Formaldehyde in Textiles: Use, Limits & Testing

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you wear wrinkle-free clothing? Did you know it contains formaldehyde? In this lesson, learn why formaldehyde is used in textiles and explore reasons for limits on it and testing safeguards.

What is Formaldehyde?

With so much wrinkle-free and crease-resistant clothing on the market today, many of us have put our irons into storage. Such clothing makes our lives easy, doesn't it? But do you know what's used to make them wrinkle-free? It's a chemical called formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a type of organic chemical compound. It's present in nature in small amounts, usually as a gas. When mixed with specific liquids, it creates a sticky aqueous substance called a resin that's used on textiles for several purposes, usually during the finishing process. In textile manufacturing, finishing processes are things done to textiles after manufacturing to give them color or special properties. For example, finishing might make textiles softer or water resistant.

Many dress shirts have formaldehyde in them to increase wrinkle-resistance
mens dress shirt

In the case of formaldehyde resins, they've been used since the 1920s in textile finishing for several reasons. They allow for better saturation of some dyes and inks used to color textiles. They make textiles less prone to shrinking and more crease-resistant, hence their use in wrinkle-free clothing. Formaldehyde is also used on permanent-press textiles and on outdoor textiles, to prevent mildew and increase stain resistance.

Formaldehyde Can Be Harmful

Formaldehyde has some useful purposes with respect to textiles, but it can also cause problems. It's a potentially dangerous substance and known as a carcinogenic in large amounts. Too much of it in textiles can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation. Breathing it in can cause sneezing, coughing and other eye, nose and throat irritation. If your skin comes into contact with it, formaldehyde can cause rashes and a condition called contact dermatitis.

Some people prone to allergies are especially susceptible to formaldehyde. The exact health risks depend to a degree on how long you're exposed to it, and how much formaldehyde is involved. It's a serious concern for workers in the textile industry who might be exposed to it in larger amounts while doing their jobs.

Limits and Testing

As more information about formaldehyde's harmful effects become known, concerns have been raised. Increasingly, they've resulted in companies and governments setting limits for how much formaldehyde can be found in textiles, especially those that come into direct contact with skin.

The limits are also because most clothing and other textile goods are made in scattered locations overseas and levels of formaldehyde usages aren't always known. Several countries, including Germany, Finland and Norway, have set limits on formaldehyde levels. The United States doesn't set levels but requires manufacturers clearly label amounts above accepted levels. Many retailers have also set limits for how much formaldehyde can be in textile products.

Today, in general, the following are recommended standards for formaldehyde limits in clothing. For clothing worn by babies and toddlers, less than 30 parts per million or ppm; for adults with sensitive skin or prone to allergies, also less than 30 ppm. For other adults, for clothing that comes into direct contact with skin, less than 100 ppm; and for clothing like coats that don't come into direct contact with skin, less than 300 ppm. Some places, like Japan, have even more strict standards. Japan requires no more than 75 ppm for adults.

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