We often receive requests for how to remove smells, odors, fumes and chemical irritants – especially formaldehyde and pesticide smells – from clothing. Some of these fumes are from the manufacturing and finishing processes for new clothing, some occur during shipping of new garments to stores and customers, and some fumes and odors are collected while wearing at parties, restaurants or on the street. The difficulty in removing an odor or chemical irritant from your clothes will depend on if the odors are just residue smells trapped within the fabric like smoke and secondhand perfume smells, or if they are chemically bonded to the fabric like formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is a particularly nasty and difficult chemical that is almost impossible to remove completely from clothing although you can reduce the magnitude of its effects. Formaldehyde has a recognizable pungent smell – think back to your high school biology class during lessons on dissecting … well, maybe some things are best not remembered. Formaldehyde is frequently used as an adhesive in building materials, especially wood products and new carpet adhesives. Clothing can absorb the formaldehyde smell simply by wearing them in newly constructed homes, buildings and offices that are off-gassing heavily.
Formaldehyde is also often used in permapress and wrinkle-free textile finishes. The formaldehyde smell can be lessened but the formaldehyde chemical can not be removed completely from clothing regardless of time and numbers of washing. The best thing to do is not buy clothing containing formaldehyde or other processing and finishing chemicals commonly used in conventional chemical-laced clothing.
Many of the easy-care clothing finishes – such as permapress, stain resistant, anti-static, anti-mildew, anti-bacterial, anti-cling, anti-shrink, flame retardant – contain formaldehyde or other harsh and toxic chemicals that have been linked with a litany of diseases and health problems. “WakeUp and Smell the Formaldehyde” provides a detailed scoop.
We work with many people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) and varying degrees and expressions of chemical sensitivities and the best thing that they can do is to wear organic clothing. Organic clothing is made from natural fibers grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals, and then manufactured without toxic chemicals ... especially in the finishing phase of manufacturing which commonly use very toxic chemicals. Avoid all clothing that is "easy care," wrinkle-free, anti-static, anti-bacterial, and all the other easy care qualities. The finishing phase is where most of the toxic chemicals are introduced into conventional clothing. “Is Your Clothing Intolerable” provides the detailed scoop on the health problems of conventionally manufactured clothing.
The reality is that almost all of the toxic and carcinogenic
pesticide, herbicide, and insecticide chemicals used during the growing of
conventional cotton are removed during the fabric manufacturing process. It is during the conventional fabric and
garment manufacturing and dyeing processes that clothes are drenched with toxic
and hazardous chemicals to give them special properties. Basically, we buy clothing grown from organic
and natural fibers for the sake of the earth; we wear clothing manufactured
organically for the sake of our health.
Even with organic clothing, some people with MCS still need to do things to make their new organic clothing as free from all processing as possible. Different kinds of natural chemicals are still used to clean and fix dyes even with organic clothing. The chemicals are natural and non-toxic but some people with MCS still react and need to remove these manufacturing influences.
Also, new clothing can absorb some chemical influences like fumigants, disinfectants, insecticides, anti-mildew sprays and vehicle exhaust fumes during shipping or in stores. You should always launder new clothes, even natural fiber and organic clothing, before wearing. Those new clothes have traveled many miles and passed through many hands before arriving in your home crisply wrapped.
Laundry folklore is rich with home remedies for removing or reducing fumes, odors and chemical irritants from your clothing. One of the more interesting is to soak clothing in a solution containing a half cup of powdered goat’s milk. We have been unable to find any scientific or practical reason why soaking in a solution of goat milk might be effective. Goat milk (pH 6.7) is slightly more alkaline than cow milk (pH 6.4) and does have smaller fat modules but the nutritional content is very similar. We suspect that the persistence of this technique might be more due to the soothing psychological image than any actual chemistry. If you have tried and are convinced of the efficacy of soaking clothing in goat milk to remove chemical irritants, we would love to hear about your experiences. The fats and butter solids in fresh or powdered milk can seriously stain your clothing if allowed to dry before laundering so go straight from the milk soak to the washing machine.
