Raise your hand if you’re guilty of bringing home a new shirt or pair of pants from the store and wearing them, sans washing. It’s very common, maybe even typical, as many fabrics look pristine when they’re fresh off the rack.
You probably assume they’re clean or at least relatively so, but tests conducted by Philip Tierno, Ph.D. director of Microbiology and Immunology at New York University, uncovered some disturbing compounds lurking on clothing.
And this is only one reason to consider washing before wearing. Many clothing items are also contaminated with chemicals and dyes that may lead to irritation or other health issues.
Even insects (like lice) could potentially be transmitted on new clothes. If you’re currently not a washer-before-wearing type, you may change your mind by the end of this article.
Feces, Respiratory Secretions, Vaginal Organisms and More
Pants, blouses, underwear, jackets and other clothing items purchased from chain clothing stores (including both high-end and low-end options). The tests revealed a number of unsavory compounds lurking on the “new” clothes, including:
- Respiratory secretions
- Skin flora
- Fecal flora
Perhaps not surprisingly, swimsuits, underwear and other intimate items were the most heavily contaminated.
What types of illnesses could you potentially get from trying on contaminated clothes? Organisms that cause hepatitis A, traveler’s diarrhea, MRSA, salmonella, norovirus, yeast infections and streptococcus are all fair game when it comes to clothing items tried on by multiple people.
Even lice and scabies could potentially be transmitted by trying on clothes. Is it likely? No. Possible? Yes, particularly if your immune system is not functioning up to par.
Chemical Contaminants: Another Reason to Wash New Clothes
Depending on what country your new clothes were manufactured in, they may contain multiple chemicals of concern. Among them are azo-aniline dyes, which may cause skin reactions ranging from mild to severe.
If you’re sensitive, such dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin, such as at your waist, neck, armpits and thighs. The irritants can be mostly washed out, but it might take multiple washings to do so.
Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash.
Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), meanwhile, is a toxic endocrine-disrupting surfactant used to manufacture clothing.
You certainly don’t want to be exposed to NPE if you can help it, but when consumers wash their clothes, NPEs are released into local water supplies where wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove them.
When NPEs enter the environment, they break down into nonylphenol (NP), a toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemical that accumulates in sediments and builds up in fish and wildlife.
Chemicals May Lurk in Your Clothing Even After Washing
Unfortunately, washing won’t remove all the chemicals in your clothing. For instance, the antimicrobial triclosan is sometimes added to fabrics, including clothing. Research has shown that triclosan can alter hormone regulation and may interfere with fetal development.
Animal studies have also raised concerns about its ability to affect fertility, and bacteria exposed to triclosan may also become resistant to antibiotics. Even an increased cancer risk has been suggested.
Stain-proof clothing, meanwhile, is a common source of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which are toxic to humans and the environment. You’ll most often hear about PFCs in relation to non-stick cookware, but they’re also common in fabrics.
Unless the clothing you buy is organic, it also is likely made from genetically engineered (GE) cotton that is heavily treated with pesticides and other chemicals during production. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) explained:
Conventionally Grown GE Cotton Is the ‘World’s Dirtiest Crop’
You might be surprised to learn that cotton is considered the world’s dirtiest crop due to the cotton industry’s heavy use of hazardous herbicides and insecticides, including some of the most hazardous insecticides on the market.
As you might suspect, this is hazardous on multiple levels — for the farmers working with these chemicals, the people living nearby, the consumers buying the cotton and virtually everyone else, who will eventually be impacted by this widespread environmental pollution.
Top Tips for Safer Clothing
Looking for clothing made from organic cotton is an excellent start to finding safe, non-toxic clothing (for you and the environment). You can also look for the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label, which is indicative that it has been tested by an independent laboratory and found to be free of harmful levels of more than 100 substances, including:
- Azo dyes
- Heavy metals
- Allergenic dyes
Finally, many experts do recommend washing new clothes when you bring them home from the store, maybe even twice. If the article of clothing cannot be machine washed, consider running it through a cycle in a hot dryer before wearing it.
You may also want to keep on some clothes while trying on new clothing at a store (at least leave on your undergarments, and then wash those too when you get home). Washing your hands after shopping is also a good idea, as you’ve been handling clothing that could have any number of chemicals and other contaminants on them.
Ask at Frontline today about our affiliation with Melaleuca and their range of chemically safe washing powders.