The Touch..the smell...of cotton (and silk, and rayon)...
May 14, 2011 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Many new garments have a distinctive smell that disagrees with me. What's the likely source of this odor?

About 20 years ago, I started noticing that something that I'm guessing is applied to finished garments makes me feel dizzy and unwell. I first noticed this odor when standing in a display of knitted silks as a teenager. Those seem to be the worst offender, but just this week my mother sent me some new pajamas (knit cotton and woven cotton) that also have The Smell.

It's difficult to's chemical-ish and sort of more masculine than feminine somehow, but it's not cologne-ish at all.

If I handle the fabric or just try something on, it comes off on my skin to some extent.

It is removed by washing, so my guess has always been that it's some sort of sizing or other fabric finish.

I have not noticed it when shopping for fabric itself; just finished garments. Any ideas what it might be, hive mind? Thanks.
posted by jocelmeow to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I smell it too, especially on clothes I get from online shopping when they've been packaged in plastic. It's a strong chemical odor that I could never really identify. Reminds me of the way clothes come back smelling when dry cleaned. I can smell it on clothes hanging on racks though it is less strong possibly due to dissipation.

My best guess is that it's clothing dye?
posted by loquat at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2011

I suspect it's probably benzene. At least, I believe that's primarily responsible for the "new car/anything with a lot of plastic smell".
posted by wackybrit at 1:26 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many clothes (especially delicate fibers) come to the retailer wrapped in plastic. Maybe the smell is the decaying plastic from the wrap.
posted by abirae at 1:42 PM on May 14, 2011

Best answer: My guess is formaldehyde, which is commonly used as a fabric finish to give all sorts of useful properties like wrinkle-resistance. This link is a little axe-grindy but might be helpful for you. It's very water-soluble so it would wash off easily.

Formaldehyde is pungent and irritating in high concentrations (sort of catches in your throat) but it's definitely smellable on fabrics, not just finished clothes (it's part of the characteristic Fabric Store Smell). However, it's not a plasticky chemical sort of smell, more ... biological? When I've used it in the lab, a faint whiff smelled vaguely reminiscent of bread, oddly enough.
posted by Quietgal at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm. Quietgal, that link reminds me that I got contact dermatitis from wearing a garment straight from the store many years ago, and that a headache goes along with dizziness and I-gotta-get-away-from-this-stuff feeling I get from the concentrated version of This Smell in department stores. If it's formaldehyde, though, it's weird that I haven't noticed it in fabric stores.

I'm definitely more chemically sensitive than most...when I went on a tour of a Dial Soap plant in college, I had to duck out of the blow-molding area because I thought I was going to pass out from the fumes. We got back on the bus and I was the only one out of 25 people with a ferocious headache. And going into a candle or soap shop has long been impossible.

Okay, carry on. Would love to hear from a textile scientist here, too, if MeFi has one.
posted by jocelmeow at 2:06 PM on May 14, 2011

When I used to do lots of silk-screening, the word of mouth training I got recommended washing the 'sizing' out of t-shirts before putting ink on them. I have no idea if this is a real term...
posted by chr1sb0y at 2:32 PM on May 14, 2011

Response by poster: It is, chr1sb0y. I mentioned it in the question, as well.
posted by jocelmeow at 2:38 PM on May 14, 2011

Best answer: I used to work in a retail clothing shop and hated unpacking the new shipments of clothes because the formaldehyde smell was so overwhelming and gave me a headache. The smell dissipated pretty quickly though once the clothes were taken out of the plastic bags they were shipped in and hung up in the big open space of the store. Maybe the garments you notice the smell on were shipped from the factory relatively recently and hadn't had a chance to air out on the rack yet?
posted by platinum at 5:24 PM on May 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, platinum. Between you and Quietgal's link, I think formaldehyde must be the answer. It makes sense that knit silk would be a worse offender, being a coarser, thicker fabric that would presumably absorb more of it. I think I'm just especially sensitive - all sorts of things (air fresheners, detergent perfumes, personal scents, the popcorn aisle at the grocery store, the fertilizer aisle at the hardware store) get to me that don't at all bother most people.
posted by jocelmeow at 6:00 PM on May 14, 2011

When I used to do lots of silk-screening, the word of mouth training I got recommended washing the 'sizing' out of t-shirts before putting ink on them. I have no idea if this is a real term...

