabrics in clothing and furniture. Preservatives found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and industrial biocides contain it as well. It’s in MDF and other wood composites. On one hand, being a canary means I often get immediate symptoms but the dizziness and nausea also help me detect its presence. Usually but not always.

If you have bought clothing that is wrinkle-free, wash it a few times before wearing. You can’t wash out a stain-resistant sofa or your new MDF kitchen cupboards, though.