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Uh, Apparently There’s Formaldehyde in Non-Wrinkle Shirts. Will It Embalm Me?

Depends — how sensitive is your skin?

Here’s something straight from the TIL Department: The shirt you’re wearing probably contains formaldehyde, a colorless, strong-smelling, flammable chemical often used during the embalming process to preserve a body.

In fact, formaldehyde has been a fashion staple since the late 1920s when permanent-press (i.e., no-iron) shirts first hit the market. Its inclusion was nothing short of a miracle. What a relief it was, everyone thought, not to have to worry about using an iron to get rid of every goddamn wrinkle on every goddamn shirt. (“Formaldehyde keeps the fabric’s fibers in place after a spin in the washing machine,” thus keeping everything wrinkle-free, explains David S. Brookstein, the senior associate dean of the College of Engineering at Temple University.)

But in 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, examined the levels and potential health risks of formaldehyde in consumer goods as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Per a report in the New York Times, “‘Some of the highest occurrences were with the men’s shirts,’ said John Stephenson, director of environmental protection issues at the GAO.” 

To that end, a shirt from China contained 206.1 parts per million (ppm) of formaldehyde.

The good news: Only 5.5 percent of the items that were tested exceeded the most stringent standards of 75 ppm, a level at which, per the GAO, most people wouldn’t experience any skin irritation whatsoever. That said, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found those with sensitive skin develop rashes and other dermatological diseases from formaldehyde concentrations well below 1 ppm. (Even the most well-intentioned men’s brands indicate that their no-iron shirts have roughly 35 ppm of formaldehyde.)

But again, there are no published reports of wrinkle-resistant shirts harming people beyond skin irritation (despite formaldehyde being a cancer-linked chemical, which causes frequent online consternation when the topic of its non-mortuary usage comes up). “There were no data indicating that formaldehyde in clothing and other textiles could penetrate the skin and cause cancer,” the GAO report concluded. Moreover, Brookstein tells me that a simple wash should strip most shirts of their formaldehyde-coating. 

In other words, the idea that your formaldehyde-filled attire could harm or kill you is, for lack of a better term, DOA.