Along with turning on the exhaust fan every time you cook, wearing sensible shoes while mowing the lawn and removing poo from disposable nappies, “wash before wearing” is one of the most widely ignored instructions in the home. If you look closely, you’ll find it on most of your clothing, plus linens, towels and underwear.
Is it really necessary to wash new clothes before wearing them? The answer is yes, and if children are going to come into contact with them, then definitely yes!
The main reason is because new clothing is doused with a preservative called formaldehyde. It’s used to preserve dead things – frogs in jars, corpses, communist leaders, that kind of thing. When it comes to clothing and textiles, formaldehyde is used to make the fabric look brighter, to reduce wrinkling or to prevent mould from growing when the item has to travel long distances – from Asia to your local shopping centre, for example.
You probably recognise the smell of formaldehyde, it’s sharp and eye-watering, and wafts out when you open a three-pack of socks or walk into K-Mart. For some people, the smell of formaldehyde can trigger an allergic reaction in the nose and sinuses, others might find it irritates their skin. But even if you don’t have either of these reactions when trying on new clothing, be aware that formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen by the UN’s IARC. In other words, it can cause cancer if you’re exposed to a lot over a short period of time – or a little over a lifetime of wearing clothes.
Don’t assume that because we live in a developed nation we’re safe from unsafe levels of chemicals in our clothing. A New Zealand study found clothing imported from China had up to 900 times the levels deemed safe (source).
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that you should ALWAYS wash your kids’ clothes when you bring them home from the store. And remember that formaldehyde is used on towels, tablecloths and bed linen too. Your skin is your largest organ so you need to protect it!
A note on choosing safer clothing
Formaldehdye is by no means the only nasty chemical used in the textile industry. Synthetic fibres are made up of all kinds of toxic ingredients, ranging from bleach to perfluorinated chemicals, which are the same chemicals used to make non-stick pans. There are also flame-retardants, toxins in dyes and residual pesticides. Many of the chemicals used to make cheap, disposable clothing are classified as carcinogenic and have a disastrous impact on eco-systems.
To protect your family and the environment, buy natural fibres, such as cotton, hemp or linen. And where possible choose organic. Buying second-hand clothing is also a good idea as you can assume it’s been washed a number of times, and many of the lingering chemicals removed. When you do buy new, choose quality over quantity.