The Wrinkle in No-Iron Shirts

What makes no-iron shirts so incredibly unwrinklable? How do they do it? I was determined to find out and with a modicum of Googling I was sort of pleased to discover the answer. I say "sort of" because I was not entirely pleased with what I learned.
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More than 80,000 chemicals are produced and used in the United States. This is one of their stories.

How do they get those no-iron shirts to stay so crisp looking?

There was a time back in the day when I presented a rather wrinkled persona. I took my shirts right out of the dryer and wore them rumpled, proud of it. Alas, times have changed, and now for me and I suspect many of the Flower Generation, the wrinkled look is not so cool. For my deanly duties, a neat, crisp look seems to be de rigueur. But the standard options are not so great:

  • I could iron my shirts, but you gotta be kidding.
  • I could try getting someone else to iron them, but who? My mom might be willing, but then she'd have to live with me and as much as I love her, I don't think so.
  • I could get my shirts dry cleaned but remembering to stop off at the cleaners on the way to or from work when I'm generally on autopilot is unlikely. (And I suspect all that hot water and high heat drying are not so great for the environment.)
  • I could quit my job and go back to being wrinkled. But I like my job.

And so I was stumped. Until...

Try on, Crisp in, Iron out

I discovered the no-iron shirt: wear it, wash it, pull it out of the dryer, wear it again -- and through it all, the shirt stays crisp, sharp, and unwrinkled. So I'm now the proud owner of a closet full of the best no-iron shirts out there. Sartorial problem solved ... or was it?

As I donned my no-iron shirt each day, I began to wonder -- what makes these shirts so incredibly unwrinklable? How do they do it? I was determined to find out and with a modicum of Googling I was sort of pleased to discover the answer. I say "sort of" because I was not entirely pleased with what I learned.

Formaldehyde -- the Secret Ingredient?

Here's how it works. When wrinkle-prone fabrics, say cotton for example, are soaked in resin containing formaldehyde, they gain added strength and increased resistance to wrinkling. Eva Osborne, project manager of women's apparel at JC Penney, explained it to Consumer Reports like so: "The molecules line up like little soldiers and remember where they're supposed to be."

Formaldehyde has been used since the 1920s to give clothing and textiles that just-pressed look, but it wasn't until the '50s and '60s that its use in cotton clothing began to gather steam in an effort to compete with synthetic fabrics.

I find it somewhat ironic (and perhaps a bit prophetic) that when I put on my no-iron shirt each day before going to work, I'm encasing myself in what is essentially embalming fluid. Formaldehyde is definitely not something I or you want to spend much time with.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a known human carcinogen and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a recent report [pdf] from the Government Accounting Office, are expected to follow suit.

A Wee Bit of Formaldehyde Never Hurt Anyone, Right?

The no-iron shirt companies agree that formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical, but they claim the amount of formaldehyde we no-iron-shirt wearers are exposed to each day is too small to matter. With the development of lower formaldehyde resins in the 1980s overall exposure has been dropping. The GAO report [pdf] identifies the main adverse health concerns from clothing treated with formaldehyde as a variety of irritative, allergenic and sensitization reactions on skin -- some of which can engage the immune system. So while some people end up having an allergic reaction to the material, the vast majority of us, myself included apparently, can wear this apparel sans worry, sans any ill effects, or at least that's what they say.

Phillip Wakelyn, a fabric consultant in Washington, D.C., who worked for many years in the apparel and cotton industry, told Chemical and Engineering News: "Basically, this [allergic contact dermatitis] has not been a problem for years."

When It Comes to Shirts, Size (of Formaldehyde Component) Matters

So I've heard, but if we use the strictest standard [pdf] of less than 75 parts per million (ppm) for products that have direct contact with skin -- a standard that comes courtesy of the 13 countries that regulate formaldehyde amounts in fabrics (the United States not among them) -- we find a different story.

Almost every study that has looked at formaldehyde levels in clothing or bedding has found some items with levels above this cutoff. Of the 180 items tested for the GAO report, 10 items exceeded this cutoff with formaldehyde levels ranging from 75.4 ppm to 206 ppm. That highest level was found in a dress shirt for men.

According to the GAO report [pdf], "the medical literature suggests that the amount of formaldehyde in clothing needed to trigger an allergic contact dermatitis reaction in sensitized individuals can be as little as 30 parts per million." This, though, is an area of ongoing research.

The Price of Being Unwrinkled

I don't know about you, but despite the GAO report, I'm not entirely reassured. Whatever anybody says, formaldehyde can't be good for you. The idea that I would expose myself to any level of formaldehyde in order to wear a shirt without wrinkles is just plain crazy in my book. Does that mean I am going to change my ways, choose sanity, and break out the iron? What do you think?

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