The fast-fashion industry has long favored convenience when creating clothing. Clothes are often made to be incredibly resistant to wrinkles, stains, and other imperfections, at least for the duration of their brief lifespans. Yet, this convenience often comes at a cruel cost to our health. More specifically, the chemicals used to make our clothes consumer-friendly are often the same chemicals that harm us. One such chemical is formaldehyde, an organic compound commonly used to preserve human bodies and create disinfectants.
As a known carcinogen, formaldehyde can have devastating effects on anyone who comes in contact with it. Short-term exposure can lead to irritation in your eyes, skin, or throat, and long-term exposure can lead to severe side effects like cancer. Yet, despite the dangers associated with it, formaldehyde is still used in everyday products like cosmetics, paper, fabric softeners, dish detergents, and glues.
Unfortunately, our clothes are no exception. Many manufacturers treat their fabrics with formaldehyde to make their clothing resistant to wrinkling, staining and shrinking. Although the formaldehyde is used in small amounts, it can still have adverse effects, especially for those with sensitive skin. For some, repeated exposure to formaldehyde in fabric can cause them to become allergic to it, leading to a form of eczema known as allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). ACD can affect the immune system and cause rashes, blisters, and flaky/itchy skin as a response to an allergen like formaldehyde. Even though ACD affects nearly one in five people, pinpointing the cause of it can be a tricky and frustrating task.
“[My eyes] continued to flare up at seemingly random times throughout my life,” fashion and lifestyle YouTuber Kaiti Yoo stated in a video about discovering her allergy to formaldehyde. “They would just be swollen shut and it really interfered with my work schedule because I need my face to look presentable when I film. It was really frustrating, especially because I didn’t know what was causing it.”
For Yoo, it took several months before realizing that her own closet was the reason for her seemingly random allergic reactions. Even after she realized formaldehyde was triggering her allergies, she found it difficult to find alternatives to her usual fabric items. “Because the issue is so not talked about, I had no place to look,” she told viewers. “I had to scroll through so many fine print ingredient lists and make sure that there were no corners they were cutting.”
The lack of information on the topic is strange, given that there have been cases where formaldehyde has caused issues on a wider scale. In 2009, the new uniforms that were distributed to Transportation Security Administration employees in the United States led the employees to develop skin rashes and feel lightheaded. The American Federation of Government Employees later found formaldehyde to be the culprit. A year prior, a lawsuit was filed against Victoria’s Secret after 600 women complained about their bras giving them adverse skin reactions, and formaldehyde was once again found to be the cause.
So, what has been done to counteract the negative effects of formaldehyde? Luckily, many countries have already cracked down on its use in fabric. Japan, Germany, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands are just a few examples of countries that have federal restrictions for formaldehyde in textiles. However, other countries, like the United States, have no federal restrictions for it and leave it up to retailers and brands. This could likely be from the lack of awareness around formaldehyde and its effects, which prevents people from properly reporting their allergic reactions to it.
While it’s sad to see how the era of convenient fashion has created many problems, some change can be made if more awareness is spread. Spreading the word about formaldehyde’s effects could prompt people to make the connection between their clothes and their health problems. This could then increase the number of reported, formaldehyde-related cases and send a clear message to both the fashion industry and governments: that our health is worth much more than any extra convenience.
If you’re interested in reducing the amount of formaldehyde you come in contact with through your clothes, here are some tips:
Avoid clothes that say “wrinkle-free” or “stain-resistant.” These labels usually indicate that formaldehyde was used in the fabric
Wash your new clothes before wearing them (this can help get rid of trace amounts of formaldehyde)
Buy from allergen-free brands or search through the Global Organic Textile Standard’s database of GOTS certified companies. These certified companies don't use formaldehyde or any other harmful chemical in their clothing.
EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/formaldehyde/facts-about-formaldehyde.
“Allergen Information: American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS).” American Contact Dermatitis Society, www.contactderm.org/patient-support/allergen-information.
Brandon L. Adler, MD. “Allergic Contact Dermatitis.” JAMA Dermatology, JAMA Network, 1 Mar. 2021, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/2775575.
“Department of Labor Logo UNITED STATESDEPARTMENT OF LABOR.” 1910.1048 App C - Medical Surveillance - Formaldehyde | Occupational Safety and Health Administration, www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1048AppC.
“Formaldehyde.” Two Sisters Ecotextiles, www.twosistersecotextiles.com/pages/formaldehyde.
“Formaldehyde - Cancer-Causing Substances.” National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde.
“Formaldehyde Allergy.” Formaldehyde and Formalin Contact Allergy | DermNet NZ, dermnetnz.org/topics/formaldehyde-allergy.
“I Just Found out I'm Allergic to All of My Clothes (Yes, You Read That Right).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Apr. 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmfUCtBrifQ&t=126s.
M, Contributor Maria. “7 Reasons Why Formaldehyde in Clothing Is Dangerous (and How to Protect Yourself).” Cottonique, Cottonique - Allergy-Free Apparel, 20 Feb. 2022, www.cottonique.com/blogs/blog/7-reasons-why-formaldehyde-in-clothing-is-dangerous-and-how-to-protect-yourself.
Office, U.S. Government Accountability. “Formaldehyde in Textiles: While Levels in Clothing Generally Appear to Be Low, Allergic Contact Dermatitis Is a Health Issue for Some People.” Formaldehyde in Textiles: While Levels in Clothing Generally Appear to Be Low, Allergic Contact Dermatitis Is a Health Issue for Some People | U.S. GAO, www.gao.gov/products/gao-10-875.
“Technical Bulletin: Formaldehyde in Textiles.” Cotton Inc. 2007. https://www.cottoninc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TRI-4008-Formaldehyde-in-Textiles.pdf
Shreya Senthilkumar (she/her) is currently a high school student living in North Carolina. She is a staff writer for her school’s newspaper and a blog writer for a local music camp. This year, she plans to publish her writing for an international audience. When she is not writing, she can be found wandering around Barnes and Noble or managing her school’s calligraphy club. You can follow her on Twitter @http_shreya.