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, at the behest of Good Morning America, 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
Tierno tested 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:1
- Respiratory secretions
- Skin flora
- Fecal flora
Perhaps not surprisingly, swimsuits, underwear and other intimate items were the most heavily contaminated. Tierno told ABC News:2
“Some garments were grossly contaminated with many organisms … indicating that either many people tried it or … someone tried it on with heavy contamination …
In a sense, you are touching somebody’s arm pit or groin. So you want to be protected that’s all … You may not come down with anything and, most cases you don’t, but it’s potentially possible.”
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. Tierno told The Huffington Post:3
“The good thing is that most people have a very robust immune system, so they can usually fight off the small number of organisms they may get on their body … The fact that you come into contact with one doesn’t mean you’re going to get sick.”
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.4
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:5
“The chemicals used in cotton production don’t end with cultivation. As an aid in harvesting, herbicides are used to defoliate the plants, making picking easier.
Producing a textile from the plants involves more chemicals in the process of bleaching, sizing, dying, straightening, shrink reduction, stain and odor resistance, fireproofing, mothproofing, and static- and wrinkle-reduction.
Some of these chemicals are applied with heat, thus bonding them to the cotton fibers. Several washings are done throughout the process, but some of the softeners and detergents leave a residue that will not totally be removed from the final product.
Chemicals often used for finishing include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines.
Some imported clothes are now impregnated with long-lasting disinfectants which are very hard to remove, and whose smell gives them away. These and the other chemical residues affect people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.
Also, people have developed allergic reactions, such as hives, to formaldehyde through skin contact with solutions on durable-press clothing containing formaldehyde.”
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. According to the Organic Trade Association:6
“Cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production.
All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.
Aldicarb, cotton’s second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater.”
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.
This is one reason why I strongly encourage you to choose organic cotton clothing whenever possible — it will not be genetically engineered and subject to this onslaught of toxic exposures.
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.