L'Association pour la santé environnementale du Québec / Environmental Health Association of Québec

How to Manage – Clothing

What to do with new clothing and fabrics?

The Problem

The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators. This is because most synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are manufactured from petroleum and result in pollution which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. One of the most popular clothing fibers, cotton, is heavily dependent on pesticides. Many toxic chemicals, including dyes, are used in all stages of manufacturing. These can include flame retardants, odour absorbing finishes, stain and wrinkle resistant chemicals, and finishings to hold the dye to the cloth, etc.

Health Effects

Our skin behaves like a sponge and absorbs the chemicals present on new clothes. We also inhale them and can ingest them when we touch them and then bring our hands to our mouth. New clothes worn without washing can cause a host of health effects such as headaches, skin rashes, itching, and difficulty breathing.

Wash Before You Wear – Is It Enough?

It is therefore logical to wash your new clothes before you wear them. However, washing them once will not be enough. You must wash them till the ‘new’ smell has gone. Soak them in a solution of baking soda and vinegar (one cup each) overnight, and wash them at least twice thereafter. Choose an unscented, eco certified laundry detergent with no colouring, whose ingredients are all listed on the label.

New Clothing

Today, with the urgent need to conserve resources, it is important to buy only what we need. When buying new clothing, choose organic when possible. Cotton or other fibers used in organic clothing is free of toxic chemicals and pesticides. However, chemicals used in dyes, fabrication or transportation may still be present. This is why even organic clothing must be washed until you can tolerate it. Organic clothing can increasingly be found in boutiques and department stores, or on the internet. Always check the label and research the company. Ask questions, and remember to ask about their return policy.

More Solutions for Clothing

Prices for organic clothing are becoming more reasonable due to increasing demand. However, if you cannot afford to purchase organic clothing, then the following steps may help you:

  1. Choose light coloured clothes to avoid dyes and other chemicals.
  2. Choose cotton over synthetic.
  3. Turn the clothes inside out and hang them outside on a hanger or clothing line in full sun for at least a week. Let it rain on them, but wait until they are completely dry before you bring them in. Do not leave clothes outside for more than two weeks especially if it has been raining as this could make them mouldy.
  4. Bring in one set at a time – whites, colours, dark clothes.
  5. Turn on the exhaust fan in your laundry room to remove fumes that will emanate as you clean your clothes.
  6. Deposit the clothes into a top-loading washing machine, add one full cup of milk powder and fill the machine with hot water. Let the machine agitate and then shut it off. Let the clothes soak for a maximum of four hours. (Caution: If you leave them in for more than four hours, the milk could curdle and your clothes and washing machine will smell foul).
  7. Follow by running a full cycle to remove the milk powder.
  8. Add one cup of baking soda. Fill the machine with hot water and let it run for a couple of minutes before shutting it off. Close the lid and let it soak overnight for up to 10 hours. Then run a full cycle to wash out the baking soda.
  9. Add one cup of vinegar if you can tolerate it. Again, fill the machine with hot water and let it run for a couple of minutes before shutting it off. Close the lid and let it soak overnight or up to 10 hours.
  10. In the morning run a full cycle to get rid of the vinegar.
  11. Now machine wash a couple of times with laundry detergent, running the extra rinse cycle.
  12. If you still cannot tolerate the clothes, place them outside on the line for a couple of days, or start the process again with the milk soak. Do not place clothes with a chemical odour in your dryer.

How does clothing become contaminated?

Now that you have clean, odourless clothes, you will notice that your clothes can easily pick up odours from public places. If you suffer from environmental sensitivities, change, shower, and wash your clothes immediately as soon as you return home. You may need to soak them in baking soda overnight or wash them twice. Remember, if your clothes still smell after you wash them, do not put them in the dryer. It is preferable to hang them outside or wash them again until the smell has gone. Rinse the washing machine with hot water after washing contaminated clothing.

You can also easily contaminate your clothes by changing to a ‘green’ product that is not really ‘green’, which could leave a scent or chemical residue on your clothes, or by trying a new detergent which does not agree with you. Always remember to stick with products that you tolerate and always read labels before you buy to make sure that the formulation has not changed. If it has, do not buy it. Call the company and ask where you can buy the product you normally use. If it has been discontinued, use the detergent with the new formulation with caution on a small expendable item in your sink, not in your washing machine. If it makes you ill, get rid of it and do not use the detergent again.

What to do with contaminated clothing?

Clothing can accidentally become contaminated for many reasons: a hug from someone wearing perfume; sprayed on by a perfume vendor in a mall; or using a new detergent. DO NOT mix these items with your other clothes and do not wash them together. The best thing to do is to seal them in an off gassed plastic bag, shower, and then, using gloves, hang them outside until the smell has gone. If some smell persists, use the milk-baking soda-vinegar recipe above.

If you place them with clothes that you can tolerate, the chemicals will be transferred and chances are you will lose your wardrobe and land yourself in a predicament. These cases are reported to ASEQ-EHAQ on a regular basis. As you have already experienced with environmental sensitivities, when you are exposed to a chemical, you then start reacting to more substances at lower doses. It is therefore wise to exercise extreme caution with clothing.

For a list of tolerable laundry products, visit The Eco Living Guide or The Fragrance-Free page

How to decontaminate the dryer

Wear a mask and spray the inside of the drum with hydrogen peroxide. Do this several times over a period of days or weeks. Have a supply of rags/old towels that you know you can tolerate. Wet the rags/towels in a solution of water and baking soda wring it out, and put it through the dryer the rags/towels will pick up chemicals in the drum. Keep changing rags/towels and washing the old ones until you no longer notice any chemicals when you smell them. Put one item of expendable clothing through the dryer and wear it as a test. If it is not ready then repeat the process. This takes a lot of work but it can be done.

Why Buy Organic Baby Clothes

Toxic chemicals are used at almost every stage during the production process of most baby clothes, from growing the cotton to spraying the final product with flame retardants. All these chemicals take around 50 washes to remove.

Parents are starting to look at alternatives to protect their children as more information becomes available about these dangerous toxins.

The safest solution is to buy organic clothes. Make sure to check that the label says 100% organic. This is the only way to truly eliminate toxins from clothing. To maintain the organic nature of the clothes, it is essential to wash them with an eco-soap that lists the ingredients and does not use colourings, dyes or other toxic chemicals.

Second-hand clothes may be an acceptable alternative. If this is your choice, it is important to make sure the clothes have not been washed with regular detergent and fabric softener, which could contain harmful chemicals. In addition, if one knows the source, it is important to ask if insect repellant has been used on the clothes. If the answer is yes to both, then the clothes are still not safe for your children.