We’ve all done it before. It’s the day of a big evening out — your clothes are all in the wash and there isn’t enough time for those dress shirts or delicates to air dry, or you simply have ‘nothing’ to wear, so you go out and buy something new. I know I’m definitely guilty of having done this before, and it was a regular thing for my sister growing up. But just how important is it to wash our new clothes before wearing them?
That is the question Philip Tierno, Ph.D., Director of Microbiology and Immunology at New York University, wanted to answer when he began his study, and he soon uncovered some unsettling compounds hiding on new clothing. Of course, this is only one of many reasons to wash your new clothes before wearing them.
What Exactly Was Found?
Tierno tested pants, blouses, jackets, underwear, and various other clothing items found from both high and low-end chain clothing stores. The tests revealed a number of various organisms and secretions lurking on the new clothing, including: respiratory secretions, vaginal organisms, skin flora, fecal flora, and yeast. Yuck. As you might expect, swimsuits, underwear, and other intimate items were among the worst offenders. Tierno told ABC News:
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.
This is definitely something to think about, especially considering organisms that cause hepatitis A, traveler’s diarrhea, MRSA, salmonella, norovirus, yeast infections, and streptococcus can all be found on new clothing that has been tried on by multiple people. Even lice and scabies can be transmitted in this manner. While it is not very likely, it is still possible, and those with a weaker immune system are more at risk. Tierno said in an interview with The Huffington Post:
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.
Another Important Reason To Wash Your New Clothes
If the aforementioned reason to wash your new clothes before wearing them wasn’t enough to persuade you, maybe this will. Depending on what country your clothes are manufactured in, it is likely that they contain multiple chemicals that could be concerning. Some of these include azo-aniline dyes, formaldehyde (a known carcinogen), and Nonylphenol ethxylate, a toxic, endocrine-disrupting surfactant. After a few washes these chemicals can be mostly eradicated.
And What About The Chemicals You Can’t Wash Out?
A chemical called triclosan, an antimicrobial commonly used in hand sanitizers, is sometimes added to fabrics as well. Research has shown that Triclosan can alter hormone regulation and fetal development. There have also been studies that show bacteria exposed to triclosan may become resistant to antibiotics, and this chemical is considered a probable carcinogen.
If you’re buying stain-proof clothing then you will want to be aware of the presence of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which are toxic to humans and the environment. You have likely heard of them before in relation to non-stick cookware.
Unfortunately, unless you are buying organic clothing there is also a very high chance it is being made with genetically engineered (GE) cotton, which is heavily treated with toxic pesticides and other chemicals during the production process. According to the Organic Consumers Association:
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.
So What Exactly Can You Do?
Be absolutely sure to wash your clothes at least once before wearing them. Leave on as much clothing as possible while trying on clothes at the store, and be sure to wash your hands after shopping.
While not as economically viable, looking for clothing made from organic cotton is one of the most important steps you can take towards finding safe, non-toxic clothing for yourself and the environment. And by doing so, you are supporting the farmers that choose to grow cotton the natural way, without the use of chemicals. You can also look for the “OEKO-TEX Standard 100” label, which indicates that the garment has been tested by an independent laboratory and is free of harmful levels of over 100 different chemicals and substances.