T-shirt/fabric printers used to pre-wash their shirts to shrink them, because they didn't make pre-shrunk cotton t-shirts yet. If you printed them before they were shrunk the print would distort and pucker after washing, especially if using Plastisol (plastic-solvent) based inks.

Modern shirt makers pre-shrink all of their cotton while it's still in a loom or tube. It's ring-spun like a big sock-knitting machine into a very long tube, then they'll wash/dye that long tube of fabric, roll it flat again and then cut that into t-shirt blanks. (This is how a modern t-shirt doesn't have seams down the body of the shirt.)

There isn't really any sizing or starch in a modern cotton t-shirt as far as I know. It's just dyed (and sometimes chemically treated) cotton or cotton-poly blends.

However, people should always wash "brand new" clothes. Especially T-shirts. There's a lot of chemicals used in textile manufacturing. Acetone, benzene, adhesives, dyes, etc.

For example - one of the processing steps for printing large amounts of T-shirts is the use of "spray tack" or "spray adhesive" or simply "palette adhesive". (One of the most popular is 3M Formula 77, if you want to look up the MSDS on it.) Screen printers spray it on the wood or metal palettes that hold the shirts during printing. The adhesive keeps the shirt from moving around during multiple color prints. You have to use a LOT of this adhesive to keep the shirts stuck to the palettes, since the fuzz from the shirts makes it not sticky after about 3-4 shirts have been printed on that palette.

I know when my dad still had his shop if I grabbed a brand new printed but unwashed shirt and threw it on I was asking for a rash and a lot of skin irritation. If you go up to any brand new printed T-shirt and feel the inside of the shirt under the print chances are good it will be slightly tacky or sticky.

Depending on the type of garment they may even dry clean and steam-press it with sizing and fabric finisher. Some items are probably saturated in formaldehyde and benzene residue.

My dad's shop never really did anything beyond t-shirts and "sportswear" as it's called, but I went to a lot of other textile companies in LA over the years picking up dye jobs or finishing jobs, and every last one of them had that really harsh, chemical "new clothing" smell.
posted by loquacious at 8:21 PM on May 14, 2011

Yep, I'm another one with sensitive skin, and I've gotten a rash before from something new that I hadn't washed yet. It's my understanding that formaldehyde is a common allergen (and is in lots of things).
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:29 PM on May 14, 2011

I, too, am "exquisitely sensitive" (per the allergist). I buy nearly all my clothes at thrift stores. The "new clothes" scents are gone. Do wash everything before you wear it!
posted by Carol Anne at 5:40 AM on May 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your answers, all. Here are a few links I brought up with some Googling this morning: Why to wash before wearing. Formaldehyde on Victoria's Secret bras. Formaldehyde in wrinkle-free clothes (NYT).
posted by jocelmeow at 6:55 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Formaldehyde is pretty toxic stuff, actually, or at least it's looking more toxic than had been previously thought, but the science is being held back by industries that live by the stuff. It's never a good sign when congress starts interfering with EPA science.

But, yes, washing should take care of it, which is great!

As a sensitive individual, I probably don't need to remind you to let your dry-cleaning off-gas outside for a few hours, too, but that's another common source of volatile organic compounds in indoor air (along with the air fresheners, etc, that you mentioned).
posted by ldthomps at 4:26 PM on May 15, 2011

Response by poster: We've long eschewed dry cleaners who use PERC, and I don't wear anything that gets dry-cleaned these days, being bedridden and wearing exclusively pajamas. Thanks ldthomps.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:29 AM on May 16, 2011

« Older How can I do everything I want to this Summer?   |   DIY bike-in/walk-in movie; help me figure out my... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.