Why you should always wash new clothes before wearing

wash new clothes before wearing

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.

Do you wash new clothes before wearing them? Or does that ruin the whole new-ness of them?

photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc


  1. jo says

    Knew something was on it but not sure what. Didn’t wash daycare shirts once and someone came home covered in an itchy rash. Never happened again. ta. X

  2. Renee says

    We just chatting about this at Mothers Group on thursday hun – K breaks into severe eczema if I don’t wash her clothes..now I know why.
    Thanks lovely, your forver enlightening xx

  3. Cheryl says

    Haha I am currently envisioning the little wrestling match in the change rooms with my 3yo yesterday when she didn’t want to take of her new pants and couldn’t care less that mummy thought they had to be washed before she could wear them!

    • (dt)em says

      Cheryl, my 3yo is the same, he has to wear everything straight away, sometimes all at once. Heavy negotiations needed, occasional bribe offered…

  4. Amy Ha says

    hi Jo,
    Thanks for this great article, which I was alert to via facebook! I’m so glad I found your blog, have added it to my daily read.
    Yup I always do wash new clothes, in the rare cases that i buy the. But except for coats. Do we need to dryclean coats too, I wonder? Isn’t it just replacing one lot of chemicals with another? What should we do?

    Anyhow thank you again, I’m off to read more of your blog now.

    • (dt)em says

      Hi Amy, thanks for reading and welcome!

      Hmm, coats, that’s a tough one. Chances are they will have also been treated with some kind of preservative, even suede and leather are sprayed so they don’t mark. I’m not a fan of drycleaning, as you can imagine. As you say, those chemicals are just as bad as the ones you’re trying to remove! But there are times when drycleaning is the only option – like when my little fellas wee on the doona and I realise it’s dryclean only :( In that case, I hung it out in the sun for a week so the chemicals could offgas.
      If you bought a brand-new coat and it had that tell-tale chemically smell, I would suggest leaving it out in the fresh air for as long as possible before wearing it.
      Hope this helps!

  5. Bernadette Eden says

    Hi Jo, I always washed store bought clothes for me just because I didn’t like the thought of sweaty people trying them on in the changeroom before me. I had no idea of the nasties involved! Thanks for the heads up. Bernie

  6. Becci Birdy Num Num says

    I used to think it was just because they didn’t want the colour to run! I’ll definitely be washing before wearing now. It explains that week of rashes on my son with the beginning of the school year. Thankyou. And though I love browsing the op shops, my kids and husband aren’t keen to wear second hand.
    Becci Birdy Num Num recently posted..Laughing Out Loud – for real.My Profile

    • (dt)em says

      It can be a challenge to convince the other half to get on board some of the seemingly “out-there” ideas. Mine was pretty sceptical at first, but he’s come a long way. Don’t give up! At least most men wear their few clothes to death, the trend for disposable clothing is really worrying.
      Thanks for reading!

  7. Tara says

    Thanks for the reminder…we were recently on holidays and bought some clothes and let the kids wear them and I knew I shouldn’t let them do that…just what I needed – a kick in the butt on this one! Do you know if the use of formaldehyde is regulated at all? Or is it one of those things that flies under the radar because a) most people don’t know it about and b) what happens in Asia stays in Asia?
    Tara recently posted..Media Monday – Where Have Our Manners Gone?My Profile

    • (dt)em says

      Hi Tara, I know, it’s hard to be vigilant all the time. I live by the 80/20 rule – being good as gold for 80 percent of the time and hoping that will get me through!

      In answer to your question, this is from the government product safety website, emphasis is mine: http://www.productsafety.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/973697

      The ACCC has provided interim, non regulatory reference limits for levels of formaldehyde in various products:

      infants’ clothing—30 ppm (parts per million)
      clothing specifically marketed as suitable for people with sensitive skin—30 ppm
      garments which contact the skin—100 ppm
      other garments or fabrics—300 ppm.

      Interesting to note that a test in 2007 found no formaldehyde on clothing in a “broad range” of samples – you can definitely smell it on new clothes these days, I wonder if it’s use has increased?

  8. Robomum says

    I wash most things but not everything. I never bother with washing socks for example. But I did buy a 3 pack of socks from Kmart for my daughter and they were so slippery, she kept sliding all over the floorboards. I wonder if this has anything to do with it? This is scary stuff! DPBC visitor X
    Robomum recently posted..The Bacon Post About TeachingMy Profile

  9. The Plumbette says

    Wow, I have noticed that smell when I buy clothes from the cheaper retailers like Kmart. My baby clothes, usually I do wash before wearing, but clothes for me… I’m too eager to wear them! Thanks for this information. Will be washing everything from now on…
    The Plumbette recently posted..Flexible Work ArrangementsMy Profile

  10. Lindsay says

    I 99% of the time wash mine and my daughters clothes before wearing and definetly sheets and linens. But now I will be even more vigilant!! My husband likes to wear his clothes new and won’t let me wash them and it drives me crazy!! I’m going to forward him this article and hope it will convince him! Thanks :)

  11. Babalwa Daniso says

    I have always washed new clothes and linen before use. I just don’t like the smell of new things, from fabrics to magazines, they give me headaches. Now, I know why. Thank you for this article, I will share it with my friends.

  12. Jonas says

    Newly-made clothes can also contain solvents that dissolve colors from other clothing – again reason to wash separately.

  13. Heather Hohn says

    I always washed everything because I know there’s a lot of people out there that don’t bathe often, then try stuff on. Also see people coughing and sneezing everywhere. When people are looking at towels, a lot of people unfold them and they get on the store floor. Who knows what’s getting tracked in. A germaphobe’s nightmare on both. Now I know there’s more to the whole reason they should be washed first.

  14. Hazel Owens says

    I had no idea that formaldehyde could be on clothing from the store! I usually assume that the clothes are clean if they’re bought new, but I’ll have to be more diligent about washing them before my kids or I wear them. I also didn’t know that synthetic fibers could be dangerous, but I usually go with 100% cotton products anyway. Thanks for the information!


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