Here are guidelines for removing or reducing fumes, odors, scents (like perfume, cologne and deodorants), smells and chemical irritants (like shipping fumigants, pesticides and anti-mildew sprays) from your clothing.
- Air them out. Hang clothing, even nearly purchased clothing, in the open air and allow to air out and off-gas. This will help remove smoke, fumes, and smells trapped in your clothing and will also allow offgassing of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde used in the garment dyeing or finishing process or of pesticides and fumigates such as methyl bromide used during shipping. Hang the clothing in a breezy (you can use a fan), warm and sunlit room to facilitate the airing-out and off-gassing. Because the off-gassing might contain VOC’s, hang the clothes outside or in a room containing fresh air and lots of leafy green plants, such as Boston Ferns, which will absorb and remove VOCs from indoor rooms. The length of time depends upon how saturated the clothing and the sensitivity of the wearer. The hanging length of time can be as little as a few hours to a couple weeks. Remember, formaldehyde used in new carpet adhesives and wood building materials can take several months to a year or more to off-gas.
- Soaking. Soak clothing
in a sink or washing machine filled with warm water before washing. Add one cup of baking soda, washing soda or
Borax. Our experience is that several
hours (or overnight) are usually sufficient although some people will suggest
up to several days. Rather than soaking
for several days, it is probably more effective to repeat the airing – soaking
– washing – drying cycle several times if necessary.
- Washing. Complete the laundry cycle and wash according
to the manufacturer’s instructions. The
choice of laundry detergents is very important. Most conventional laundry detergents are made from synthetic
petrochemicals and laced with artificial dyes, fragrances and optical
brighteners. Besides being hard on the
environment, the toxic chemicals in these laundry detergents can also leave a
residue on clothing that can irritate the skin and cause a rash. The new generation of ‘green’ laundry
detergents is made from vegetable-based cleaning agents, do not contain
artificial dyes or fragrances, are more effective at removing dirt, stains and
odors from clothing, and are gentler to the environment and to the wearer.
If possible, stop the washing machine when it has filled the basin for the rinse cycle and add a cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle. The vinegar rinse will also brighten fabric colors and remove alkali residues from soaps and detergents. Let soak for an hour before completing the rinse cycle. To insure that all detergent has been rinsed from your clothing, select your washing machine’s extra rinse cycle if it has one and add nothing – just water – to this extra rinse.
- Drying and Airing. Dry on a clothes line or clothes rack in the sunlight. Sunlight will help remove odors and smells but bright sunlight can cause dyes to fade. The line drying will also provide a final opportunity for clothes to air out. If you must dry in a clothes dryer, use a low temperature as high temperatures can actually cause any remaining odors to “set” into the fabric by bonding with fibers and dyes.
- Repeat if necessary. Once through this process will effectively remove smells and irritants for most people. If your clothes still have bothersome odors or are chemically irritating, you can repeat the process.
There are some chemicals, such as formaldehyde, that are bonded tightly to the fabric. The conventional clothing manufacturer went to great effort to put that chemical in your easy-care fabric and they really don’t want it to come out easily. Repeated washings and airings will reduce the effects but it might take many washings and many days to reduce them to a level that is acceptable to you, especially if you are chemically sensitive. We strongly recommend avoiding conventional chemical clothing. Do the environment and yourself a favor and dress in natural and organic fabrics.
A word of caution for the chemically sensitive: several people with severe chemical sensitivities have reported that even organic clothing can be very irritating and uncomfortable regardless of the number of washings. We have been researching and it might be due to a reaction to cotton fibers. Although people who have trouble with cotton fibers also tend to have reactions to hemp also. Perhaps it isn’t the clothing but toxins in the skin and physiology that are causing irritation to the skin. Some people have found that it wasn’t their clothing that was irritating their skin but their skin lotion. Many personal care products, even some labeled "organic", contain chemical preservatives such as methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl parabens that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns as causing estrogen activity and being potential endocrine system disruptors. When you rub these personal care lotions into your skin, you are literally feeding them and any toxins that they contain directly to you skin and into your blood system. If anyone has experience and suggestions we would love to hear them.
