Why is important to wash clothes before use

09 April, 2019

smell smell smell

It is fairly common to wash clothes, sheets, and towels before they are first used. Towels feel slick and are less absorbent until they have been laundered. Sometimes bed linens and other textiles have a bad smell associated with them. It could be a fishy smell or a chemical smell. Chemicals used during textile processing provide the slick hand or funny smell as well as other important attributes such as color. This blog post is focused on why excess chemicals may be present on a textile product. It will not provide an overview of the types of chemicals used in textile processing or the types of hazardous chemicals used by the industry. Those topics will be covered in other blog posts.

wash before wear

We recommend all textile products that reside close to the skin be washed prior to use. This will remove excess chemicals and dirt picked up during shipping and handling. To understand why excess chemicals may even be present on a textile product, it is important to explain how fibers are made into useful products via textile processing.

how textiles are made into useful products

To make a textile product such as a sweater, a towel, a pair of jeans or your bedsheets, a series of processing steps are required. These can be broadly split into five steps, although the order may change from what is shown below. There are two dry steps (spinning and weaving/knitting) and three wet steps that  require water, energy, and chemicals:

  •      Spinning a yarn,
  •      Weaving or knitting a fabric,
  •      Preparing for dyeing,
  •      Dyeing or printing or both to achieve a color
  •      Finishing  and application of functional chemicals

Within each wet-processing step, detergents, lubricants, auxiliary agents and many other types of chemicals are used. Once these chemicals have served their function, the textile is washed and rinsed to remove the chemicals prior to the next processing step. There are three broad reasons why excess chemicals may be present on finished textile products.

chemicals that contain contaminants may be used

Production issues at the textile manufacturer. As mentioned previously, textile processing is a series of steps where chemicals are added and removed by employing a series of washing and rinsing steps. For example, the fabric is bleached in the pre-treatment step to prepare it for dyeing. The bleach must be fully removed before the dyeing process begins. If the manufacturer does not have good quality control processes in place, the textile may not be processed properly, thus leaving excess chemicals on the product at the end of the manufacturing cycle.

Chemicals that contain contaminants may be used. It is not only the textile manufacturer that should employ a robust quality control program; the same goes for the chemical industry. Many chemicals used in textile processing are chemical formulations that contain lots of individual chemical substances. The chemical company should have a process in place to check and approve incoming chemicals prior to using them to make chemical formulations. It is critical to ensure that chemicals containing hazardous contaminants and residuals are not approved for use. Unfortunately, many chemicals formulation used in textile processing come from textile formulators that do not check incoming chemicals. They tend to buy cheap raw materials that contain hazardous residuals that may cause skin irritation or other human health issues. Some chemical companies certify their chemicals to eco-standards such as Bluesign or OekoTex Eco Passport that assess their manufacturing processes and test for the presence of hazardous chemicals that are restricted according to their requirements.

the “reactivity” of certain chemicals

Without getting too technical and turning this into a chemistry class, it is safe to say that some chemicals are attracted to textiles and form strong permanent bonds, whereas others form weaker bonds and are less attracted to textiles. For example, polyester rarely bleeds color because the dye and the polyester form a strong bond and the dye is locked into the textile. The chance of excess dyestuff remaining on the finished product is very low. Compare that to dark denim jeans where indigo dye may rub off onto furniture and will almost certainly turn the laundry water blue during home washing. This is because indigo is not attracted to cotton and does not form a strong bond with the cotton fiber. Softeners are commonly used at the end of a textile cycle to improve the hand. These are not permanently attached to the textile and often sit on the surface of the product. Taking that extra step and washing is a good idea given that some softeners may actually be irritants. Therefore, the chance of excess chemicals being present on finished textiles is really high. Taking a precautionary step and washing is a good idea, and an easy solution to implement. Clean clothes and fresh sheets are easy to achieve. Some chemical substances used in textile processing are hazardous both to humans and the environment. It is important to note that the slick towels and funny smelling sheets could have been manufactured using chemicals that are not regulated and, if used properly, considered safe. Some hazardous chemicals are regulated by countries. The European Union uses the REACH process to regulate chemicals, whereas states in the U.S.have different regulations due to insufficient federal regulations. To help brands and manufacturers know what chemicals are regulated on textile products, trade associations have restricted substance lists (RSL). The American Association of Footwear and Apparel (AAFA) creates, maintains and updates an RSL on behalf of the apparel and footwear industry. Many leading brands such as H&M, LS&Co. Nike and more have their own RSL’s, which are available to download if interested.  Although many hazardous chemicals are regulated or restricted by brands, the textile industry is still using a significant amount including solvents, chlorine bleach, and pesticides, to name a few. Some chemicals are supposed to be on a finished product, such as dyes that provide color and softeners to improve the hand, whereas others may be contaminants, process chemicals or residuals.

The most important rule of thumb in all this is: wash your new clothes and textiles, your body will thank you!

Author Serena Pozza Materials Health Geek