The Non-Iron Dilemma: How to Remove Formaldehyde From Shirts

Is any exposure to carcinogens

Written by Janet Hu

An issue with quick-to-market
retail innovations is that we’re so excited to sell and buy convenience, we
often discard the fact that we have no idea how a new chemical or additive will
play over time. (Recall that menthol cigarettes were once marketed as healthy.)
And today, one of the biggest boons in menswear is the non-iron shirt.

Formaldehyde in Non-Iron Dress

Happily exposing ourselves to
carcinogens in order to save five minutes on ironing a shirt has become second
nature. How do fabrics become permanently wrinkle-resistant, though? It’s not
so much magic or miracle as it is a chemical resin that releases formaldehyde.
In fact, since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, the EPA has
only tested 200 of the 84,000 chemicals on the market. That’s a shame, since
Brooks Brothers is an old entity in which we seem to have unquestionable
trust–then again, so is the U.S. government.

How much formaldehyde are we
being exposed to?

While the U.S. doesn’t
regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, many other countries do. According to
a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), we meet
most countries’ safety concentration standards: about 75 parts per million
(ppm) for items that make skin contact. However, the U.S. Occupational Safety
and Health Administration has found those with sensitive skin develop rashes
and other dermatological diseases from formaldehyde concentrations well below
1ppm. GAO also found that some retail items tested had reached up to 200ppm.
The redness, swelling, and
blisters that come along with formaldehyde allergies are no joke. The
Washington Post reported in as far back as 2009 that TSA agents with chemically
treated uniforms were suffering rashes and in some cases “runny or bloody
noses, lightheadedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips.” Moreover,
doctors have seen a rise in patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS)
and dermatitis caused by formaldehyde in recent years. They’ve found that
repeated exposure to even low levels of the carcinogen can cause the
development of chemical allergies. 
How to Avoid Formaldehyde

non-iron shirt without formaldehyde alynn
So what are the options? Most
men’s dress shirts today are treated with a non-iron resin. That means you’ll
deal with nasty breakouts if you’ve got sensitive skin, and if your skin isn’t
sensitive… well, you’ll be taking small doses of poison each day regardless of
whether there are visible effects at the moment.
Your best bet is to avoid
fabrics that boast “non-iron” or “wrinkle-resistant” properties. Opt for
organic clothing brands, or wear any of our Alynn shirts, which we chose to
make without chemical resins in order to avoid this mess. You’ll have to learn
how to iron a shirt, though. But that will likely be less trouble than the
steps for removing formaldehyde from your clothing, which we’ve outlined below.

How to Remove Formaldehyde
from Your Non-Iron Shirt

Please note that these methods
can help reduce the effects of formaldehyde exposure, but they may not remove
100% of the chemical residue. In fact, brands go through great lengths to bond
formaldehyde to fabrics so that they can maintain their wrinkle-resistant resin
after many washes.
1. Air Out Your Non-Iron Shirt

Air out your newly purchased
clothes in order to facilitate off-gassing, which is the release of chemical
fumes. Put your shirt by a fan, or hang it outside. Be wary of polluting a
closed space with formaldehyde emissions, though. i.e. airing out a bunch of
chemically treated items in a small room will affect the air quality. This is
typically only an issue if you’re dealing with larger items like new furniture
or newly painted cabinets.
2. Soak Your Non-Iron Shirt in
Baking Soda

Soak your shirt in baking soda
for several hours or overnight before washing. Rather than soaking your shirt
for days at once, it’s more effective to soak it overnight, wash it, dry it,
and repeat the cycle a few times before wearing. Baking Soda, being slightly
alkaline with a PH of 9 to 11, is effective in neutralizing acidic fumes.
3. Use White Vinegar

After soaking the shirt, start
a wash cycle. Later, after the water has filled again, pause the machine before
it commences its rinse cycle. Add a cup of distilled white vinegar to remove
alkali residues. Vinegar, being acidic, is effective at neutralizing bases. In
combination with baking soda, the two agents are able to balance out and
eliminate most of the chemical residue. Let the shirt soak for one hour in
white vinegar and water before resuming the rinse cycle. Select an extra rinse
cycle if your machine has one, and do an extra rinse with water only.
4. Dry Your Dress Shirt

Try to dry your clothes
outside in direct sunlight so that they can finish airing off. But be aware
that the sun’s rays may leave damaging streaks and stains if the shirt isn’t
properly rinsed. If you must use a dryer, set a low temperature, as high
temperatures can actually cause remaining odors to “set” into the fabric by
fusing them with fibers and dyes.
Repeat the process. Each
washing and airing will reduce the effects of formaldehyde. It may take many
attempts, especially if you are chemically sensitive.
Non Non-Iron Shirts

If you’re interested in
skipping the above steps, feel free to check out any of our new dress shirts.

Janet Hu – Editor of The GentleManual

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.