And clothing is not the only thing treated with the chemical. Formaldehyde is commonly found in a broad range of consumer products and can show up in practically every room of the house. The sheets and pillow cases on the bed. The drapes hanging in the living room. The upholstery on the couch. In the bathroom, it can be found in personal care products like shampoos, lotions and eye shadow. It may even be in the baseball cap hanging by the back door.
Most consumers will probably never have a problem with exposure to formaldehyde, though it can have serious health implications for people who work with the chemical in factories. The biggest potential issue for those wearing wrinkle-resistant clothing can be a skin condition called contact dermatitis. It affects a small group of people and can cause itchy skin, rashes and blisters, according to a recent government study on formaldehyde in textiles. Still, some critics said more studies on a wider array of textiles and clothing chemicals were needed, including a closer look at the effects of cumulative exposure. At the very least, they said, better labeling would help.
“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.”
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 the chemical on labels. So sensitive consumers may have a hard time avoiding it (though washing the clothes before wearing them helps).
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently examined the levels and potential health risks of formaldehyde as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
Most of the 180 items tested, largely clothes and bed linens, had low or undetectable levels of formaldehyde that met the voluntary industry guidelines based on standards in Japan, which are among the most stringent. Still, about 5.5 percent of the items — primarily wrinkle-free shirts and pants, easy-care pillow cases, crib sheets and a boy’s baseball hat — exceeded the most stringent standards of 75 parts per million, for products that touch the skin. (Levels must be undetectable, or less than 20 parts per million for children under 3 years, and can be as high as 300 parts per million for products like outerwear that do not come into direct contact with the skin.)
The study did not offer recommendations, but the researchers said in interviews that their findings made them think twice about wearing no-iron clothes without washing them first. “Some of the highest occurrences were with the men’s shirts,” said John Stephenson, director of environmental protection issues at the G.A.O. “That was an eye opener because I wear, almost exclusively, non-iron shirts.” He added, “That caused me to wash them, at least twice.”
The levels found in the study are not likely to irritate most people. People who have allergic contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde in clothing typically become hypersensitive because of some other exposure, like a worker with chapped hands who has handled metal-working fluids that contained the chemical, or someone who applied moisturizer with a formaldehyde preservative on inflamed skin, said Susan T. Nedorost, associate professor of dermatology and environmental health sciences at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
“People rarely become allergic to the low levels of formaldehyde released by textile resins, but for those already sensitized, it is entirely possible to react to the low levels released by textile resins in clothing,” she said, adding that some people were probably genetically predisposed to allergy. Research shows that the small group of people who are allergic can develop a rash with levels as low as 30 parts per million.