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Is Formaldehyde in your Fabrics?

How often do you stop to think about how the furnishings in your living space affect air quality? Although you may take special care to shop for environmentally safe furnishings, even specifically search for those with "green-friendly" labeling, it's difficult to avoid the chemicals used to make textiles more attractive, durable and cheap. Formaldehyde is a common fabric preservative used pervasively in the textile industry, even among manufacturers that target an environmentally aware consumer base. The Center for Disease Control has found that formaldehyde can irritate nasal passages and make your eyes water and burn. If you have allergies, a commitment to sustainability or children, it's best to minimize the amount of formaldehyde in your home.


What is formaldehyde?

An organic compound found throughout nature, formaldehyde can be found just about everywhere. The human body itself is even one of its producers, and small amounts of the compound aren't harmful. But because so many manufacturers rely on formaldehyde, a dangerous dose could culminate through the new furniture, carpet and fabrics inside your house and contaminate the air. When inhaled in substantial quantities, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Don't panic!

It is uncommon for people to get cancer from average exposure, but it could aggravate allergies or cause other symptoms like fatigue. If you've ever gone shopping for new clothes and found yourself sniffing, coughing or left with a headache, you might be formaldehyde-sensitive. Furniture, fabrics and other products -- even bed pillows -- are usually preserved with formaldehyde. Curtains and drapes are especially concerning because of their size, proximity to air vents, and because they aren't usually washed before installation. If you've already invested in textiles treated with formaldehyde, rest assured that the chemical will eventually disperse to negligible amounts. If the fabrics are new, consider an air purifier nearby.

Identifying formaldehyde

Because manufacturers aren't required to mention formaldehyde on packaging, controlling its prevalence in your home isn't easy. As a general rule, avoid synthetics like polyester, acrylic and blends like acetate -- it's impossible to for manufacturers to produce those fabrics without using chemicals. Look instead for home furnishings by independent manufacturers who are dedicated to ecological sustainability and healthful surroundings. Search also for curtains and coverings labeled "garment dyed," meaning the fabric was untreated before taking in the dye and therefore is less contaminated with chemicals and preservatives. (Be aware, however, that garment-dyed fabrics usually aren't colorfast.) Natural fibers like linen, silk, and wool are worth the investment that pays off in beauty and durability as well as safety. Also consider manufacturing techniques: Pima and Egyptian cotton, for example, are both spun with a long hand that produces a silky finish without the need for chemical treatment.

Finding the best fabrics

Safe, affordable and formaldehyde-free fabrics can be found in retail stores, boutiques, outdoor markets, even in thrift stores. Online companies like Rawganique, among many others, produce and sell organic curtains and coverings as beautiful as any you'd find in popular home decor stores, and you won't have to pay much more; you may even save a little. You can also find organic coverings at big-name stores like Pottery Barn; in most cases, however, the selection is limited and often very plain. The interesting prints and plaids you might prefer are more often found at independent companies or in artisan communities, such as Etsy.

Browse our online store at Grey Design for throws, towels, pillows, blankets and more sustainable decor. As you acquire natural textiles, make sure to read the labels before washing to prevent shrinkage and color fading. As you gradually fill your spaces with quality cotton, linen and silk, the absence of synthetic materials will make a difference in how you breathe, sleep, eat and live.