For those who like to understand the “why” and “how” behind the steps, we’ll go into more depth and explanation. This will also help you to better modify the guidelines for different problems.
What are baking soda, washing soda and borax? Baking soda – also know as sodium bicarbonate or NaHCO3 – is a naturally occurring mineral. Commercial baking soda like you would buy in a store is produced by two primary methods: mined in huge, open pit mines from an ore called trona; and in large factories using a manufacturing process called the Solvay process.
The world’s largest deposits of trona ore are found in several western U.S. states, and especially in Wyoming. Trona ore is a mineral deposit found in the bottom of seasonal alkaline lakes that have evaporated repeatedly over countless centuries leaving behind a mineral deposit. Besides large deposits found in Wyoming, Utah and California, trona ore and similar sodium carbonate deposits have also been found in Egypt in the Nile River Valley (where they were used in the preparation of mummies … true story. This must be the first reported use of sodium carbonates to reduce odors … idle speculation) and in ancient lake beds in Kenya and Namibia.
Outside the U.S., most of the baking soda is manufactured using the Solvay process which depends upon the reaction of sodium chloride, ammonia and carbon dioxide in large 80-foot high towers. Discovered in 1861 by the Belgium industrial chemist Ernest Solvay, more than 100,000 tons of baking soda is produced around the world using the Solvay process.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and washing soda (sodium carbonate) are very similar and both can be produced from the same manufacturing process. Washing soda (pH of 11) is more alkaline and slightly more caustic than baking soda (pH of 9) and you should wear gloves when working with washing soda. The greater alkaline nature of washing soda will also cause it to eat away at elastic over time. Because washing soda isn’t noticeably more effective at removing odors and irritants than baking soda, we suggest using baking soda.
Borax (known by chemists as sodium borate) is another naturally occurring mineral found in dry lake beds near Boron, California and in Turkey, Chile and Tibet. Borax is a mineral composed of sodium, boron, oxygen and water. The best known company that sells borax is 20 Mule Team® Borax which is made of 100% borax mined near Boron, California. A Hollywood actor proved to be their most effective pitchman.
What really is vinegar? The word comes from the French “vin aigre” meaning sour wine. Vinegar is the result of the fermentation of natural sugars to make alcohol and then a secondary fermentation of the alcohol to make vinegar. Vinegar history is ancient. The Babylonians used spiced vinegar as a preservative and condiment in 5000 BC and it has been produced commercially since about 2000 BC. To find the real scoop about vinegar – its history, lore, FAQs, recipes, latest news and an invitation to their 2007 Annual Meeting – visit the web site of The Vinegar Institute.
How do baking soda and vinegar remove odors? Actually, they neutralize odors rather than just covering them up. The secret is in their pH which causes a chemical change in the odorous compound. This chemical change might also help reduce the chemical bond of the compound to the fabric. Most odors come from compounds that are either acidic or alkaline / base. “Alkaline” and “base” are just different names for the same thing. It is necessary to understand pH to fully understand how baking soda and vinegar neutralize odors.
What really is pH? Let’s get chemical for a moment. The term “pH” is an abbreviation of “potential hydrogen” and refers to the amount of hydrogen ions present in a solution. A hydrogen ion is a hydrogen atom that has either lost an electron (H-) or gained an extra electron (H+). So, pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution and varies from 1 (highly acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline or base). Pure water is neutral with a pH of 7. Vinegar is acidic with a pH of 3 and baking soda is slightly alkaline with a pH of 9. Washing soda has a pH of 11.
Vinegar and baking soda help to balance pH levels by changing the chemical structure of odor-causing acids and alkalines bringing them closer to neutral. Because it is acidic, vinegar is more effective at neutralizing bases, and baking soda is more effective at neutralizing acids. If you mix vinegar and baking soda together when soaking smelly clothing, they will mostly cancel out each other.
Now you are armed with knowledge about removing odors and irritants. If you have other techniques and recipes, please send them to us.
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