Natural Finish vs. Wrinkle Free Cotton

At F.A. MacCluer all of the fabrics are made from the finest 100% cotton, using Pima, Egyptian or other long staple cotton fiber. We use a minimal amount of chemical finishes. We do not offer 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. Fan of natural finish or fan of wrinkle free, this piece is meant to provide the facts that everyone buying or selling shirts today should know.

Basic Facts

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.”

Diminishing The Appealing Properties Of Cotton

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. The process weakens the fabric, which makes it wear faster at cuffs, collars and elbows and makes it more susceptible to tearing at seams.
  • 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.
  • 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.