Before you toss the New Thing on your body and walk out the door, you might want to consider listening to another voice—that of Lana Hogue, a clothing manufacturing expert who teaches classes on ethical apparel manufacturing in United States.
“You should absolutely wash clothes before you wear them, especially anything that is right next to the skin or that you will sweat on,” says Hogue.
Even if potential germs from fellow tryers-on don’t faze you, the chemicals on the clothes themselves should certainly give you pause.
According to Hogue, almost every yarn or dyed fabric requires chemicals to make them into cute skirts or tops. Unfortunately, those chemicals can have side effects, like contact dermatitis, an itchy red rash that pops up anywhere the irritant came in contact near the skin.
“Most of the chemicals used in dyeing fabric and putting those finishes on yarns that allow them to be processed through spinning equipment are known skin irritants,” Hogue says.
“Even natural fibers require caustic chemicals,” said Hogue. “Even if you buy a 100 percent cotton shirt.”
According to Hogue, fabric makers use chemicals out of necessity. “Lots of people believe that clothing is treated with chemicals,” she says.
But it’s not clothing necessarily that is treated, but the textiles.
“In most commercial environments, finished textiles are exposed to moisture. To prevent mold from sprouting up, yarn is sprayed with an anti-mildew agent, as well as chemicals that help the yarn slide through weaving machinery as it is transformed into fabric. To make dyes stick to fibers—so shirts and shorts can be in those royal blues and brilliant reds we all love—also requires a chemical treatment. “Even natural fibers require caustic chemicals,” said Hogue. “Even if you buy a 100 percent cotton shirt.”
As anyone who has studied the “made-in” labels on their purchases can attest, clothing comes from around the world, but components such as fabrics and trims are often stitched and dyed in a variety of countries, each with different laws about chemical use. Ingredients like azo-aniline dyes and formaldehyde resin are fairly common and cause skin irritation.
“Formaldehyde is a category 3 carcinogen, which is the lowest hazard, and the amount is so small that it’s assumed that it won’t remain a threat for very long. But still, who wants to knowingly expose themselves over and over again to carcinogens?” asked Hogue.
Even more alarming, a 2010 study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found some fabrics for sale exceeded the allowable levels of the formaldehyde’s resin in the U.S.
“If you’re going to wear it out and in the heat and sweat in it, you should launder it,” Hogue advises. “Sweating opens your pores and allows your skin to absorb the chemicals in clothing.”
“If you have a tailored jacket, you’re not going to want to wash it,” she says. “It’s not being worn right next to your skin and it’s not going to give you skin irritation.”
Hogue also says not to bother sending anything that is marked as “dry clean only” promptly to the dry cleaner.
“It’s not going to do you a whole lot of good to go dry clean it, because then you are putting fresh chemicals in the fabric. But I would air it out before wearing it.”