Welcome to the second edition of Ask Alden, where I take the common questions I get about toxic chemicals in clothing, and answer them as thoroughly and clearly as possible. If you’re here and you haven’t yet read my book, To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back, then I highly suggest you grab a copy. There’s a lot more to learn in that book than I could ever fit in an article like this!
Greetings—I just heard your interview on Fresh Air, and waited to hear Tanya ask this question. Does it help at all to wash new clothes before wearing them? Does that do anything significant to reduce the level of toxic chemicals in the fabric?
With thanks for all your good and crucial work,
Yes, it does help somewhat to wash clothing before you wear it. In fact, this is one of the several strategies I outline in my book to reduce your exposure to hazardous substances on your clothing.
It’s just good hygiene, in fact. You do not know where that clothing has been. By the time it’s put in that plastic polybag, it’s been doused, scoured, sprayed, soaked, and run through all sorts of machinery that could have contaminated it or left a residue. The warehouse where the bolts of fabric were stored could have pesticides or fungicides around. The ships that carried each component from port to port could have had the same. If it was set out in a store, the store could have used a signature fragrance around and on it.
So it’s good practice to run it through the washing machine with non-toxic, fragrance-free detergent. That last part is important, because fragranced laundry products are designed to deposit those particular chemicals on your clothing for a long time, so you would be undoing the good of the wash if you use dryer sheets, fabric softener, or fragranced detergent. Washing before wearing can also help if the dye is crocking, or coming out of the fabric.
I’ve heard from people who are chemically sensitive that they’ll even hang their clothes out in the sun and rain for several weeks to really get all the fragrance and finishes out and off of new clothing.
But washing won’t get rid of the deliberately applied performance finishes and sensitizing dyes. Those are meant to stay on for the long term, so they’ll only come off bit by bit. Yes, some will come off in the wash, and also some will come off when you wear the clothing as the microfibers break off, some will off-gas into the air around the product, and some will leach off when you sweat in the products. This includes that class of highly toxic “forever” chemicals, PFAS, which have been linked to several types of cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive toxicity, and immune suppression. Plus anti-odor nanotechnology and wrinkle-free, formaldehyde-based finishes. That’s why washing clothing before you wear it is just one of several strategies you should employ to avoid hazardous substances in your clothing. You can find the rest in my book. (hint hint)