What You Don't Know About Wrinkle Free Shirts

This is a guest post by Don Desrosiers of Tailwind Systems.

Ruth Benerito
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 favorable 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- it 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 formaldehyde. 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 drycleaners because it keeps them in the loop, at least to some extent.  Furthermore, for customers used to finely pressed cotton, an un-ironed “wrinkle-free” shirt, isn’t up to par.  This perhaps puts you, the consumer, in a disappointing place.  Wrinkle-free sounds like you might not need your drycleaner as much, but this doesn't turn out to be true.  
Many consumers fail to realize or simply do not care about the harsh and toxic chemicals that are being used in the products they use every day and researchers are still in the process of studying the long term health risks associated with being exposed to such chemicals. While 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 more health-and-environmentally-friendly methods for producing wrinkle-free cotton, taking some time to iron those shirts don’t sound so bad after all.
 Natural Finish vs. Wrinkle Free Cotton
The best shirts are made from the finest 100% 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. These are facts that everyone buying shirts today should know.
Wrinkle free performance is achieved in 100% cotton by changing the cottons 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 US 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 US 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 US over various apparel classifications, from outerwear to sweaters to shirts.
9 items of the 166 tested exceeded the Japanese standard. Of those 9 items, 5 were marketed as being wrinkle free or resistant. The worst item was a wrinkle free cotton dress shirt that was almost 3 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.”
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 because breathability and absorbency are greatly diminished making the shirt far less comfortable and unable to defuse natural perspiration.
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 and assumed that it was your drycleaner's fault?
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 diminished 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 25-30 washings.
Wrinkle-free shirts may not be what you think they are.  Hopefully, you've been enlightened.  

Don Desrosiers has been in the laundry and drycleaning industry since 1978.  Desrosiers is a monthly columnist for The National ClotheslineKorean Cleaners MonthlyThe Golomb Group Newsletter, NEFA’s Headlines and More and Australia’s The National Drycleaner and Launderer.   He is also a contributor for DLI’sFabricare Magazine and other regional industry publications.  He is a member of the Society of Professional Consultants and is the 2001 winner of IFI’s Commitment to Professionalism Award.  He is an occasional teacher at DLI, and a frequent speaker at industry gatherings where he lectures on Management Philosophy, Shirt Laundering, Business Management and Labor savings.  He has a corporate website at www.tailwindsystems.com and can be reached by telephone at 508.965.3163 and via email at tailwind.don@me.com.


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