How Bad is It Really to Wear New Clothes Before You Wash Them?

published Jan 20, 2023
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lose Up Of Vintage Clothing On A Store Rack
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Wearing new clothes straight from the store — without washing them — probably won’t kill you, but it can cause some nasty reactions, and has the potential to pass along some ickiness that maybe you’d rather not know about. Because, frankly, once you do, it might be hard for you to continue your wearing-before-washing ways.

Potential Harm From Wearing Unwashed New Clothes

The thing about new clothes is that you are very likely not the first person to have tried them on (even if you buy them online). And you’re definitely not the first person to have handled them.

Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told the Today show: “I have seen cases of lice that were possibly transmitted from trying on in the store, and there are certain infectious diseases that can be passed on through clothing. The other infestation I’ve seen from clothing is scabies.” Fungus, he noted, can also hang around on clothing.

Belsito takes his own advice, saying, “In terms of hygiene, [washing clothes before you wear them is] a very good thing to do. Being a dermatologist, I’ve seen examples of some strange stuff, so I don’t take any chances.”

Another dermatologist, however, Will Kirby, M.D. of Hermosa Beach, CA told Self that the chance of transferring viruses, bacteria, or other infections via unwashed garments is “not impossible — but the risk is very, very slim.”

If you can shrug off the thought of donning bacteria, fungus, viruses, and infections because you just cannot wait to wear that new top, there’s another compelling reason to think twice.

Credit: Look Studio/Shutterstock

There Are a Lot of Chemicals in Your New Clothes

While clothing is required to be labeled with its fabric type and care instructions, they don’t come with a list of “ingredients.” Perhaps they should. Almost all clothing is imbued with a cocktail of chemicals that, when placed against your skin, can cause irritation and could even end up being absorbed into your body.

This is the main reason dermatologist Lindsey Bordone, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Columbia University Medical Center, washes her new clothes before she wears them. She tells Self, “When clothes are shipped, they’re also kept with some preservatives so that mold won’t grow on them during the shipping process if there’s moisture.” Namely, clothing is treated with formaldehyde resins to prevent mold and mildew. And coming into contact with formaldehyde on clothing can lead to contact dermatitis and eczema outbreaks and could also create irritation by the wearer breathing in the chemical.

You may think that regulations wouldn’t allow for deleterious amounts of the chemical on clothing sold in the United States, but keep in mind that much of our clothing is shipped from countries without regulations. A 2010 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as summarized in this Wall Street Journal article, reported that some fabrics being sold in the U.S. exceeded the allowable levels of formaldehyde.

Simply washing clothing before you wear it can drastically reduce the amount of formaldehyde exposure caused by its presence in clothing. Note that washing children’s and particularly babies’ clothing is especially important, since young children tend to have sensitive skin. Dyes in clothing can also cause skin irritation.

But formaldehyde and dye aren’t the only problematic chemicals in your clothing. Clothing manufacturing expert Laura Hogue discusses in Elle how each part of the manufacturing process can introduce another chemical into the fibers of your clothing. This includes chemicals that help yarn slide through weaving machinery or help dye stick to fibers.

Hogue concedes that “formaldehyde is a category 3 carcinogen, which is the lowest hazard, and the amount is so small that it’s assumed that it won’t remain a threat for very long.” She goes on to point out, however, “Who wants to knowingly expose themselves over and over again to carcinogens?” I agree.

It’s especially important to wash clothing that you will wear when sweating, cautions Hogue: “If you’re going to wear it out and in the heat and sweat in it, you should launder it. Sweating opens your pores and allows your skin to absorb the chemicals in clothing.”

This post was originally published on Apartment Therapy. Read it there: How Bad is It Really to Wear New Clothes Before You Wash Them?