Photos by Laura Pedrick for the New York Times

Wrinkle-resistant clothes are a boon for folks who’d rather never see the business side of an iron again, but the permanent-press finish we so covet comes from a resin that releases formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical more commonly associated with industrial-strength fungicides and pickling corpses. Although most wearers of anti-wrinkle clothing won’t encounter problems, a subset can experience a skin condition known as contact dermatitis, according to Saturday’s New York Times. An acute inflammation of the skin, the allergic reaction results in itchy skin, swelling, rashes, and lesions. The most serious health implications, however, are reserved for workers who handle the chemical in garment factories.

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Formaldehyde is used to lock a fabric’s fibers in position even after several spins in the wash, curbing wrinkles and keeping creases crisp. But even if the United States regulated formaldehyde levels in clothing (it doesn’t), most clothing production is outsourced overseas. And because no governing agency requires manufacturers to disclose the chemical’s use on its labels, even the most conscientious of consumers will have difficulty staying clear of formaldehyde-treated garments (although washing them before wearing helps).

Formaldehyde is used to lock a fabric’s fibers in position even after spins in the washer and dryer.

Most studies concur that people rarely become sensitized to the low levels of formaldehyde released by wrinkle-free clothing, but a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 5.5 percent of the 180 items tested—including wrinkle-free shirts and pants, easy-care pillow cases, crib sheets, and a boy’s baseball hat—exceeded the strictest standards of 75 parts per million for products that come in direct contact with the skin. (The small group of people who are allergic can develop a rash with levels as low as 30 parts per million.)

“Some of the highest occurrences were with the men’s shirts,” John Stephenson, director of environmental protection issues at the GAO, tells the Times. “That was an eye-opener because I wear, almost exclusively, non-iron shirts.” He added, “That caused me to wash them, at least twice.”

As for the effects of cumulative exposure? That’s a whole other wrinkle.

[Via the New York Times]