National Clothesline
National Clothesline
Hidden wrinkles in wrinkle-free
The idea of wrinkle-free/ wrinkle-resistant cotton rings a bell to those who hate ironing those
shirts all the time. After all, if cotton shirts can be made to resist those unwanted creases and
wrinkles then why even bother with regular cotton?
This is the very idea that early
researchers and garment
manufacturers were tinkering
with when synthetic fabrics such
as nylon were beginning to
replace cotton. Cotton
manufacturers had to find a way
to market cotton as the favored
choice of fabric.
During the 1950s and 60s, a chemist and researcher named Ruth Benerito made notable
accomplishments in producing easy-care cotton fabrics.
The good news was that garments made by this new process were wrinkle-resistant — they
did not have to be ironed.
The bad news was that this process required the use of formaldehyde, a harsh chemical often
used for preserving dead animals and body parts and classified by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen.
There are generally five different methods used to produce wrinkle-free cotton: pre-cured
fabric, post-cured fabric, dip-spin, spray method, and vapor phase. The main goal is to artificially
swell the fabric by applying formaldehyde and heat so that instead of curling, the diameter of the
fiber increases and makes it straight.
While many of the issues associated with the use of formaldehyde in treating fabrics have
been corrected through research during the past few years, and while the use of formaldehyde
has been reduced, it has yet to be eliminated. Even the most popularly used resin, DMDHEU,
which was meant to reduce the concentration of formaldehyde, is nevertheless a type of
In addition, wrinkle-free fabric has a reputation of being stiff and uncomfortable to wear. Many
people also find that wrinkle-free garments still require some ironing due to the creases that
form in some areas.
This is good news for us because it keeps us in the loop, at least to some extent. Furthermore,
for customers accustomed to finely pressed cotton, an unironed “wrinkle-free” shirt isn’t up to
Many consumers fail to realize or do not care about the harsh and toxic chemicals that are
being used in the products they use every day. Researchers are still studying the long-term
health risks associated with being exposed to such chemicals.
As society moved on to the 21st century, everything was manufactured and marketed to be
fast and less time consuming. However, this sort of mindset comes with costs. While wrinkle-free
means no more ironing, it also means a higher risk of health hazards associated with the toxins
being used.
Until researchers come up with healthier and more environmentally friendly methods for
producing wrinkle-free cotton, taking some time to iron those shirts doesn’t sound so bad after
Natural finish vs. wrinkle-free cotton
The best shirts are made from the finest 100 percent cotton, using Pima, Egyptian or other
long-staple cotton fiber. They will use a minimal amount of chemical finishes.
The best quality shirts are not made of wrinkle-free cotton. Aside from the potential health
risks, the heavy use of chemical finishes that are necessary to achieve the performance greatly
diminishes the natural properties of cotton that have made it the fiber of choice in the better
shirt world.
This column is meant to provide the facts that everyone buying or washing/pressing shirts
today should know.
Wrinkle-free performance is achieved in 100 percent cotton by changing the cotton’s natural
properties through the application of chemicals called resins.
Most if not all of these resins contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical with
proven links to cancer. These resins coat the fabric and are actually baked onto the fiber. It is
only of late that people have started to question the negative consequences of wearing apparel
that has been so heavily treated with chemicals.
Government study regarding health risks
A recent study mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and
prepared for the U.S. Congress by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that the
formaldehyde-based resins used in wrinkle free cotton shirts may be hazardous to one’s health.
Here are some highlights of the report issued in August of 2010:
The GAO specifically stated: “Some clothing — generally garments made of cotton and other
natural fibers — is treated with resins containing formaldehyde primarily to enhance wrinkle
resistance. Formaldehyde is toxic and has been linked to serious adverse health effects,
including cancer, and some federal agencies have regulations that limit human exposure which
occurs primarily through inhalation and dermal (skin) contact.”
Many countries limit the amount of formaldehyde that can be in apparel. Among them are
Germany, France and Japan. For some reason, the U.S. does not.
Japan has among the strictest limits, allowing no more than 75 parts per million for shirts.
The GAO study tested for formaldehyde levels in 166 apparel items randomly chosen
throughout the U.S. over various apparel classifications, from outerwear to sweaters to shirts.
Nine items of the 166 tested exceeded the Japanese standard. Of those nine items, five were
marketed as being wrinkle-free or wrinkle-resistant. The worst item was a wrinkle-free cotton
dress shirt that was almost three times the limit.
The GAO specifically stated: “More than half of the items we had tested that exceeded these
limits were labeled as having fabric performance characteristics related to durable press
(wrinkle-free), which may indicate the use of resins that contain formaldehyde.”
Diminishing cotton’s appealing properties
The characteristics that have made cotton so popular in the better shirt world are greatly
compromised by the vigorous processing required to achieve wrinkle- or stain-resistant finishes.
The baked-on coating of the resins actually changes the natural performance characteristics of
the cotton fiber.
Arguably, for all practical purposes, the fabric is no longer cotton.
Breathability and absorbency are greatly diminished making the shirt far less comfortable and
unable to defuse natural perspiration.
Durability is compromised, also.
The process weakens the fabric, which makes it wear faster at cuffs, collars and elbows and
makes it more susceptible to tearing at seams. How many times have you seen that lately?
The appealing natural feel of the fabric is compromised. The coated fabric often has a slick,
synthetic, sometimes harsh feel to it, especially in warmer conditions. Cotton doesn’t absorb a
spill like it used to and you can’t dry your car with it anymore. That’s because the cotton is
coated and unnatural.
The vibrancy of color is diminished. The fabric is coated; therefore there is film over the fabric
that diminishes the vibrancy of the original colors.
Lastly, it should be further noted that wrinkle-free shirts eventually lose their wrinkle-free
feature. The performance that is achieved when the garment is new diminishes over time and is
usually entirely exhausted after 25 to 30 washings.
Wrinkle-free shirts are of no help to our industry, but consumers should be enlightened. Like
virtually everything else in life, there is a trade-off.
Wrinkle-free isn’t a dream come true.
“If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got!”

Don Desrosiers has been in the drycleaning and shirt laundering