You may be surprised to know that the finish on wrinkle-free clothing comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde. In fact, many household products that resist wrinkling such as sheets and pillowcases, drapes and the upholstery on your couch contain this resin.
Formaldehyde is the same chemical that is used in embalming fluid and while overall, exposure to it is unlikely to cause ill effects, there is the potential that skin contact with wrinkle-free clothing can cause contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis causes an itchy skin rash that may also include blisters.
Many products produced have limited to no regulation of the chemicals they may contain. “The United States does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, most of which is now made overseas. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of chemicals on labels,” according the New York Times.
Formaldehyde allergies are not common. However, formaldehyde is present in many of the products used today from cosmetics and furniture to household cleaners. Those who are additionally exposed to formaldehyde through their work carry the greatest risk of developing sensitivities. Over the last several years, formaldehyde levels have diminished in the workplace due to workplace regulations put in place to protect workers from inhaling it and through improvements in the types of resins that have been developed.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office tested 180 household items to determine if they met the stringent voluntary standards that are used in Japan. About 5.5 percent of items, “primarily wrinkle-free shirts and pants, easy-care pillow cases, crib sheets and a boy’s baseball hat exceeded the standard of 75 parts per a million, for products that touch the skin.”
No specific recommendations were made by the GAO but it did surprise the researchers that the levels were elevated, particularly in men’s no iron shirts. John Stephenson, an environmental director at the GAO, indicated to the New York Times that it gave him pause for thought since he wears no iron shirts exclusively.